From Danielle Nierenberg
On August 9, Food Tank is celebrating the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples by highlighting indigenous peoples’ contributions to biodiversity. Of the roughly 7,000 edible plant species humankind used as food, more than 90 percent have disappeared from farmers’ fields. Thankfully, indigenous peoples around the globe are preserving these disappearing crop varieties with time-tested farming practices and agricultural knowledge. The biodiversity these farmers work to conserve is key to building resilient food systems that can withstand climate change effects and enhance food security.
To recognize indigenous peoples’ role in building a more resilient food system, Food Tank is spotlighting 30 traditional crops contributing to global biodiversity: argan, arracacha, bambara bean, buckwheat, bush tomato, chayote, cherimoya, chicory, desert lime, fenugreek, finger millet, grass pea, hemp, jackfruit, Kakadu plum, locust bean, maca, manoomin, marama, marula tree, mung bean, orache, pejibaye, purslane, ricebean, sorghum, tepary bean, wattleseed, winged bean, and yaxox.
Protecting indigenous peoples requires preserving their right to maintain their foodways and traditional growing practices. Organizations with fair trade standards and social missions can help eaters seek out these crops both sustainably and ethically.
Contributing authors: Michael Peñuelas, Eva Perroni, and Katherine Walla
This International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, August 9, is an opportunity to celebrate the ecological and cultural value of indigenous foodways. In 1994, the United Nations General Assembly declared the day to encourage the world to protect and promote the rights of indigenous peoples. Celebrating their cultures means preserving their time-tested farming practices, agricultural knowledge, and traditional crops that can help address global climate change and food insecurity.
Of the roughly 250,000 plant species known to humankind, an estimated 30,000 are edible and approximately 7,000 have at some point been used as food. However, more than 90 percent of crop varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields during the past 100 years; the varieties left that build our food system are predicted to suffer under climate change. The biodiversity maintained on indigenous peoples’ farms may be the key to building resilient food systems that can withstand changing weather patterns, meet the nutritional and cultural needs of communities, and rehabilitate degraded ecosystems.
However, popularizing traditional crops in the international market can produce varying health and income effects for indigenous communities. Protecting indigenous peoples requires sustainably and ethically sourcing these crops from companies with social missions, such as fair trade organizations improving the lives of indigenous farmers.
Food Tank is highlighting 30 historically and agriculturally significant fruits, vegetables, and grains from regions across the globe. These food crops can thrive under a variety of harsh environmental conditions, help to rehabilitate degraded landscapes and provide farmers and their communities with a range of health and environmental benefits.
1) Bush Tomato
A small desert shrub, the many species of bush tomato are found naturally in the desert regions of Australia and are considered extremely important desert staples. They can be eaten both fresh and dry, with some species drying on the bush into raisin-like shapes, which can be found and eaten at any time of the year. Bush tomato has superior antioxidant capacity compared to the blueberry and is also rich in iron and other vitamins and minerals.
2) Desert Lime
Desert lime grows naturally in the semi-arid regions in eastern Australia in a range of soil types. It is tolerant of heat, frost, drought, and salinity, it and can withstand extreme temperature conditions from –4 degrees C to 45 degrees C (24 degrees F to 113 degrees F). Desert lime has high levels of vitamin C, folate, and antioxidants, and its methanol extract can inhibit, or greatly slow, common food-borne bacteria.
3) Kakadu Plum
The Kakadu Plum—also called the Gubinge, Billygoat Plum, or Murunga—grows natively across Northern Australia and has the highest recorded level of natural vitamin C content of any plant in the world. Suited to its natural hot and coastal environment, the Kakadu Plum can grow in a variety of dry and saline habitats, from dry creek beds to cliff tops and ridges.
There are hundreds of species of wattle that grow all over Australia, which are both salt and drought tolerant. Wattleseed has been a staple in the diet of Indigenous Australians for more than 40,000 years. It can survive tough weather conditions, proving to be a valuable source of protein and carbohydrates when other food sources were scarce. Since 1970, some wattle species have been exported to Africa, successfully providing a food and fuel source to drought-affected populations.
Central and North America
The chayote, a green, pear-shaped member of the squash family, has been an important part of diets across Mesoamerica
since pre-Columbian times. The plant is extremely versatile and can be grown in warm climates from sea level to more than 2000 meters above sea level. Most parts of the plant may be eaten, including the fruit, stems, and leaves. Commercially grown across the Americas and East Asia, the chayote is especially suitable for preserving.
6) Manoomin, or Wild Rice
The only grain native to North America, manoomin (or wild rice) has been stewarded by indigenous peoples for millennia. Because it grows freely in wetlands and riparian systems across the continent, manoomin can be a low-labor crop, though it has been increasingly produced in paddies in recent years. Rich in minerals, antioxidants, protein, and fiber, it is also a crop with deep cultural meaning to many peoples.
7) Tepary Bean
Among the most drought resistant of legumes, tepary beans have been important for the first peoples of the arid regions of North America—like the Tohono O’odham—for generations. They are known to be highly tolerant of heat, drought, and alkaline soils and produce beans similar in shape, color, and taste to the common bean. Underutilized for decades, the tepary bean has recently seen new attempts at improving varieties for modern production systems.
8) Yaxox, or Ramón Nut
Though native to moist forests, the Yaxox tree is also unique for its tolerance of drought conditions. The Yaxox nut already plays a role in disaster situations, serving as a valued emergency food during hurricanes in Central America. Its leaves, pulp, and seeds are also valuable resources for forest communities of plants, animals, and fungi, making it a keystone species in agroforestry systems.
Central and South Asia
The largest tree fruit in the world, individual jackfruit are capable of reaching 100 pounds (about 45 kilograms). The fruit can be eaten fresh or cooked, and the seed can be dried and ground into a flour. The tree requires relatively little care once it has established, needing little to no irrigation or fertilizer if it is planted in appropriate conditions. It is disease-resistant and will produce hundreds of large fruits annually for many years without needing replanting.
10) Mung Bean
The mung bean is important in Asian diets and valuable for its easily digestible protein. High levels of iron in the vegetable help improve the diets of the most vulnerable women and children. The vegetable can also fix nitrogen in the soil, make valuable green manure, and be used as a cover crop, making it valuable for crop rotations.
Grown primarily as a dry pulse, ricebean is also sometimes utilized as a green manure, cover crop, and animal fodder. It is one of the most nutrient-dense legumes and has among the highest growth efficiencies of commercially produced legumes. Though it performs well in high temperature, humid conditions, and can even survive significant waterlogging, ricebean is also known for its tolerance to prolonged drought. In recent years, ricebean has seen large declines in area cultivated due to the pressures of the global supply chain.
Buckwheat is a natural stand-out in terms of growth without fertilizers, but declined in popularity as increased access to synthetic fertilizers made other cereals and grains more productive. In fact, buckwheat is so well adapted to poor soils that added fertilizer can cause the crop to tip over and break as it grows too tall. It is one of the most widely-utilized soil-conditioning cover crops in North America and Europe, but is rarely utilized for food outside of its native Japan. Buckwheat is a short-season crop, so can be double cropped after wheat or canola.
Fenugreek is widely grown for its seed across East and Central Asia and the Mediterranean. Its leaves are also cultivated commercially because they are a rich source of many vitamins and exhibit properties thought to be beneficial for a number of serious chronic diseases. It is tolerant of a wide range of soils as well as early frosts, and is amenable to being grown at high densities. The Government of India has invested in creating improved varieties in recent years.
Believed to be of Asiatic origin, hemp transitioned from a wild plant to a domesticated crop under the care of ancient Chinese cultivators. Hemp has continued to be cultivated throughout recorded history for its many provisions, including industrial fiber, seed oil, food, and medicine. It grows in diverse climates and soil types, and often does not require the use of pesticides or fertilizers. It forms deep roots, helping to prevent soil erosion, and is extremely efficient in sequestering carbon.
15) Winged Bean
Though the entirety of this Southeast Asian native plant is edible, winged beans are grown as a pulse or for their roots. The tuber has many times the protein content of other popular tubers, such as potatoes or yams. As with many legumes, winged beans fix their own nitrogen from the atmospheric supply and so require very little in the way of soil amendments. Varieties of winged beans are grown in subtropical, tropical, and temperate environments around the world.
Though perhaps best known for the use of its roasted root as a coffee substitute and additive, chicory is primarily cultivated in Europe for its leaves and buds and is one of the most nutrient-dense vegetables studied. The chicory family includes a variety of crops that grow in a wide range of temperate conditions, including Belgian endive, radicchio, and sugarloaf chicory, among others. Chicory roots are also highly digestible for ruminants and can serve as a substitute for traditional grain feeds.
17) Grass Pea
Often thought of as an “insurance crop,” grass pea can produce reliable yields when all other crops fail, including in both drought and flood as well as in low-fertility soils. This pulse is an important cultural element of cuisines across Western Europe and has also become important in much of Central Asia. Grass pea is the most economically important and widely grown legume species for human consumption, though it is increasingly grown as animal fodder as well. The seeds contain a neurotoxin that can become dangerous in conditions of famine, when the seeds are consumed as a primary protein source for extended periods.
Orache is in the amaranth family and can grow in most soil types, including highly saline soils along coastlines and in desert environments. Various species and varieties of orache are grown for their leaves, which are most often used as a substitute for, or in combination with its relative, spinach. Drought-resistant varieties have been grown in diverse assemblages alongside spinaches and sorrels in Europe for millennia and are becoming increasingly popular in North America. Related species were important food crops for Australian and North American indigenous peoples.
Middle East and Northern Africa
Indigenous to the arid climates of Morocco, the Argan tree is adaptive to drought and can bore deep into the ground, halting soil erosion and the advance of desertification. Argan oil (referred to as Liquid Gold), produced from the tree’s fruit seeds, is found to have strong antioxidant effects but can also be used to treat high cholesterol, rheumatism, and cancer.
20) Bambara Bean/Groundnut
Bambara bean, or groundnut, originated in North Africa, and is an easily adaptable plant that contributes substantial nutrition to roughly three dozen African nations. An extremely hardy plant, it is productive in areas of low rainfall, in poor soils, and often without fertilizers or chemicals. It also replenishes nitrogen levels in the soil, making it a useful crop to include in intercropping and soil rotation. Its seeds are highly nutritious, containing all essential amino acids, providing a balanced diet in areas where animal protein is expensive.
21) Purslane (Alverwha)
Purslane is a vitamin-rich leafy green that may have more omega-3 fatty acids than any other leafy vegetable. Capable of CAM photosynthesis in extreme conditions, as well as strong growth in saline soils, purslane is so successful a plant that it has become a weed on most continents. Across the Middle East, cultivated varieties have numerous culinary applications and are prized for their flavors, shape, and texture.
Sorghum is one of the major traditional staple food crops in many African and Asian countries. It is among the quickest maturing food plants, and often thrives in poor conditions where other cereals fail. It can be grown in areas of high drought and low rainfall, and usually without application of any fertilizers or other inputs. Sorghum is an extremely versatile food crop with many uses from food, to animal feed, to firewood.
Another important South American root crop, Arracacha is described as an intermediate between celery and carrot that is easily digestible, making it a good food for infants. Arracacha requires much less fertilizer input than other popular root crops, including the potato. It was originally cultivated in the Andes, but because of its versatility and low-input costs, is now an important crop in many lower regions of Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela.
24) Cherimoya (Custard Apple)
Cherimoya is a crop best suited to high elevations, like those found in its native range, which centers on the northwestern corner of South America. One of the most highly regarded tropical fruits in terms of taste, cherimoya needs no preparation before being consumed and stores well. Its seeds are easily separated from the edible flesh and are often crushed for use as an organic insecticide.
Similar to its relatives the radish and turnip, maca produces long, tapered roots that can survive deep frosts. Maca has been an important food crop for communities in the high Andes because it can be grown at extreme elevations, dries well, and is rich in carbohydrates. Because it became a recent “superfood” phenomenon in some developed countries, Maca cultivation has expanded dramatically in the past decade.
Pejibaye, also known as peach palm, is believed to have been the most important palm species of pre-Columbian America and the main crop of indigenous peoples across an extensive region of the tropical Americas. The fruits are eaten and utilized in a wide variety of applications, and unlike many palm species, the tree can be used for lumber once fruit production has ended. It is a valuable component of agroforestry systems in many countries and regions because of its ability to adapt to a wide range of ecological conditions and its many potential end uses.
27) Finger Millet
Finger Millet is one of the oldest indigenous domesticated cereals in Africa. It is a highly productive crop that can thrive under a variety of harsh environmental conditions, can be grown in low fertility soils, and requires very little water. An important food staple for many populations, finger millet seeds can resist storage pests for as long as five years, ensuring year-round food supply or even during a crop failure.
28) Locust Bean
Only distantly related to beans, the locust bean is in fact a tree indigenous to the savannah regions of Africa. It is extremely hardy, well suited to a wide range of soils, fire tolerant, and has a low susceptibility to pests and diseases. Its pods mature when most other vegetation has dried, acting as a source of highly nutritional emergency food rich in protein, fat, fiber, and vitamins and minerals. Its leaves are also rich in minerals and nitrogen and are often used to improve soils.
Often called “green gold,” the marama plant provides nutritious seeds, oil, and tubers that have been part of the indigenous diet for generations. It is not only drought-tolerant: the plant can store up to 250 kilograms (more than 550 pounds) of water in its giant tubers, acting as an emergency source of water. The marama spreads widely and quickly across dry soils, creating biomass that helps prevent soil erosion.
30) Marula Tree
Marula trees, prized highly for their fruit, can tolerate very harsh climates and terrains, growing well even during droughts. It is widely used in reforestation efforts in areas hit by deforestation and desertification. Its flowers produce large quantities of nectar, which support bee-raising activities, whilst its leaves are used to feed livestock. The tree’s bark is also used for its medicinal properties, treating a range of ailments.
(Danielle Nierenberg is President of Food Tank and an expert on sustainable agriculture and food issues. She has written extensively on gender and population, the spread of factory farming in the developing world and innovations in sustainable agriculture.)