New crops, new products
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CTA. 1997. New crops, new products. Spore 68. CTA, Wageningen, The Netherlands.
Permanent link to this item: http://hdl.handle.net/10568/48666
It was the wicked uncle of Aladdin, in the Tales of the Arabian Nights, who offered 'new lamps for old'. He wanted to find anancient magic lamp that could give him access to a hoard of treasure for his own personal use. When agricultural...
It was the wicked uncle of Aladdin, in the Tales of the Arabian Nights, who offered 'new lamps for old'. He wanted to find an ancient magic lamp that could give him access to a hoard of treasure for his own personal use. When agricultural developers talk about 'new' crops, the crops they are thinking about are also not really new but they hope that these crops will lead to far wider prosperity and wealth for farmers, rural communities and even national economies. Throughout history, thousands of species of plants have been used by man for food but only a few, perhaps 150 or so, have been commercially cultivated. Most people in the world today derive the bulk of their food needs from about twenty plant species - cereals, roots, legumes, sugar cane and sugar beet, coconuts and bananas. This means that plant breeding, crop protection and the development of processing technology have all focused on a handful of major cash crops. This has had a self-perpetuating effect and, by and large, plant species that do not fall within this category are still largely under-exploited; while such minority crops may be highly valued locally as part of a complex farming system, they are not perceived by growers or traders to have commercial potential. This is partly because European food habits have nowadays become fashionable in the tropics, just as heavy denim jeans have also become fashionable. While the trend towards fewer crop varieties is recognized and understood, is it in the best interests of food security, let alone economic prosperity? There are always risks associated with monoculture, whether from a disease or pest infestation or a collapse in world prices and it is, in any case, hard to make a commercial success of the high volume, low value products upon which ACP economies have traditionally come to depend. A diversified range of high or added value products is economically more attractive, but it has to be admitted that markets for new products are hard to develop. In fact a niche market may be almost as difficult to find as Aladdin's lamp. Plants with potential ACP countries, however, have their own treasures: attractive, nutritious fruit, for example, or plants which may contain compounds of interest to the pharmaceutical industry Agronomic conditions in ACP countries may also be suitable for growing indigenous or exotic crops, oilseeds in particular, that are of value to the plastics and related chemical industries. In Eritrea, for example, vernonia (Vernonia galamensis) is now being commercially cultivated. The plant occurs naturally in West and East Africa, and the seed from its thistle-like flower heads contains 40% oil. Seed yields of 1.5t/ha can be obtained. Vernonia oil can be used as a plasticizer-stabilizer for polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and it can also be combined with polystyrene to form unique plastics. Not surprisingly, it commands a high price. The nuts of the shea tree (Vitellaria paradoxa syn. Butyrospermum paradoxum), which grows naturally from eastern Senegal to north-west Uganda, have long been an important domestic and export crop. But, because the trees are wild, the yield and quality of the nuts are highly variable, limiting their industrial value, and yet shea butter is now more widely permitted for use in Europe as a substitute for cocoa butter in chocolate and could, therefore, find a larger market. Furthermore, it has unique medical properties that could make it commercially attractive to the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industries. Research to select trees for faster growth, earlier fruiting and consistent high quality and yields could stimulate commercial exploitation. Another tree that is proving a commercial success is masuku (Uapaca kirkiana). The fruit is eaten fresh or processed into juices, squashes, jams and jellies; in city supermarkets in Malawi and Zambia, commercially produced wine made from masuku is on sale and the fruit is also used to make beer and gin. The tree, which is indigenous to tropical Africa, grows in symbiotic relationship with edible mushrooms for which there is also an export market. Like the shea tree there is considerable potential for domesticating what is still a wild species. 'New' fruits have been successfully introduced into ACP countries with significant tourist industries - Seychelles, Mauritius and Pacific and Caribbean countries, for example. Following market testing with visiting consumers, many of these fruits have now found an export market, following the holidaymakers back home. New processing equals new products New processing techniques could revitalize and add considerable value to traditional subsistence crops. Increasing numbers of city dwellers and women at work require foods that are quick and easy to prepare, and there is a growing market for convenience foods which at present is being largely filled by wheat and maize products. If sorghum and millets could be popped, puffed or flaked, rural and urban populations would derive considerable benefit. Popping is a relatively simple technique and requires less investment than puffing or flaking, but all these processes could be used to swell the small grains of pearl and finger millet, sorghum, fonio etc. and improve their taste while making a ready-to-eat, convenience food product with a high added value. The commercial development of new crops and new products requires investment, but industry is reluctant to invest in an untried market, particularly if new processing technology has to be developed. Even on farm, or at farmers' cooperative level, small-scale machinery must be able to provide a return on investment. This will usually require it to be multi-purpose and to be of use for longer than just one harvesting season. If new crops are introduced it should be because they fit in with the existing farming system, or because they will grow on marginal land; and as far as possible, their introduction should minimize rather than increase risk. This lower-risk potential will often pave the way for eventual commercialization.