November 14th, 2016 / Claudia Canales, B4FA

The next of our periodic blogs which discuss food security, with a specific focus on how plant genetic research might contribute to addressing the challenge of feeding a fast-growing global population in increasingly uncertain climatic conditions.

Achieving food security is a complex problem that goes far beyond just producing more food. Its realisation will require deep transformations of food systems, and for many, it will also mean fundamentally changing our relationship with food.


MAP 1: Centres of genetic diversity for major crops

Widening food sources

(Left to right) Matooke (banana), maize and quinoa (wikimedia)


Focusing on underutilised crops to improve them is an obvious first step, but critical for attaining an impact is ensuring that the improved, no-longer-neglected crops are planted, sold and eaten. This is not an easy task, since they do not benefit from the very well developed seed-distribution systems of the “big 3” (maize, rice and wheat), which also deliver complementary agricultural inputs and advice to farmers. These also enjoy very well developed markets, and there are countless recipes of how to prepare them.

Food, however, is not just calories, people have strong associations with and cultural preferences for what they eat. Everybody knows sugar is not nourishing and is in large quantities bad for us, but how would the world be without sweets? Countless examples of the power of particular foods exist. In the creation myth of Popol Vuh, a sacred body of narratives from the ancient K’iche’ kingdom of Q’umarkaj (in the highlands of modern Guatemala), the gods only successfully managed to create men with the gift of intellect, language and soul when they used maize meal – quite a literal interpretation of “you are what you eat”. And matooke is the word for highland bananas in Uganda, but it also simply means “food”.

And when it comes to the content of their plates, most people are creatures of habit.

Of course this does not mean that change is impossible, rather bringing about change will require concerted efforts at many levels, from making it possible for farmers to grow the different crops, to encouraging consumers to buy and eat them, not forgetting all the steps in between. The “big 3” probably have a lot to teach in this respect.

Take quinoa as an example. Once the most important crop in the Andean region of South America before the Incas, then referred to as the “mother-grain”, it had since lost much of its standing. However, the recognition of its potential to improve nutrition and raise the income level of smallholder farmers, who produce most of it, led to a series of international initiatives that included the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) declaring 2013 as the International Year of Quinoa; a book and a website of recipes – there are many other sites, too – and studies showing its benefits.

And now look – a surprising twist of fate for the ancient superfood of the gods took quinoa to the mainstream market.

And by the way, the world is currently celebrating the International Year of the Pulses.

Dr Claudia Canales Holzeis is a plant molecular biologist with a near-decade of experience in plant genetics research.  She previously worked as Senior Project Officer for the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA), based in the Philippines.  A graduate of the University of Reading in Environmental Biology, Dr.Canales gained a DPhil. in Plant Genetics at Oxford.