“Orphan Crops”: What They Are, Why They Matter, and What’s Being Done

Ever wake up craving some finger millet, or sit down in front of a movie with some nice groundnut?

Probably not. Finger millet and groundnut, along with tef, yam, cassava, and others, are part of a class of crops that’s often called "orphan crops" because they tend to receive less attention. Orphan crops may not sound familiar to you and me, but they’re poised to make a major impact on global food security.

What Are They?

Orphan crops are those that aren’t traded internationally, and therefore tend to get less attention in terms of research of agricultural training and extension. They’re typically grown in Africa, Asia, and/or South America and eaten as part of local diets. Because they get less research attention, the breeding technology for orphan crops is lagging way behind modern technology. That means that the seeds farmers plant are less likely to be resilient to drought, flooding, or extreme temperatures; lower in productivity; and more vulnerable to pests and disease.

A Few Examples

Millet: Produced heavily in India, Nigeria, Niger, and Mali, millet is a small-seeded grass. There are a number of millet varieties, and they tend to be high in magnesium (which helps maintain muscle and nerve function) and are a good source of antioxidants.

Cowpea: We would typically call the cowpea “black-eyed peas.” It’s produced mostly in Nigeria and Niger and is rich in amino acids compared to other grains.

Pigeonpea: Pigeonpea is a legume with top production in India, Myanmar (Burma), Malawi, and Uganda. It’s high in protein and fiber, and it’s great for intercropping, or growing alongside other plants. It has a deep root system, so it doesn’t compete for resources with other plants, and it actually improves its soil by adding more nitrogen.

Cassava: One of the largest-volume orphan crops, cassava is heavily produced in Nigeria, Thailand, Brazil, and Indonesia. It’s actually a root, and it is the third-most important source of calories in the tropics, after rice and maize.

Yam: Though we use the word “yam” when we’re talking about a type of sweet potato, true yams are largely produced in West Africa (especially Nigeria, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana). They are starchy tubers, and an estimated 60 million Africans eat them daily.

Why They Matter

Orphan crops are incredibly important in the countries where they’re grown. They provide income for the poorest farmers and serve as staples in the local diet. Though lagging breeding technology has hurt their resilience, especially to pests and disease, they are uniquely adapted to the environment in which they are grown.

What’s Being Done

A public-private partnership called the African Crops Consortium based in Kenya has launched a project to “sequence, assemble and annotate the genomes of 100 traditional African food crops,” which will allow them to breed more nutritious and resilient plants. They’ve also started the African Plant Breeding Academy, which is training 250 local plant breeders to build up local capacity where it’s desperately needed for future innovation.

But efforts in orphan crops span more than just one project.  The CGIAR program on Roots, Tubers, and Bananas is working on research-for-development to breed better plants, make planting material more available to farmers, manage pests and diseases, and spread better postharvest technologies so that more of the crop can be eaten.

Compatible Technologies International (CTI) works largely on postharvest processing, so that more of the orphan crops that are grown can be saved during the hungry season. (Disclosure: I worked in a previous position with CTI on a Senegal project focused on postharvest processing of pearl millet.)

The outcomes are more than just crops. Farm families who are able to grow more have more income and can send their children to school. Better storage and processing let them keep surplus food throughout the year, reducing hunger. And more nutritiously bred staples support healthy growth—in mind and body—for children.

Final Thoughts

When we think about food, we usually think about our grocery store or local restaurant. What I love about food is that it’s different the world over, in iterations we don’t see every day. It makes an impact, not just on our bodies, but on our hearts and minds.

Food, and the technology that brings it, from an idea to a seed to a plant to our plates, is a lot bigger than what we see every day.