Why do nearly 50% of our calories come from the same three crops: wheat, rice, and maize? What led to such a homogenisation of our diets? Underutilised crops (UCs) or forgotten crops are less common species, landraces, cultivars, or heritage varieties whose use, production, and consumption is currently limited. Despite their current depreciation, they boast a long history of cultivation in many parts of the world and hold great nutritional and environmental promise for the future of our food systems. What role for policy and a value chain approach which considers access to seeds, the ecological aspects of agricultural production, the power positions of stakeholders, the nutritional value of food, and food security and sovereignty? Orsolya Lazányi, Kata Fodor, Alexandra Czeglédi, Bálint Balázs from the European RADIANT (Realizing Dynamic Value Chains for Underutilised Crops) project tell us more.
Why do we eat the same varieties of fruits and vegetables worldwide? Why do nearly 50% of our calories come from the same three crops: wheat, rice, and maise? What led to such a homogenisation of our diets? Food around the world used to be characterised by specific local and regional varieties of crops, providing a diversity of tastes, textures, diets, and nutritional value. Underutilised crops (UCs) or forgotten crops are less common species, landraces, cultivars, or heritage varieties whose use, production, and consumption is currently limited. Despite their current depreciation, they boast a long history of cultivation in many parts of the world and hold great nutritional and environmental promise for the future of our food systems.
Neglected solutions for our health and the environment
While the modernisation of the agricultural system and the expansion of global markets have undoubtedly contributed to the increased efficiency of food production and processing, they have also mainstreamed a handful of crops, tapping into only 1% of the edible plants still available to us. These global changes went hand in hand with the industrialisation of an increasingly urbanising workforce, accommodating and, in turn, shaping the tastes and consumption habits of a growing population, favouring uniformity, convenience, and economies of scale. These trends have resulted in the neglect of an enormous diversity of crops, which could nevertheless provide significant environmental, social, and agronomic benefits today.
There are various drawbacks to the neglect of these crops. For one, the abandonment of diverse varieties severely undermines food security. Malnutrition affects more and more people and is linked to a lack of diversity on our plates and the shrinking nutritional value of our daily meals. In contrast to many overprocessed foods, locally adapted food crops provide fresh and nutritious alternatives while satisfying culturally diverse food preferences. UCs can provide high micronutrients, dietary fibre, starch, protein, and bioactives that help reduce blood sugar levels and contribute to healthier diets. While current agri-food systems neglect many crops, they often bear historical significance and are linked to local cultures and food traditions that ensure their continued adaptation and evolution.
Furthermore, currently underutilised crops hold several ecological benefits which could spearhead current efforts to build more sustainable agri-food systems. UCs often grow better under extreme environmental conditions, in poor and leaner soils, and can be more resistant to pests and diseases than their highly bred, modern relatives. Due to their nitrogen fixation ability, many underutilised crops, especially legumes, could decrease artificial fertiliser use. Thus, beyond contributing to healthier and more sustainable diets, UCs could also help diversify agricultural systems, mitigate climate change, and increase the resiliency of our food systems in general (Pinto et al., 2022).
The European RADIANT (Realizing Dynamic Value Chains for Underutilised Crops) project (2022-2026) puts these crop varieties in the limelight. It aims to investigate how and why these crops became sidelined in several European countries and what conditions would enable their return to cultivation. In particular, the project examines the implications of the current policy and governance landscape around underutilised crops in Europe, with a stronger focus on Portugal, Italy, Germany, Scotland, Hungary, and Bulgaria. It explores existing local initiatives that aim to bring back UCs in the value chain.
Given these benefits, why do UCs remain underutilised?
UCs are often defined by their relatively low yield potentials, overlooking their ecological benefits. While they can significantly reduce the use of agrochemicals, most UCs are not considered suitable for today’s energy and carbon-intensive agriculture. International trade agreements also contributed to the homogenisation of food production and consumption by setting preferences about what should be grown and where. This resulted in a legume-dependent, cereal-specialised cropping system in the EU, discouraging farmers from diversifying cultivation.
Despite the recognised importance of preserving genetic diversity on land and the growing interest of UCs in research, EU policies need to sufficiently support the cultivation and improvement of these varieties. The Green Deal, the Chemical Strategy for Sustainability, the Farm-to-Fork Strategy, and the Soil Strategy for 2030 hold ambitious promises, but their implementation still needs to be improved.
One of the main barriers is the fragmented policy landscape from seed production and marketing to cultivation, processing, retail, and consumption. While actors along the value chain are all interconnected, policies address distinct areas of food production without a view of the whole system. Furthermore, environmental and climate policies that aim to mitigate the negative impacts of agricultural production have limited effect on the related regulations. RADIANT identifies several critical policy instruments that impact the valorisation of UCs along the value chain, highlighting strategies and policy tools that, while meant to increase agrobiodiversity, have rather indirect or limited impact on the ground.
EU and international food policies impacting the valorisation of UCs in Europe. Image credit: own creation
Seed marketing regimes
A more diverse and sustainable food system has to start with making genetically diverse, good-quality seeds available to producers. The current seed regime is organised around common crops, which often limits or even prohibits the exchange of seeds of less common species and varieties. The main criteria (being distinct, stable, and uniform) for marketising seeds cannot be applied to the genetically heterogeneous pool of UCs. While more and more breeding programmes use UCs to improve, for instance, drought tolerance in common crops, to pass marketisation standards, the genetic diversity of these improved varieties has to be significantly reduced. Thus, the ecological benefits of these seeds are mainly preserved in informal seed exchange networks or (community) seed banks, representing only marginal solutions for accessing UC seeds.
Contradictions of the Common Agricultural Policy
The Common Agricultural Policy of the EU, as the primary financial incentive mechanism in agriculture, directly affects who is producing what (and how). While the guiding strategies, such as the Farm-to-Fork Strategy, aim to provide a holistic and coherent framework, spanning from the production of crops to the table, including manufacturing, sales, nutritional and health aspects, the CAP, on the contrary, does not reflect this coherence and inconsistently supports the goals of the Strategy. Furthermore, measures to limit environmentally harmful agricultural practices are often set aside during policy-making. As a result, the CAP provides limited opportunities for farmers to produce less common species. It incentivises cash crop production without addressing questions related to the nutritional value of food, dietary needs, the environmental impact of production, food sovereignty, and security.
Technological and infrastructural lock-ins
Large-scale, industrialised processing facilities characterising the manufacturing sector cannot provide adequate solutions for UCs. UCs are often produced in smaller amounts or require different processing techniques than their mainstream kins (such as hulling in the case of ancient cereal crops). Usually, the know-how about processing UCs could be improved, such as grinding in stone mills or sourdough baking, which are no longer taught in related educational institutions.
Power asymmetries in trade and competition
Trade is defined by the high concentration of large-scale, international retailers and processing companies. This power asymmetry puts other actors, especially farmers, in a weak position to negotiate prices or their processing practices and technologies. It also affects policy-making processes, in which resource-rich actors become more influential.
How EU policies could support the cultivation and improvement of underutilised crops? While there are no policy tools explicitly supporting the mainstreaming of UCs, there are some windows of opportunity provided by sectorial policy instruments. The analysis of current EU food policies was also complemented with case studies from Bulgaria, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Scotland and Hungary to reflect possibilities at the national level.
UCs can play an important role in diversifying agricultural production and reducing the use of artificial fertilisers and pesticides. Certain efforts can be recognised within the EU to increase cultivated diversity in cover cropping and crop rotation through the strengthened conditionality measurements and the recently introduced eco-schemes of the new CAP. The Nitrate Directive set concrete measures to limit the use of artificial nitrogen fertilisers. UCs could play a role in accomplishing such goals and increasing soil health.
Nevertheless, as the Scottish case highlighted, the diversification of the agricultural system would require multiple and simultaneous changes within the whole value chain, from production to commercialisation. Innovative subsidy schemes are needed to encourage farmers to include UCs in their cropping system and to share risks and costs among all value chain actors.
The diversity of UCs, however, challenges their subsidisation. UCs, beyond grain legumes, leafy vegetables, and fruits, also encompass pseudocereals and millets, roots and tubers, etc. Some National Strategies for the CAP introduce support mechanisms for endangered local varieties, such as the Bulgarian one, or traditional species in the Portuguese Strategic Plan. A more appropriate definition could further strengthen the supportability of less common species. It could also spread knowledge on the ecological benefits of UCs, which need to be improved among many small-holder farmers in Europe.
Seeds represent the cornerstone of agricultural diversification. However, UCs’ greatest strength of genetic heterogeneity is also one of their most significant limitations regarding seed marketisation. Currently, three derogations at the EU level can help UCs enter the market, and the new Seed Law reform also aims to introduce changes to benefit alternative uses and non-commercial actors. According to the Commission directive, conservation and amateur varieties can be sold in small quantities if they have “no intrinsic value for commercial crop production” and can be shown to have developed under specific pedoclimatic conditions. These preconditions tell that UCs are not considered competitive alternatives to the current regime, continuing to be sidelined economically.
The regulation of Organic Heterogeneous Material (OHM) represents a progressive and potentially viable route for UCs. OHMs are ‘plant groupings’ with high genetic and phenotypic diversity, which belong entirely to the public domain (i.e. non-patented seeds protecting the breeders’ rights). This means that they can be marketed freely within the EU without variety registration in official catalogues. Given that UCs have a similar set of characteristics, the legislation could provide an opportunity for UC seeds as well; however, the effect of the policy is still unclear.
In general, many underutilised species and varieties are not included in the Common Catalogue of Plant Varieties because they are not commercially relevant to the EU. This means they can be marketed freely without prior registration or meeting other criteria. In this sense, occupying a niche market, such as locally grown, heritage grain flours or other products of small scale, may be more beneficial for UC crops as long as the seed laws do not change to strengthen farmers’ rights and biodiversity requirements at their core. Niche markets around UCs are being developed in many small-scale initiatives around Europe, and for now, it is mainly through these initiatives that UCs and their seeds enter the market.
As for seed maintenance of UCs, the promotion of in-situ farm conservation of landraces should be used to a greater extent than at present. Besides marketising, breeding and preserving healthy seeds is also an issue. Compared to dominant species whose breeding and seed marketing activities are dominated by private companies, community seed banks and participatory breeding practices provide some opportunities to preserve UCs. Since breeding and variety registration is time-consuming and may require financial investments, UC registration could be supported by public bodies to economically benefit the farmers (and communities) who preserve them. Furthermore, UCs could be considered unexplored genetic resources for novel breeding technologies and significant crop improvements.
Public institutes, therefore, should vigorously and principally promote the registration of landraces to provide access to genetic resources, preserve them in the long term, and favour farmers’ economic profit. The current rules for marketising seeds (DUS and VCU standards) often act as barriers to adaptability and resilience in the face of climate change and our efforts to attain sustainability and adaptation objectives. Increasing crop diversity is critical to realise these goals and will necessarily demand an increased variety of regulations.
Case studies from Hungary and Germany revealed that short supply chains can provide excellent opportunities for UCs. The examples of the Stolzenberger bakery and the Hungarian farmer-miller-baker network showed that collaboration and networking are essential for small businesses to share know-how and technological capacities adequate for processing UCs. Direct collaboration among value chain actors can enable UCs to enter the catering sector, such as farm-to-table cooperations between farmers, restaurant managers, and chefs. Broader policy support of short supply chains, in which locally produced food, including UCs, can have a more significant role, can contribute to decreasing the EU’s dependency on imported goods.
The increasing trend among European consumers to eat healthy food also provides opportunities for UCs due to their nutritional richness and ability to diversify diets. Consumer awareness about locally produced UCs can be raised through labels such as PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) and PGI (Protected Geographical Indication). As shown in the case of fava and vanilla beans in Greece, such labels help consumers identify and appreciate products’ unique characteristics and flavours and make informed purchasing choices. In Italy, recently introduced measures (‘Agri-food products at zero km and short supply chains’ and ‘Norms for the valorisation of the small agro-alimentary production of local origin’, PPL) support locally produced food products to reach consumers by facilitating market access and communication.
Today’s consumers are very receptive to innovations, new tastes, textures and forms. Thus, beyond building on the historical roots of UCs, positioning them as superfoods can open new markets. From a policy perspective, the authorisation process of novel foods leaves some space for UCs, especially those with a history of safe consumption in a non-European country. Businesses dealing with traditional crops and foods from third countries can undergo a simplified authorisation process, facilitating marketisation.
However, what will boost the mainstreaming of UCs in particular national and regional contexts still needs to be explored and will require more comprehensive analysis. A more coherent food policy, complying with the environmental pursuits of guiding strategies, such as the Green Deal or the Farm-to-Fork Strategy, would be fundamental for moving towards a healthier and more sustainable food system. A value chain approach, which considers access to seeds, the ecological aspects of agricultural production, the power positions of stakeholders, the nutritional value of food, and food security and sovereignty, could also substantively support the diversification of food systems.