Ancient Crops Find New Life

Feeding the world sustainably—and nutritiously—may require crops that most people have never even heard of.

Amidst the heat, humidity, and palms in this unquestionably tropical landscape sit three huge, aluminum-paneled domes—their bright slats beating back the relentless sun, while fresh air circulates around the shaded buildings inside.

The domes house Crops for the Future, the world’s first research center devoted to underutilized crops. The center, located on the University of Nottingham’s campus in Semenyih, about 45 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur, espouses a vision of agriculture that incorporates diverse, ancient crops—plants that the researchers here say may be our best hope for nourishing the planet’s rapidly expanding population.

Stepping inside the domes, visitors are immediately surrounded by a botanical bounty. It’s a garden showcase of crops being groomed for large-scale production. The canopy is thick with branches arcing overhead, including those of the moringa tree (Moringa oleifera), a plant with a wealth of edible parts: delicate leaves, turnip-like roots, and green bean–like pods. Elsewhere, tendrils trail from rooftop garden beds, and stiff, rope-like vines laden with enormous sword beans line the walkways that connect research labs, growth chambers, and culinary kitchens.

The plants growing here and in the research fields nearby produce fruits, vegetables, legumes, and other foods that Asians and Africans have eaten for millennia. But in a world increasingly devoted to industrial agriculture, these crops are on the verge of becoming relics.

Crops for the Future aims to make them relevant again.

Today, wheat, rice, and maize account for nearly 60 percent of the world’s calories. But researchers at Crops for the Future point out that, as the global population soars toward 8 billion and beyond, our overreliance on just three crops is unsustainable—especially when there are at least 30,000 known edible plant species. And while reliable access to calorie-rich food—often referred to as food security—is undoubtedly crucial, access to essential nutrients, or nutritional security, is gaining greater appreciation within sustainability circles.

Nowhere is that truer than at Crops for the Future. The institute’s scientists are busily identifying and breeding a diverse assortment of nutritious crops that are already adapted to a variety of climates.

In a conference room inside one of the dome-sheltered buildings, food technologist Tan Xin Lin pulls out samples of products to share, all made from underutilized crops. Most bear at least a passing resemblance to better-known snack foods. Rather than crystalized ginger, for instance, Lin offers visitors a sample of crystalized kedondong, a tropical citrus fruit resembling an avocado, that’s been sprinkled with just enough sweet to balance its pucker-inducing sour. Later, she pours a tiny cup of instant soup made from the moringa’s lacy leaves. The resulting broth balances earthiness and umami to evoke a hearty Asian flavor.

“People like the soup the most,” she says, as a proud grin flashes briefly across her young face. “They are amazed by the flavors.”

The center’s director, Sayed Azam-Ali, arrives in time for the small banquet wearing a suit as crisp as his British accent. “My favorite’s not there—the moringa pesto,” he says with mild disappointment.

This smorgasbord of indigenous crops is the culmination of decades of work by many. For Azam-Ali, that work began 30 years ago when he was a graduate student working in Africa. Even as governments, private corporations, and international research organizations spent billions of dollars to improve yields of only a handful of staple crops, Azam-Ali struggled to do the opposite. And he has continued to push a research agenda that aims to incentivize farmers to plant a far broader range of potential food sources.

The institute moved into this new facility last August. It was a career-high point, Azam-Ali says. The high-tech, eco-friendly buildings were physical proof that both his university and the Malaysian government believed in his vision, and were willing to invest money and resources to help make it a reality. At last, there was interest in exploring biodiversity’s commercial opportunities. More importantly, Azam-Ali says, biodiversity gives the world’s agricultural systems resilience in the face of climate change.

To have the intended impact, Azam-Ali has now set his sights on a loftier goal: reversing the worldwide, decades-long trend toward greater reliance on fewer crop species. The urgency he feels is evident whenever he talks about agriculture’s critical need to diversify.

The Green Revolution of the 1950s and 1960s introduced higher-yielding wheat and rice, hybrid maize, fertilizers, and novel pesticides to farmers. The changes brought life-saving jumps in crop productivity, most profoundly in Asia. But globally, they drastically reduced the types of crops being grown. Hundreds of edible species were marginalized in favor of a few calorie-rich grains. And within a few decades, agriculture had been transformed from a complex, diverse, regional enterprise to evermore simplified, industrial production.

The revolution was a short-sighted one, Azam-Ali says. The resulting one-size-fits-all model of agriculture—which, he says, is dependent on herbicides, pesticides, and mechanization—led to a huge disparity between countries, like India and Mexico, that had the resources to adopt such advances and countries, particularly in Africa, that didn’t.

Azam-Ali points to wheat, rice, and maize, in particular. Placing such a big bet on so few species, especially in the face of climate change, Azam-Ali tells me, is a huge global gamble. “[Just a few] crops might sustain the world but they are not going to nourish it,” he says.

The homogenization of food supplies wasn’t intentional. But a push toward greater uniformity meant forgoing traditional crops like yams and rye, which contain more micronutrients. As a result, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that more than 75 percent of crop genetic diversity has been lost since the 1900s as farmers increasingly adopted high-yield varieties of maize, rice, or wheat. And that relentless march toward monoculture leaves the homogenous fields more vulnerable to devastation by drought, pests, and disease.

Climate change only increases the need for quick action. Without drastic emissions reductions, the world is on track to experience global warming of at least 3 degrees Celsius by 2050. As temperatures rise, Azam-Ali says, “the big crops, by themselves, will not be able to deliver food or nutritional security.” Maize, wheat, and rice have their place, he notes. “But they can’t be expected to do the whole job. We’ve got to have more crops.”

Farmers are already finding that their wheat and maize crops are producing less, says Deepak Ray, a senior scientist at the Institute for the Environment at the University of Minnesota in St. Paul. Maize crops across Africa now routinely fail. Globally, wheat production has fallen by about 3 percent. Ray notes that rice appears to be less sensitive to a changing climate. Still, none of the three staples can supply all the nutrients people need.

It boils down to one message, one that Azam-Ali has spent the better part of his career trying to convey: Diversity is agriculture’s greatest strength.

Six months ago, the timing seemed right for Azam-Ali to translate his message into action. In 2015, every member of the United Nations had adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty and hunger by 2030. Later that year, 175 countries signed the landmark Paris agreement on climate change. Both pacts offered political incentives for participants to bolster agricultural diversity. Finally, Azam-Ali’s goals appeared to be aligned with those of governments around the world.

“The Paris agreement set a goal to limit carbon emissions to significantly less than two degrees Celsius, but we didn’t agree on how to do it,” Azam-Ali says. And the reality is that these numbers could go even higher. That’s a problem. “No one has made a plan for agriculture in a three or four-degree warmer world,” he says. And so he took it upon himself to galvanize support for a collaborative, international plan.

Azam-Ali has spent the past year criss-crossing the planet to drum up support for a $50 million “Global Action Plan for Agricultural Diversification.” He sees the plan as a much-needed roadmap, one that can help nations incorporate hundreds of drought-tolerant, highly nutritious, underutilized crops into their farms and diets. All countries—those grappling with malnutrition as well as obesity—would benefit.

It is now make-or-break time for Azam-Ali. Over the past seven years, the Malaysian government has spent $40 million to fund Crops for the Future. The country is rich in biodiversity, with a treasure trove of plant diversity that is largely going unused. But now, unless Azam-Ali can secure significant investment from beyond Malaysia, he’ll run out of money at the end of this year.

So far, Azam-Ali’s team has identified a number of promising crops. They have tested various plants’ heat tolerances in growth chambers, conducted field trials to maximize crop production, and created high-end comestibles like biscotti and pesto. But all this work could be for naught. “We’re really at a critical stage,” he says. “If funding doesn’t come in, all of this will stop.”

Today, the wave of nationalism sweeping across the western world has created a slew of unknowns. The usual financiers of agricultural research in the developing world—U.S.- and European-government sources, in particular—may not step up as they have in the past. “The whole game has changed,” Azam-Ali says, yet he remains undeterred.

Azam-Ali began his career in the 1980s, and spent many of those early years in Africa and India in the wake of the Green Revolution. Thirty years ago, he says, government agricultural workers were advising farmers in famine-stricken African countries to replace traditional crops like vitamin-rich millets and sorghum with higher-yielding ones, such as maize.

Ruth Oniang’o is the founder and executive director of Rural Outreach Africa, a non-profit dedicated to nutritional and food security. Growing up in the village of Kakamega, Kenya, she listened to her grandmother’s stories about the campaign that encouraged Kenyans to abandon familiar grains for maize, a high-calorie crop of colonization. “Slowly our diets changed,” she says. “Now the healthier, traditional foods are in shorter supply and more expensive.” 

Like Azam-Ali, Oniang’o witnessed a transition. In addition to fighting the devastating effects of undernutrition and kwashiorkor (a protein deficiency), African countries have also been experiencing a rise in micronutrient deficiencies, and even obesity.

Crop resilience has also been lost. In Zimbabwe in the 1980s, maize crops failed every third year. But the failure didn’t deter the country’s farmers. “Farmers said those two years sustained them, given the high market prices and government-subsidized fertilizers and pesticides,” Azam-Ali says. The numbers now are even more dire. In Zimbabwe today, he says, “maize fails 7 in 10 years. It’s time to admit that, in large parts of the country, the soils are too shallow and it’s too hot for this crop.”

Traditional crops didn’t disappear entirely, however. Despite the advice from scientists and agricultural officials, villagers in Zimbabwe continued to grow traditional plants they’d been advised to leave behind. Even today, Azam-Ali says, men grow cash crops while women grow traditional food crops in home gardens, providing their families with what they need to thrive.

As a young scientist, Azam-Ali found himself wondering whether he and other researchers should be looking into increasing the yields of these nutritious, traditional foods rather than introducing new crops. But his mentors saw little value in such an approach. One advisor told him it would be a waste of time to try to improve traditional crops that have less potential for high yields than maize and wheat. “He said ‘if any of these crops were any good, we’d have discovered them by now’,” Azam-Ali says.

But the one-size-fits-all model of agriculture to which his advisor subscribed was only feeding parts of the world. And it marginalized crops, the traditional, native plants adapted to local environmental conditions, that so many people had relied on for centuries.

Determined to prove his advisor wrong, Azam-Ali returned to the University of Nottingham as a researcher in 1988, where he established the Tropical Crops Research Unit and began the research that has become his life’s work. Now, he says, “We’re finding they weren’t useless after all. People growing them simply had no support, no research, no investment, no promotion.”

As an example, he points to Bambara groundnuts—a crop that, he believes, could have been as popular as the peanut. In the late 1980s, dry-roasted peanuts had just hit the market and the industry was interested in other products that had the same, savory-snack potential. Similar in size to the peanut, the Bambara groundnut (Vigna subterranean) is a round, high-protein legume that can range in color from beige to rusty brown. Farmers who grew them said they were as tasty, if not tastier, than peanuts and more drought-resistant.

Seeing the promise, Azam-Ali took samples of the nuts with him to food companies in Britain. “They asked for 150 tons of the nuts or they couldn’t do anything,” he recalls. “And that was the end of the discussion.” A crop grown and harvested in small batches by women across sub-Saharan Africa simply couldn’t meet that demand—at least not as quickly as the food companies required.

Despite the setback, Azam-Ali pressed on. He continued to research diverse types of Bambara groundnut collected from gene banks or villages. With support from Christine Ennew, then Pro-Vice Chancellor at the University of Nottingham who arrived shortly after Azam-Ali’s previous advisor retired, he began to form what became an ambitious vision. “I don’t know anybody who can think as long-term as Sayed,” Ennew says.

She backed his bid, with Rome-based Bioversity International, to found Crops for the Future and establish its presence in Malaysia. He continued to build the global networks and amass the government funding necessary to bolster research capabilities.

But even as Azam-Ali’s efforts were beginning to bear fruit, the issue of agricultural biodiversity continued to receive little public attention. Global conservation efforts have primarily focused on charismatic beasts such as pandas or Bengal tigers. Agricultural biodiversity conservation has largely been ignored. Bioversity International was one of the only organizations putting effort toward conserving and exploiting crop diversity.

“I have witnessed many campaigns to make people understand the importance of agricultural biodiversity, and it’s always proved to be so difficult,” says crop specialist Stefano Padulosi, who joined Bioversity International in 1993. One of the fathers of the Green Revolution, World Food Prize laureate Mankombu Swaminathan, gave a high-profile voice to the issue. Swaminathan pushed for what he called an “evergreen revolution,” a diversity-based change in agriculture that Crops for the Future now pursues. It is on his shoulders that Azam-Ali is standing today. At the 2011 launch of Crops for the Future, Swaminathan called the initiative “the need of the hour.”

Azam-Ali says he’s grateful that “agriculture has suddenly become a reason to conserve biodiversity.” Increasingly, experts in the conservation field are talking about “mainstreaming agricultural biodiversity,” and the topic was front and center at the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity meeting last December in Cancun, Mexico.

Bioversity International’s director general, Ann Tutwiler, says that the goal of mainstreaming is to bring together two historically unconnected worlds—agriculture and conservation—something her institution has been championing. The movement harnesses crop diversity to adapt to climate change, fight crop pests and disease, and improve diets, Tutwiler says.

But there are two big hurdles that Crops for the Future faces head-on. One is how to find these old species a place in modern global food systems. The second may be even harder: recruiting enough countries, and resources, to translate evidence-based findings to fields.

“When the Green Revolution was launched, there was a precise strategy—a huge investment to build 15 international research centers,” Padulosi says. But the question now, he says, is how to launch a new revolution when it involves thousands of species, all of which require crop breeding, nutritional data collection, and marketing research to make them viable.

Crops for the Future addresses all of those facets—from field to kitchen—albeit on a small scale. Azam-Ali’s team finds hardy, nutritious crops that could serve as future substitutes for the big crops. They cultivate these orphan crops in growth chambers to see how they’ll do under future climate-change conditions; they fine-tune how best to maximize a plant’s productivity in the field; and they simultaneously explore each crop’s culinary prospects, such as whether they might work as alternate flour, or protein, sources. The goal: to figure out which niches these improved orphan crops can fill and the locations where they can be grown.

“Previously, people simply said ‘here’s [a potential] crop, where can I grow it?’” But now, Azam-Ali says, “We can go to any location on the planet and provide a map of which of 150 crops could grow there.” Then, he says, the question becomes “which crop will sell best?”

It’s a subtle, but crucial, shift.

“We can’t continue to evangelize one crop, like quinoa, as the ‘new superfood’, when there are a whole range of crops that must be employed to diversify agriculture,” he says.

On a Skype call this past December, Azam-Ali didn’t look his usual polished self. Eyelids heavy and sniffling slightly with a souvenir cold, he was the picture of a weary air traveler. He had just returned from Benin. It was his third trip to Africa in six weeks, part of a seemingly endless effort to finance his vision to diversify agriculture. Those were the same six weeks that saw a rise in protectionism around the world—most notably, with the U.S. election of Donald Trump.

The signs from the U.S. government and several others in the Western world suggest a dramatic shift in global relations. What little President Trump has said about foreign aid—much less about climate change—is not encouraging. “Climate change is here. We’re not going to argue about whether Trump [believes] it or not,” Azam-Ali says.

In an ironic twist, shifting global politics may force developing nations to take on a leadership role in designing and financing their own climate adaptation strategies. Many of the 57 countries that make up the Islamic world, for instance, will bear the worst impacts of climate change—from increasing temperatures to devastating droughts. And they will have to adapt no matter what, Azam-Ali says—perhaps without support from the Northern countries they’ve previously depended on.

He is optimistic that organizations such as the Islamic, Asian, or African Development Banks will back his endeavors. He regularly fields calls from other developing countries that want to replicate the success of Crops for the Future, particularly African and Arab Gulf region countries that currently import a large percentage of their food but want to be more self-sufficient. “That’s where we come in—to help improve crop varieties that already grow in difficult environments,” Azam-Ali says.

Azam-Ali knows it will take global partnerships to make real change. In February, he was named the new chair of the Association of International Research and Development Centers for Agriculture (AIRCA), a nine-member alliance of organizations that aim to improve food security and sustainability by supporting vulnerable small farmholders.

The looming threat of food insecurity is of increasing concern to officials in developing countries. Malaysia used to import all of its food from nearby countries, such as Thailand and Vietnam, but continuing that approach may not be viable in the future, Azam-Ali says. The 2008 food price spike, which led to riots in 36 countries, offered a grim view of how food shortages and civil unrest go hand in hand. “Food security is, politically, dynamite,” he says. Perhaps even volatile enough to undermine climate treaties. “Treaties don’t mean a thing if you can’t feed your own people.”

Azam-Ali still bristles when he hears politicians toss out comments such as “food security is rice security.” And he’s even more exasperated when he hears people say that researchers simply need to breed wheat, rice, or maize to adapt to changing climate conditions. Those claims don’t stand up to scrutiny, he says. They don’t account for the often 10-year crop breeding process, the inability to anticipate future crop disease outbreaks, or the fact that agricultural zones will undoubtedly shift.

So, in January, with less than a year before his funding runs out, Azam-Ali gave his staff a summer deadline to get moringa and Bambara groundnut food products ready for market shelves. In addition, they are tracing the nutrient content from farm to fork. “We need to show potential investors how the whole supply chain works,” he says. ”So why not do it ourselves?” Creating demand for a crop starts by creating demand for foods. And by showing investors a variety of snacks, soups, and sauces, he believes he can convince them to finance the venture.

That’s why Crops for the Future’s Xin Lin focuses on incorporating unfamiliar crops, like moringa and Bambara groundnut, into familiar foods, such as biscotti, pesto, and the savory Indian snack, murukku. “The ‘junk foods’ we see in the market nowadays are full of empty carbohydrate calories, with little to no nutritional value,” she says. “But snacks are becoming mainstream. Some people prefer them over proper main meals, so it’s important to fortify their nutrient profile.”

Changing agricultural models can’t just rely on snack foods, of course. As Azam-Ali sees it, his team must find new markets throughout food production chains. The Crops for the Future team believes their first potentially disruptive product is an insect-based sustainable fish food. “When trying to find uses for underutilized crops, fish isn’t the first place you look,” Azam-Ali acknowledges. But the aquaculture industry, widely criticized for using wild-caught fishmeal in farming operations, is in desperate need of an alternative. It turns out, when certain insects, such as black soldier fly larvae (Hermetia illucens), are fed high-protein plants, like moringa and Bambara groundnut, their tiny bodies can convert them directly into the proteins that fish need. “That’s a game-changer,” he says.

While Azam-Ali’s current funding situation may be precarious, and his mission massive in scale, Ennew, now the provost at the University of Warwick, says if anyone can do it, he can. Azam-Ali, born in Pakistan and raised in England, has worked all over the world. And food is a topic that transcends geographic and cultural boundaries. “I’ve always been impressed with Sayed’s natural ability to operate across cultures. He’s unflappable.”

He’s also not thinking about retiring and turning his attention to more manageable tasks, like reviving his own bare and neglected home garden. He’s too close to realizing his dream of developing more resilient global agriculture to stop now.

“We have thousands of plants we aren’t doing anything with. I want to see people in Africa and Asia better nourished, growing their own crops.” In a rapidly changing world, he says, the future lies in the past.

Image credit: Full-width image of parched earth in southern Malawi  by Guido Dingemans, De Eindredactie (Getty) 

Virginia Gewin

Virginia Gewin

Virginia Gewin is a freelance science journalist based in Portland, Oregon. As a 2016 Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellow, Gewin reported on food security and agricultural biodiversity. Her stories have appeared in Nature, Science, Discover, Washington Post, Modern Farmer and others. See more of her work at

Shelby Brakken

Shelby Brakken is a portrait and editorial photographer based in Portland, Oregon. She has been capturing stories with her camera for more than eight years, though her love of documentation started long before that. Her work has been featured in a number of publications, including Portland Monthly, Beer West, and NW Kids, and she has photographed people and places all over the world.

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