Bambara groundnut - An exemplar crop for nutritional security

By 2050, we will need 70% more food to meet the needs of 9 billion people. To meet this demand, we must diversify agricultural systems with currently underutilised crops that can nourish humanity in volatile climates of the future.

Over 7 billion people currently rely on a few major crops, mostly grown as monocultures, as their source of food. These crops are increasingly being used beyond human foods, to animal feeds and even biofuels. Major, staple crops, are increasingly under pressure to produce even higher yields in a hotter climate, and for a human population that is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050. Will these major crops by themselves be enough to feed and nourish our growing population?

In every corner of the world, there are native crops that have been cultivated and protected by local communities. For example, the bambara groundnut, known scientifically as Vigna subterranea, is the third most important grain legume in semi-arid Africa, known for its highly nutritious seeds, resistance to high temperatures and nitrogen-fixation. While it is considered a jewel to many African farmers, its properties and uses have yet to be realised by others. Whilst the cultivation of bambara groundnut has spread to countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, knowledge about its nutritional content, adaptability to poor soils and recipes of its products have not been shared between Africa and Asian communities.  

BamYIELD, one of five research programmes at CFF, is a model international legume research and breeding programme using bambara groundnut as an exemplar species. It spans the value chain of bambara groundnut from genetics to production, utilisation and markets. Together with data translation from model and major crops, focussed breeding activities and field trials, BamYIELD will optimise the contribution of this legume to food security and poverty alleviation, and at the same time develop generic approaches for other underutilised crops.

BamYIELD is now conducting multi-locational trials on the “Genetic and trait characterisation of farmer and genebank sources of bambara groundnut for the development of drought tolerant lines in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.” The project received USD500,000 from the Third Cycle of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture – Benefit Sharing Fund (ITPGRFA – BSF). It is the first project to be funded by ITPGRFA – BSF through the benefit-sharing system with a Malaysian entity as the lead.

Speaking on the impacts that this international project will have for future agriculture, CFF Chief Executive Officer Prof. Sayed Azam-Ali says, “the conservation and scientific analyses of different bambara groundnut seed types from local farmers, seedbank collections and developed lines from partners will make new material available for farmers to select from for their own circumstances. Such material can be higher yielding, more resilient and easier to cook; and so will increase the food supply and value-added products of this nutritious legume.”

There remains 30,000 species of crops that have been grown or collected by human beings for food.  We have yet to explore even a fraction of these that have the potential to provide nutrition and income options for the poor and in climates of the future. As drought becomes more prevalent in our globally changing climates, resilient underutilised species like bambara groundnut serve as an alternative to major crops that may fail in these stressful environments. Exploring new options for the vast diversity of crops we have is crucial to sustaining agricultural biodiversity. Through its international leadership of research on bambara groundnut, CFF is demonstrating a model approach for the wider adoption of other promising underutilised crops.