Diversifying Agriculture for Better Lives

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30 August 2012
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Variability in ricebean seeds (Photo: Philip Hollington)

Variability in ricebean seeds (Photo: Philip Hollington)

That is a question rhetorically posed by Peter Andersen, University of Bergen, Norway, in a recent article on the Asian ricebean (Vigna umbellata), in reference to the contradiction manifest in the portrayal of this and other neglected and underutilized species (NUS) as “benign, pro-poor, adapted to marginal conditions, nutritious.[…] and strengthening agricultural sustainability” as opposed to their ongoing decline in agricultural and food systems. All too often, that decline is simply put down to image problems (“the poor man’s crops”), to subsidies going into major crops, and lack of awareness. That may be part of the problem, but Andersen suggests – based on findings of the FOSRIN project- that ricebean faces challenges, some of which may extend to NUS in general:

“[Ricebean] is widely scattered in South Asia, but production is declining. […] The dis-adoption of the crop by farmers is linked to traits of existing landraces: growth habits, appearance and taste, and pest problems. This dis-adoption presents dilemmas for the biodiversity argument. If ricebean is to regain its position, efforts are needed in marketing and promotion and also in plant breeding and provision of improved seed material. It will require varieties that are able to meet farmers’ desires in terms of growth habits, time to maturity, uniform seeds, good yield, resistance to pests and diseases, […]. This will, inevitably, be at the expense of existing varieties with less competitive features, making the responsibility for conservation an issue for off-farm strategies.”

A recent review on the utilisation, market potential and crop improvement of bambara groundnut (Vigna subterranea), a native African legume, arrives at similar conclusions. Noting that R&D efforts since the 1980s have failed to stimulate a sustainable increase in the production of that crop, the authors discuss a number of disadvantages of bambara groundnuts vis-à-vis groundnuts (Arachis hypogaea), the main competitor. These include the difficulties of developing mechanised harvesting methods as well as erratic and low yields. They further describe use constraints as the extended cooking time (only the immature “nuts” can be eaten raw), the presence of anti-nutritional factors, and poor milling characteristics, as well as options for overcoming such constraints.

Interestingly, the review identifies the high cost of bambara groundnuts as the main reason for the failure of market expansion. High production and distribution costs inflate prices and make the beans unaffordable for low-income consumers.

Is it a bad thing to identify supply and demand constraints of ricebean and bambara groundnut? Does that mean we should give up on them? Not at all! We have seen quite a few NUS make a transition from neglect to greater use, particularly where new markets have provided a demand for previously “obscure” crop attributes. But it would seem that for many “stagnant” NUS, future R&D efforts need to be informed by an understanding of the factors that limit crop use as much as they should by the opportunities these crops provide. Perhaps bambara groundnut is currently uncompetitive as a staple, or will remain restricted for the time being to marginal production sites. But as the study notes, fresh bambara groundnuts have unique selling propositions for export specialty markets. Maybe it is pointless to try to push bambara groundnut for expansion beyond that and other niches. Understanding crop constraints is also a pre-requisite for crop improvement, and for designing interventions that provide incentives to farmers for growing NUS.

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