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You are here: Home Resources Further reading Underutilized Species: Where Are We?

Underutilized Species: Where Are We?

last modified Dec 20, 2011 12:30 PM
Six years after the LEISA article on underutilized species in which views on best practices and approaches were presented (viz. need to focus on model species, critical role of capacity building of the poor, the need to adopt gender-sensitive approaches and pursue inter-disciplinary and multi-stakeholder cooperation), we wanted to come back on these pages reporting some key international developments and reflections on emerging trends, challenges and opportunities on current and future sustainable use of these species.

A women farmer from India shows her finger millet plants mixed with a blend of other crops. This traditional Indian mix-cropping system called “Akdi” brings together underutilized crops such as finger millet, pigeonpea, lablab bean, mustard and niger with major crops such as maize, sorghum and chickpea, to build-up a crop package that is meant to buffer the cultivation against possible failure due to erratic rainfall, pests or diseases attacks”. Photo: S. Padulosi
A women farmer from India shows her finger millet plants mixed with a blend of other crops. This traditional Indian mix-cropping system called “Akdi” brings together underutilized crops such as finger millet, pigeonpea, lablab bean, mustard and niger with major crops such as maize, sorghum and chickpea, to build-up a crop package that is meant to buffer the cultivation against possible failure due to erratic rainfall, pests or diseases attacks”. Photo: S. Padulosi<br />
International collaborative efforts: in 2010 the collaborative effort known as the ‘IFAD-NUS’ Project drew to an end. The Project, which was implemented in Asia, North Africa and Latin America, was the first UN global effort specifically devoted to the promotion of neglected and underutilized species (NUS) (Padulosi 2007).

The Project focused on a number of priority species (minor millets, Andean grains and medicinal and aromatic plants) as case studies and through its community-based participatory and multi-stakeholder efforts, addressed the full spectrum of activities needed to make target species and varieties economically competitive and ‘graduated’ from their state of underuse.

The project tested a holistic value chain approach that addressed all the bottlenecks experienced by the model species, starting from the field and ending to the table. Interventions included surveying and collection of both genetic diversity and traditional knowledge, characterization and evaluation (including nutritional aspects), conservation (using both in situ and ex situ methods), development of improved varieties (using participatory variety selection), analysis of cultivation practices (comparing traditional with modern approaches) and enhancement of value adding technologies (blending modern approaches with traditional methods), improvement of marketing (incl. the building of skills within communities members on entrepreneurial activities), education (focusing particularly on younger generations), raising public awareness (trying to remove the bad image that many traditional crops carry along with them) and advocating for the enabling policies necessary for scaling up successful practices tested in Project’s sites.

The end-result of all these efforts was very positive (see Padulosi et al. 2009 and Rojas e al. 2009) and further confirmed that it is indeed possible to turn underutilized species into an effective instrument of development and improvement of peoples’ livelihood. This work did also demonstrate that the successful promotion of underutilized species needs to be solidly anchored in cultural-sensitive objectives that are fundamental in the sustainability of this work.

Further to reinforcing the economic and food security self-reliance of local communities, underutilized species are in fact, a strategic opportunity to valorize the unique wealth of agrobiodiversity and associated traditions present in every corner of the world, the expression of the work of generations of farmers and other user groups. Safeguarding this genetic and cultural heritage is therefore an important contribution to protecting the identity of local communities and reinforcing their self-esteem and confidence to counteract threats of standardization of local food culture arising from globalization trends and changes in life styles (further readings on these cases are to be found in Taranto and Padulosi 2009; Vijayalakshmi et al. 2010; Yenagi et al, 2010; Padulosi 2011).

Addressing the bottlenecks along the value chain of underutilized species implies consistent investments in human and institutional capacity for action research, marketing, knowledge sharing, and policy dialogue. Capacity is also needed to analyze sub-sectors of value chains, apply practical tools to select those with greater potential for pro-poor growth and identify stakeholders’ roles and needed synergies.

In order to contribute to enhancing human capacities in these challenging research domains, a UE-supported ACP Project was launched in 2009 in ten African countries to formulate, design, implement, and disseminate the results of research dealing with underutilized species.

The rationale is that such enhanced abilities would increase the number of approved research grants from science councils such as the International Foundation for Science (IFS), and increase the impact of research through more effective communication of research outputs. Primary targets of this 3-years international efforts led by RUFORUM and involving also Bioversity, IFS and ANAFE, are young scientists from research institutes and universities, working in various disciplines such as agriculture, health and nutrition, social sciences and marketing.

The unabated genetic erosion of underutilized species, so poorly represented in ex situ gene bank collections, is also affecting the resilience and adaptation of traditional agro-ecosystems to climate change (Padulosi et al 2011).

In order to better understand how underutilized species are being affected (positively or negatively) by climate change a new international project - supported by IFAD and the CCAFS Programme of the CGIAR - was launched in 2011. Within its three years Agenda, the Project will be testing inter alia novel community-based methods for participatory documentation and monitoring of traditional crops aimed at preventing the loss of local species and varieties to take place while providing farmers with better capacities in coping with change in local agricultural production systems.

Expert Roberto Valdivia of CIRNMA visiting a cañihua field in Puno area (Peru). Cañihua (Chenopodium pallidicaule), is an Andean grain appreciated by local farmers for its cold tolerance. Its good nutritional profile combined with adaptation to harsh climatic conditions are among the reasons for bringing back this ancient crop now largely underutilized. Photo: S. Padulosi
Expert Roberto Valdivia of CIRNMA visiting a cañihua field in Puno area (Peru). Cañihua (Chenopodium pallidicaule), is an Andean grain appreciated by local farmers for its cold tolerance. Its good nutritional profile combined with adaptation to harsh climatic conditions are among the reasons for bringing back this ancient crop now largely underutilized. Photo: S. Padulosi
International Conferences: Two major international conferences specifically dedicated to underutilized species have been successfully held in Arusha (Tanzania) and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) in 2008 and 2011 respectively. Both Conferences organized in partnership with ISHS drew a large crowd of experts and produced very interesting papers (see those of the Arusha Meeting in the two Volumes of Acta Horticulturae 806 of 2009).

The Malaysian Meeting re-emphasized the importance of underutilized species as valuable instruments to curb food insecurity and silent hunger and reiterated the need for more research dealing with their nutritional aspects (e.g. quality and bioavailability of nutrients, and health and clinical studies).

More calls to strengthen capacity building of national programmes on value chains, commercialization, and marketing of nutritious species were also reiterated. Lack of research data was cited as a major issue hindering the exploitation of market potentials of underutilized species and thus national programmes were called upon to direct greater efforts on this front through their agricultural data gathering systems. Another topic of great interest covered during the conference was the domestication of high value trees and interventions needed for the wider application of methods developed insofar on this front. But successful stories and best practices need to be better shared!

The development of a searchable repository of approaches, results and contacts of finished, ongoing and planned projects on underutilized species was also recommended. Strong political and governmental support was stressed as key factor along the impact pathway leading towards the effective impact from the enhanced use of these species.

The 'food of the poor' image was perceived as a major limitation in the promotion of underutilized species and more awareness efforts needs to be spent also at the international level to tackle this issue. Much more is also needed to reach the public opinion at large making people more aware of the plenty nutritional benefits contained in underutilized species!

Collaborative International Platform: In 2008, the former agencies of the Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilized Species (GFU) and the International Centre for Underutilised Crops (ICUC) merged into a new entity called Crops for the Future (CFF). This Agency, hosted by Bioversity’s Offices in Malaysia, is taking forward the work started from its initiator agencies. Crops for the Future activities, with the intention to enhance the impact of past and ongoing research, are focused around five major strategic objectives viz:

  1. Facilitate access to knowledge on neglected species.
  2. Provide information services to our stakeholders (grant and training opportunities, library resources, Internet opportunities).
  3. Identify and advocate policies that promote neglected species rather than discriminate against their use.
  4. Increase awareness on the potential and contributions of neglected species for livelihoods and well-being.
  5. Strengthen capacity amongst our stakeholders, in particular researchers

The newly revamped CFF web site aims to be the main tool for supporting all of the objectives. This web platform intends providing for a virtual resource center featuring facts and figures on species, stakeholders and offering an archive of documents. The site is also a communication hub offering information on breaking news, funding sources, project calls, capacity building opportunities, events and a service provider offering a Q&A service, facilitating connections amongst stakeholders (s.a. linking scientists), supporting and facilitating access to information (e.g. open access library resources), providing a virtual space for discussion through web 2.0 technologies and supporting Crops for the Future Research Center (CFF-RC) in reaching out.

Ultimately, the intention of CFF is to be user-friendly platform recognized as the “one stop shop” for reference to underutilized species. The starting point for the conceptualization and design of this new web site stems from a User Needs Survey (Pasiecznik et al. 2009) that CFF carried out in 2009. The survey was sent to more than 2,000 individuals representing underutilized species stakeholders both of the institutions where dealing with. It is worthy to note that the 300 responses elicited indicate a 14% rate of response which accounts to a good level of interest and commitment in the topic, especially if we consider the unsolicited email survey that was distributed through email.

Amongst the highest ranking answers provided shows us the way. The open request for examples of questions you would like the website to answer saw “What can grow where” as the highest ranking demand, confirming a desire to test out materials in novel environments. Suitability mapping becomes an important tool and dataset to offer, especially nowadays as attention and issues related to climate change increase. Alternatively this tool can also provide indications on what could grow in a certain environment. The respondents were looking for experts, germplasm, uses of plants and marketing potential of particular crop species.

Online resources are sought for by many and the trend was a need for reliable, authoritative research publications and reference lists. The neglect and consequent anecdotal information about underutilized species makes them too often overlooked. Organize and provide solid data upon which to refer, systematize it according to the benefit that particular topic accrues (income generation, nutrition, climate smart species, GR conservation etc.) along with compiling and packaging the information in a flexible way to accommodate different user needs renders a useful service to the community dealing with the topic.

As a facilitation platform of work CFF does not engage in deployment of projects on the ground though some specific cases exist.

International Policies and Agreements: Important developments have taken place at the international level over the last few years with regard to the sustainable conservation and use of underutilized species. The International Treaty for PGRFA which entered into force in 2004 is lending valuable support on these species, in particular in the context of the implementation of its Art 6.2 which specifically proposes “promoting, as appropriate, the expanded use of local and locally adapted crops, varieties and underutilized species”. In harmony with this article, the Treaty has started supporting several projects on underutilized species in the context of its Benefit Sharing Fund 2010 Call for proposal.

Another important Global Framework, the FAO Global Plan of Action for PGRFA (launched in 1996) was also recently revised and its former Activity 12 dealing with underutilized species (now renamed Activity 11 on “Promoting development and commercialization of farmers’ varieties and underutilized species”) was reconfirmed as a strategic component of the global framework to promote agrobiodiversity and its sustainable use around the world.

Public awareness: out of the many events which have taken place over the last few years in support of underutilized species we would like to mention a major development related to cuisine! Recently, Claus Meyer, famous chef of the NOMA Restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark (acclaimed best restaurant in the world in 2010 and 2011) which is focusing on the reinvention and interpretation of the Nordic Cuisine using local traditional crops, has announced its involvement in the opening of a school for young Chefs in Bolivia that will be focusing specifically on traditional crops! This is a great development for helping our efforts towards the mainstreaming of nutritious and healthy underutilized crops into people’s food habits and we trust will inspire many other similar initiatives around the world.

Text: S. Padulosi and P. Bordoni


Pasiecznik, N., Bothe-Tews, C., Jaenicke, H. and Bordoni, P., 2009. Crops for the Future User Needs Survey Report: Reporting the results from a survey conducted in February 2009 (Accessed 25 November 2011)

Padulosi S. and I. Hoeschle-Zeledon. 2004. Underutilized plant species: what are they? LEISA 20(1):5-6.

Padulosi S. 2007. Neglected No More. Achievements of the IFAD-NUS project (2001-2005) and Framework for its follow-up initiative (2007-2009). Bioversity International. ISBN 978-92-9043-737-6. 19 pages.

Padulosi S., Bhag Mal, S. Bala Ravi, J. Gowda, K.T.K. Gowda, G. Shanthakumar, N. Yenagi and M. Dutta. 2009. Food Security and Climate Change: Role of Plant Genetic Resources of Minor Millets. Indian J. Plant Genet. Resour. 22(1): 1-16 (2009).

Padulosi S. 2011. Unlocking the potential of minor millets. Appropriate Technology Vol 38:1 (21-23).

Padulosi S., V. Heywood, D. Hunter and A. Jarvis. 2011. Underutilized Species and Climate Change: Current Status and Outlook. In Shyam S. Yadav, Robert J. Redden and Jerry L. Hatfield Eds. Crop Adaptation to Climate Change, First Edition. Hermann Lotze-Campen and Anthony E. Hall.John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. Published 2011 by Blackwell Publishing Ltd.507-521 pp.

Rojas W., R. Valdivia, S. Padulosi, M. Pinto, J.L. Soto, E. Alcocer, L., Guzman, R. Estrada, V. Apaza. 2009. From neglect to limelight: issues, methods and approaches in enhancing sustainable conservation and use of Andean grains in Bolivia and Peru. In A. Buerkert and Jens Gebauer (Editors), Agrobiodiversity and Genetic Erosion, Contributions in Honor of Prof. Dr. Karl Hammer. Supplement 92 to the Journal of Agricultural and Rural Development in the Tropics and Subtropics, Kassel University press GmbH. (87-117 pp). 87-117 pp. ISBN: 978-3-89958-680-0

Taranto S. and S. Padulosi. 2009. Testing the results of a joint effort. LEISA Magazine, volume 25 (2): 32-33.

Vijayalakshmi D., K. Geetha, Jayarame Gowda, S. Bala Ravi, S. Padulosi and Bhag Mal. 2010. Empowerment of Women Farmers through Value Addition on Minor Millets. Genetic Resources: A Case Study in Karnataka. Indian J. Plant Genet. Resour. 23(1): 132-135 (2010).

Yenagi N.B., J.A. Handigol, S. Bala Ravi, Bhag Mal and S. Padulosi. 2010. Nutritional and Technological advancements in the Promotion of Ethnic and Novel Foods Using the Genetic Diversity of Minor Millets in India. Indian J. Plant Genet. Resour. 23(1): 82-86 (2010).

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