The Importance of Underutilized Crops for Future Food and Nutrition Security

Schematic diagram highlighting common breeding targets for any crop, and whether the genetic basis has been investigated in underutilized crops (UCs) and/or staple crops. ANF, antinutrient factor.

Staple crops are limited in their tolerance of a changing climate, forcing researchers and breeders to start to investigate new ways to ensure future food security. A review in New Phytologist examines the value of studying underutilized crops, which are locally important crops grown in limited regions, and identifying the specific genes that underpin the crops’ adaptive and valuable traits.

The review demonstrates that extensive genome sequencing is the best way to move from discussions of interesting and unique crops to the breeding of favorable varieties with the potential to move into the mainstream.

Schematic diagram highlighting the main sequencing and breeding approaches discussed in this article. First (left), by comparing the reference genomes of underutilized crops and staple/main crops, genome variants responsible for superior agronomic traits (such as specific resistance and nutrient quality or quantity) of underutilized crops could be explored. In addition (right), the combination of genome resequencing and phenotyping through genome-wide association study could help to identify candidate genes responsible for agronomic traits of underutilized crops. Through genetic transformation or genome editing, the function of these candidate genes could be verified. Finally, by associating genomic data to phenotypic information of different accessions, germplasm resources can be effectively screened and bred by means of molecular marker-assisted breeding and crossing, to improve the resistance and nutritional value of underutilized crops in addition to staple crops.

The authors note that in the past 20 years, a few previously underutilized crops, such as quinoa, chickpea and pigeonpea, have seen a significant boost in research and recognition. They stress that it is likely that some underutilized crops hold vital genetic variants to help the human population combat food and nutrition insecurity in the next few decades.

“We assembled this review because many underutilized crops have a genome sequenced, but for the most part this has not led to crop varieties in the mainstream,” said author Mark A. Chapman, PhD, of the University of Southampton, in the UK. “The relative ease at which one can sequence plant genomes now means we have the potential to extensively examine the genetics of important traits such as yield and climate tolerance and we advocate this for underutilized crops with potential to combat food insecurity.”

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