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Why a campaign has started to bring back some plants that have been forgotten

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The world depends on just a handful of plants for a remarkable amount of the food that we eat. These are the big crops like wheat, corn and sugarcane. That dependence can be risky, so the U.S. and the United Nations have launched a campaign to bring back some plants that had fallen out of favor. Reporter Dan Charles has the story.

DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Cary Fowler could be enjoying a comfortable retirement. He has shelves full of awards from all over the world for his work preserving the seeds of different crops that people grow, but he kept thinking about one big missed opportunity.

CARY FOWLER: This one kind of gnawed away at me.

CHARLES: He pulls out his cell phone and opens up a gallery of photos, shows me a thriving green plant with a tangle of leaves and seed pods.

FOWLER: This is lablab.

CHARLES: OK. All right. Where is it typically grown right now?

FOWLER: It's grown in a number of places in Africa. It's an African crop.

CHARLES: He shows me others. There's a grain called fonio and, maybe his favorite, the grass pea. He saw it first in Ethiopia, maybe 20 years ago. He was standing in a farmer's field. This was during a drought.

FOWLER: The field was cracked. It was so dry you could put your arm down in the soil for about a foot or so. And there on the top was this little grass pea plant, green and flowering, and I thought, oh, what a generous little plant that is.

CHARLES: This grass pea will grow when every other crop has died for lack of water. Now, these crops do have drawbacks. Some don't yield much food. Fowler thinks plant breeders could solve those problems, but few have even tried. Those traditional crops didn't seem important enough.

FOWLER: Most of these crops have never had a single scientifically trained plant breeder working on them, so how could we hope to have realized their potential?

CHARLES: They've received so little attention they're sometimes called orphan crops. Enoch Achigan-Dako, a plant breeder in Benin in West Africa, says he'd love to focus on them.

ENOCH ACHIGAN-DAKO: All my life, I work on orphan crops. I like them, but there were no resources associated to promoting those crops.

CHARLES: There was a lot more money available to work on the big crops, he says, like corn or wheat, and as a result, those big crops kept getting bigger. Plant breeders made them more productive, more profitable to grow, cheaper in the marketplace, which is a good thing, but it's become too much of a good thing. Purnima Menon is senior director of food and nutrition policy at the International Food Policy Research Institute. She says problem number one is those big crops by themselves make for a poor diet.

PURNIMA MENON: If you look across the world, and especially if you look at poor countries, what's on people's plates isn't getting us anywhere close to the diverse diets that we want to see on people's plates.

CHARLES: Problem number two is the global climate is changing fast, and relying on the same handful of crops everywhere is like putting a lot of eggs into one basket. Climate models are showing, for instance, it could get harder to grow corn in large parts of Africa. So this was the big project on Cary Fowler's mind. Two years ago, he came out of retirement, became the State Department's special envoy for global food security, and he's launched an initiative to promote foods like the grass pea or lablab, also amaranth, African eggplant. The U.S. has committed $100 million to this effort. Other countries, the U.N. and the African Union are also backing it. They've created a list of 20 what they call opportunity crops that promise to deliver better nutrition and also survive a warming climate. The plan is plant breeders in Africa will get more support to create new, productive varieties. Purnima Menon, who lives in India, says it will take a while.

MENON: The one thing I can tell you is that that pathway is very long. It's not a simple and straightforward pathway from what's grown to what gets onto people's plates.

CHARLES: It's an ambitious plan, she says. It'll be fascinating to see how it unfolds.

For NPR News, I'm Dan Charles.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Dan Charles is NPR's food and agriculture correspondent.