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Neglected and underutilized species

Contact person for Neglected and underutilized species: Michael Hermann, Crops for the Future, Malaysia

Neglected and underutilized species are often considered “minor crops” because they are less important than staple crops and agricultural commodities in terms of global production and market value. However, from the standpoint of the rural poor who depend on many of these species for their food security, nutrition and incomes, they are hardly “minor”. In addition, these so called “minor crops” can also make significant contributions to ecosystem stability and cultural diversity.
There is need to strengthen the capacity of stakeholders to maintain and enhance the biological assets of the rural poor by enhancing and developing a broader range of species adapted to diverse environments. These species can ultimately provide new opportunities for better nutrition and income generation.

Taking into account that resources are limited, it is important to compile, analyse and promote the development of priority–setting approaches at the local, national and international levels for management of these under-researched species. This would greatly aid stakeholders to establish priorities for research, development and conservation actions on neglected and underutilized species. For such a broad spectrum of species, different stakeholders are involved at various points in production, processing, marketing and consumption; therefore, mechanisms for priority setting need to capture the diversity of interests, opportunities and potentialities at different levels.

Research priority setting methods usually have an economic or social focus. Particular weight is given to social participatory methods due to the value attributed to underutilized species by the rural poor. Despite the currently more favorable climate for conducting research on underutilized species, there remains a disproportionate gap between research funding needs and successful resource mobilization (Withers 2005). Nevertheless, if the vision is set on integrated research for development, alliances with different organizations and institutions outside the specific area of biodiversity, agriculture and research should be fostered. This will enable different actors to contribute to the solution of different problems of target groups and in turn will represent more efficient results in terms of the livelihoods of producers, communities and target organizations.

To enhance relevance of NUS research for communities, three basic issues should be considered:

  • Strengthen and promote local organizations or groups to be committed with research initiatives. Communities must feel they own the initiative and this will only happen when they are part of the whole process, from the formation of the main idea to the planning and execution of the process itself.
  • Develop flexible projects and proposals that can be adjusted progressively according to their evolution. Many times projects are developed with specific objectives, outputs and deliverables over a period of time and this will in some ways restrict changes. A certain level of flexibility will allow communities and organizations to have a say and adjust proposals, ensuring that the results achieved are not only of scientific relevance but over all are relevant for end users.
  • Foster interaction with diverse institutions and organizations at local, regional and national levels. Many times when communities are setting priorities for research and development, we will see that the constraints usually go beyond our specific lines of work. There are times when constraints in infrastructure, services, health and other issues can be so strong that they will limit the contribution that can be made by research in agriculture. This is why fostering interactions with other institutions of diverse nature and scope becomes vital. Integrating the agricultural research agenda on NUS with other agendas such as education, health, services and others will not only increase relevance of research, but it will also increase chances of achieving higher impact towards improving the livelihoods of the poor.

Some options for setting priorities for future engagement have been developed through a consultative process with genebanks managing these collections. Key research areas for future work were identified as: genetic characterization of promising new species; on-farm and in situ conservation of underutilized species; characterization of genetic variability to assess habitat change due to human-induced variables; the potential of underutilized species to enhance resilience; invasive species; nutrition research; intellectual property rights; trade related issues; use of biotechnology methods.

A review and analysis of the research and development activities involving underutilized plant species was carried out by
the CGIAR Centres.

Adoption of the strategies and priority-setting mechanisms proposed in these documents should ensure that research and management of these important but underutilized crop genetic resources meets the real needs of communities, and that selection of subjects for research will serve as models for wider application for other underutilized species of the same type (vegetables, fruits, grains).

References and further reading

Withers L. 2005. Strategic approaches for funding work on underutilized Species. The Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilized Species, Rome, Italy. Available from: http://www.underutilized-species.org/documents/PUBLICATIONS/underutilized_species_funding%20strategy.pdf. Date accessed: 06 December 2010.

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