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Vietmeyer, N. 1996. New crops: Solutions for global problems. p. 2-8. In: J. Janick (ed.), Progress in new crops. ASHS Press, Alexandria, VA.

New Crops: Solutions for Global Problems

Noel Vietmeyer

    1. Peachpalm
    2. Vetiver
    3. Mangium
    4. Velvet Bean
    5. Vetch
    6. Tropical Fruits
    7. Moringa
    8. Lost Crops of Africa
    9. Quality-Protein Maize
    10. Malted Barley
    11. Aquatic Plants
    12. Plants for Absorbing Carbon Dioxide
    13. Crops for Political Stability

During the period most of us were growing up, the greatest threat to mother earth was a nuclear holocaust. Thankfully humanity seems to have put that terrifying period behind. Now the greatest threats facing our planet are what are generally called the global problems: hunger, malnutrition, deforestation, desertification, soil erosion, the loss of soil fertility, and several others. The vital question today is: can we also put those behind? Presently most people are pessimistic. Indeed there is a widespread belief that the global problems are intractable, or at least so demanding of research that it will be next century before solutions come clear. However I do not believe that, and the reason for my optimism lies in the whole subject of new crops and in the skills of people you might call "new-croppers." Here's my thinking.

The so-called global problems are certainly global in their impact, but hunger, malnutrition, deforestation, desertification, and the rest originate mainly in the hot zone. For convenience I'll call that zone "the tropics," but I'm using the terminology to mean the region between the tropics of Capricorn and Cancer, and I'm including the arid lands as well as the humid ones. In all the debate over global problems, the point being missed is that the tropics happen to be the location of the planet's greatest collection of biodiversity. It is in Africa, Asia, and Latin America where the most species are to be found. Thus there is a convergence between problems and plants; the greatest global hazards originating in the region where is found the greatest array of botanical wealth.

To better understand what I'm driving at, consider the following. In Africa, where the hunger problem is concentrated, there are actually 2,000 species of native food plants. Both there and in the rest of the tropics, the region where malnutrition is severest, can be found 3,000 different fruits as well as over 1,000 vegetables. In the lands where deforestation is so destructive are to be found over 20,000 trees, some of them extremely fast growing. In the desertifying regions can be found many useful drought-tolerant plants--I don't know how many, but it runs into the hundreds. And as far as soil degradation is concerned, the legume family (Fabaceae, Mimosaceae, and Caesalpiniaceae) has 18,000 species, most of which are the nitrogen fixers nature uses as botanical shock troops to achieve a bridgehead on worn-out soils. Many of these 18,000 legumes--collectively comprising the plant kingdom's third largest family--are native to the tropics and adapted to the lands that are wearing out.

Despite the existence of all this herbaceous heritage, hardly any tropical plant is being employed to full advantage to relieve the pervasive problems. Of Africa's 2,000 food plants, only sorghum gets major research, and then mainly to improve its ability to feed cattle in our part of the world. Of the 3,000 fruits, onlybanana andpineapple get solid global support, and again much of the effort is aimed at helping the rich rather than the needy. Of the 20,000 tropical trees, only a handful are undergoing global advancement, and financial support for even those few is hardly stellar. (Included in the few partially supported species areleucaena, mangium, calliandra, and neem, which my little program helped lift out of obscurity during the last 20 years.)

That the bulk of useful tropical biodiversity is underexploited is one of the glaring oversights of this era. The creation of more crops and the support for new-croppers is of global importance. Specialists who can sort through underexploited plants and locate the few, the very few, that can become new tools for use against the earth's main long-term problems are among the most valuable of all scientists.

New-croppers may carry out their sorting processes in various ways. Books of the type Mark Dafforn and I have been producing in our National Research Council program exemplify one way. Some of you probably don't know these books, but residents of developing countries know them. Over the years we have produced about 40 titles and distributed more than 700,000 copies to Africa, Asia, and Latin America, mostly without charge.

Our publications have covered such things as new crops for food, industrial materials, firewood, forage, timber, and environmental protection. In each, we integrate the wisdom and experience of hundreds of specialists and build the case for the crop with a lively text supported by instructive pictures and intriguing sidebars. The goal is to create a combination that not only convinces and educates readers of various levels of sophistication and interest, but motivates them to act. Put another way, we describe promising new crops in a balanced but bold manner that stimulates people and governments to undertake their own initiatives. The process works: individuals from many walks of life have seized upon these plants and carried them forward. Even at this conference you can glimpse the results. We helped in the early initiation phases of guayule, jojoba, the "lost" crops of the Americas, prosopis, amaranth, quinoa, yacon, leucaena, and others you are going to hear about in the next few days. However it is in countries of the tropics that we've had our greatest impacts. Two prime examples are vetiver and mangium.

The King of Thailand has become perhaps the greatest supporter of vetiver, the species described in our 1993 book, Vetiver Grass: A Thin Green Line Against Erosion. In Thailand the agriculture department, forests department, roads department, and border police are all propagating and planting this formerly obscure grass whose hedges are so dense they block the passage of soil. Also dozens of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) throughout the tropics are adopting vetiver, and a network of researchers and a home page on the Internet have sprung up. In fact, vetiver is now working as an erosion barrier in 106 countries. Starting in 1979 we helped bring international recognition to the Australian rainforest tree Acacia mangium, known as mangium. At that time this fast-growing legume's potential was known to only a handful of foresters in Borneo. Today this tree has risen to become one of the top four reforestation species in Asia. The Indonesian government, alone, is relying on it to reforest 4.4 million ha.

Despite such gratifying results, our activity is now essentially dead. In 1993 the prime sponsor--the Global Bureau of the Agency for International Development--refused to keep funding the program. Subsequent years of dedicated effort have failed to produce any substitute funding source adequate to the task of keeping it alive. This is sad because the hot zone has not only plants and problems, it has people with a hunger for knowledge and an eagerness to put new crops to work. Give them information about a nutritious fruit or fast-growing tree and--especially if the information is presented in a bright and motivational way with names and addresses of contacts for seeds or local advice--they will adopt it with a zest amounting almost to reverence. Each day requests from such people pour into my office from around the Third World. Most of the writers currently want Neem; A Tree for Solving Global Problems. In the last three years I've sent out more than 30,000 copies of that book along with almost 40,000 copies of the vetiver counterpart, which is one reason why neem has become tropical forestry's hottest tree and vetiver is being employed in 106 countries.


There's no shortage of new topics still to take up. Indeed our files are bulging with ideas on plants that seem to have as much promise as any we've ever publicized before. If I can get the project funded again, which I'm hopeful of still accomplishing, we will bring world recognition to potential new crops such as the following.


This little-known Central American palm (Guilielma gasipaes, Arecaceae) produces fruits that look like tiny American footballs. Boiled, they have the texture of new potatoes and the taste of chestnuts. Of all foods, they are perhaps the most balanced for human nutrition. Having just the right proportions of carbohydrate, protein, fat, vitamins, and minerals they theoretically need no supplement. A few special types contain an oil very rich in vitamin A, a deficiency of which blinds about a million children each year. As a plantation crop, peachpalm is said to be capable of providing more protein and more carbohydrate per hectare than corn.


Beyond stopping soil erosion, this grass (Vetiveria zizanioides, Poaceae) has vital uses for which it is not yet being employed. For one thing, vetiver hedges block the rushing runoff from tropical storms, and thereby help water sink in where it fell on the slopes. In the right locations vetiver hedges can be operating literally a few weeks after planting, so the plant offers the promise of "instant" working watersheds that improve year-round water availability as well as perhaps mitigate disastrous floods and mudslides. Also vetiver is a potential tool for renovating polluted sites because it can survive in, and perhaps "mine," soils contaminated with heavy metals, alkali as well as some salt. Tolerant of soluble aluminum and severe acidity (almost to pH 3), it thrives in the so-called "laterite," the red, infertile, aluminum-rich, and very acid soil that keeps much of the tropics a wasteland. Vetiver, then, is potentially a tool for bringing millions of abandoned hectares back into some form of productive use while greatly benefiting the tropical environment.


Mangium is also worth revisiting because of its newly emerging global potentials. For example, Indonesia plants this tree on such a giant scale because its foresters have found that, given a little help, mangium out-competes the vigorous and tenacious imperata grass, the curse of the tropical landscape. Further, under the protective canopy of this nitrogen-fixing leguminous (Mimosaceae) tree an understory of shade-loving native species often springs up vigorously. Thus, mangium could become a major weapon for healing damaged tropical forests, reversing the loss of forest biodiversity and providing fuelwood, cash from lumber sales, and improved soil all in one.

Velvet Bean

In Central America the velvet bean (Mucuna deeringiana, Fabaceae) is creating a lot of enthusiasm among farmers and environmentalists. This weed-smothering, nitrogen-fixing herbaceous legume protects the land and helps crops yield well with few inputs. It seems likely to prove broadly applicable throughout the tropics, and may well provide a way to retain and even restore fertility on vast acreages of degraded farmland. In addition, several dozen legume genera--including Mucuna, Pueraria, Lotus, Lotononis, and Vicia--offer the likelihood of finding equally successful groundcovers, including some for restoring various extreme soils and seemingly impossible tropical sites.


An innovative U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher at Beltsville, Maryland has already turned one groundcover species to such good use that he produces record yields of vegetables on land once so worn-out it was considered the worst on his experiment station. Among his several innovations, Aref Abdul-Baki uses hairy vetch (Vicia villosa, Fabaceae) as a winter mulch and a powerful flail mower instead of a plow. In the fall season he mows the remains of his tomatoes, beans, melons or corn and into the resultant "mash" of chopped residues he plants vetch seeds. The resulting vetch crop covers the land during the winter season, rebuilding fertility and tilth as it suppresses weeds and protects against erosion. In the spring season, Abdel-Baki mows the vetch and immediately plants vegetable seedlings into the new "mash" of chopped up plants. The thick pad of rotting vetch remains covering the soil through the vegetable-growing season, suppressing weeds, insulating the roots from the sun's heat and slowly releasing nutrients to the crop. In this way, Abdul-Baki needs little or no fertilizer or pesticide and (because the land is never exposed) experiences neither weed problems nor erosion. Thus high yields are achieved at little cost. In 1995, he achieved three times the commercial yield of tomatoes at less than one-tenth the cost (much of the savings coming because he needed none of the plastic film commercial tomato growers use as mulch). Through normal channels this knowledge can reach American vegetable growers, but my kind of activity could project it worldwide to probable great effect.

Tropical Fruits

We all know the kind of tropical fruits hotels serve in places such as Bangkok or Singapore--gorgeous sweet things with lively flavors. However, tropical fruits are much more than that--they are among the most diverse and amazing of foodstuffs. In the region where children are dying or losing their sight for lack of nutrients there are fruits surprisingly rich in vitamin A as well as others with many times the level of vitamin C of an orange. Certain tropical fruits aren't at all sweet. These can be thought of as "staple fruits," more like potato than peach, and they include breadfruit, jakfruit, and the above mentioned peachpalm. Tree species like these have a special importance because they offer not only food but reforestation, shade, shelter and the many other benefits of a permanent tree cover in the tropics.


This extremely fast growing woody species (Moringa oleifera, Moringaceae) doesn't look like much, but it could open up a new category of crops: "vegetable trees." Moringa produces long pods with the appearance of giant green beans and the taste of asparagus. It also produces masses of very small leaflets that are boiled and eaten like spinach. Being so small, the leaflets sun dry in just a few hours and can then be put in a jar and stored for the off-season, a time when dietary minerals and vitamins are often scarce. In addition to providing these natural supplements, the moringa tree yields seeds that clarify turbid water. Compounds in its seeds make traces of silt and clay settle out as effectively as the alum our water departments use. In the rural tropics, moringa seeds could be employed to make water safer for drinking and cooking. Taken all round, this species could be a powerful new weapon against two great scourges, malnutrition and water-borne disease.

Lost Crops of Africa

Obviously, something must be done about all the neglected crops of Africa. Early in 1996 we at the NRC will publish a 400 page book showcasing the promising native cereals. Then we'd like to compile a volume dealing with the several dozen highly promising African fruits. Later, we hope to complete a volume covering the equal number of promising native vegetables. For all those forgotten African food plants there is presently no readily available promotional materials, let alone guides to such things as nutritional content, soil and climatic limits, varieties that yield the most nutritious parts, or the best ways to prevent pests. Given a little attention, however, these plants are potential wonder weapons against hunger. This is particularly because they are adapted to the challenging conditions and to the needs of Africans.

Quality-Protein Maize

The protein of this new and high-yielding form of maize has a nutritional quality almost the equal of milk protein. A little-known program directed by Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug and former President Jimmy Carter is having success with QPM on a considerable scale in Ghana. Moreover the crop has caught on in Brazil, where 100,000 hectares are now grown annually. But impressive as all that is, the super-nutritious corn represents a negligible proportion of the world's third largest staple. A new NRC book could help take it to a new level of use and acceptance worldwide. The result might be millions of hogs and chickens raised more efficiently and malnutrition becoming much easier to stamp out in Africa and Latin America, where corn is the main sustenance for millions of the poor. Indeed, the influence could be so far reaching that I hazard a guess that within our lifetime all corn--even that in Iowa--would be switched to the quality-protein type.

Malted Barley

I've found that a surprising change occurs when you stir a little malted barley into any hot boiled staple: the whole mess of porridge, pabulum, mash, or mush turns as liquid as water, and almost instantly. In seconds anyone can produce liquid rice, liquid potato, liquid corn, and so forth. There's nothing magical about the process; malted barley is rich in amylase enzymes that digest starch. It comes in an inexpensive, food-grade flour for use in malted milkshakes, pizza crusts, and baked goods of a hundred and one kinds. (The sample I use was actually made for Grape-Nuts cereal.) Such a readily available and wholesome liquefier could be a major answer to malnutrition. Almost everywhere mothers have starchy staples; it is fluid food for their babies that they lack. Malted-barley, used as a catalyst, would allow millions who cannot obtain cow's milk or baby formula to transform part of their staples into palatable, safe, nutrient-dense liquids their babies can sip from a cup or suck from a bottle at weaning time.

Aquatic Plants

Here in the United States we treat our wastewaters in steel and concrete facilities; everything is monitored and measured, and the whole process is wonderfully successful. But in the developing world things are different. Poor countries can afford neither the equipment, the supplies nor the electricity, not to mention the maintenance. Therefore, most human waste in the tropics is just released onto the land or into the waterways. But the ingredients in human waste are the foods for plants. A crop of aquatic plants absorbs those nutrients while also providing the root and stem surfaces where bacteria and viruses--including those that cause cholera, hepatitis, typhoid, dysentery, and diarrhea--are destroyed by natural oxygenation or physical detention. Already several dozen small towns in the United States clean their wastewaters by trickling them through small marshes filled with bulrushes, reeds, duckweed, or other aquatic species. The time has come to adapt this technique for rendering wastewaters safe in the tropics. There is an especial need to include plants that both thrive in wastewaters and produce things useful to the poor, such as firewood, thatch, and handicraft materials. Possibilities abound.

Plants for Absorbing Carbon Dioxide

I don't know if the world is getting warmer, if the seas are rising or if the weather is getting more violent, but I do know that the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is rising. Accordingly, it seems prudent that nations do whatever is practicable to reduce that increase. Of course they can cut their carbon dioxide emissions, which is going to be especially painful for industrialized and highly motorized countries like ours. But we new-croppers should also be highlighting species for absorbing the surpluses. The best are likely to be species for growing in the tropics, where temperatures remain high and plants absorb carbon dioxide year round. Choices can be made from the 20,000 trees I mentioned earlier, some of which are legumes that could turn the vast barren lands into massive sinks for greenhouse gas.

Making a noticeable change in the atmospheric imbalance is no pipe dream. Indonesia's mangium plantings involve some 5 billion trees, and (given the fact that mangium can grow 3 m in a year) each tree absorbs perhaps 20 kg of carbon dioxide annually. Back-of-the-envelope calculations suggest that Indonesia's mangiums will absorb about 2% of the surplus carbon dioxide that United States emits. Even if I'm wrong in the calculations (a likelihood verging on certainty), the amount of greenhouse gas removed will be substantial. Moreover, there's every reason to expect Indonesia's experience can be replicated many fold elsewhere.

Around this theme of using new crops to rebalance the atmosphere are numerous possible elaborations. For one thing, the process doesn't require trees at all. In fact, the growing roots of perennial grasses and other herbaceous species can sequester carbon dioxide underground. Thailand's anticipated billions of vetiver plants--a single experiment station near Chiang Rai expects by the year 2001 to have propagated 1.5 billion--will alone make a substantial contribution because the massive network of roots descend vertically 5 m and more. Using vetiver for all its above-ground benefits--erosion control, watershed restoration, pollution mining and the rest--might provide a great means for squirreling atmospheric carbon dioxide underground as an environmental by-product.

Support for such plantings might come from unexpected sources. For instance, the power company here in Indianapolis might sponsor the planting of millions of trees in, let's say, Belize or Burundi or Bangladesh. It could then boast of being innocent of contributing to global warming. Such efforts would also help reforest the tropics and provide shade and shelter for the world's most beleaguered peoples. Moreover, anyone who planted tropical food trees for carbon-dioxide sequestration would be helping feed the hungry while ensuring that the trees would not be cut down willy nilly the next time someone lazy needs a little firewood.

Crops for Political Stability

Certain new-crop introductions have been more influential on history than the politicians of the time (witness the development of soybean during the Harding and Coolidge era), and several geopolitically hot spots now need new crops more than they need new politics. These particular hot spots are concentrated in the semiarid lands where populations are increasing and arable soils are decreasing. Social tensions among already restive populations are being thereby exacerbated.

One such area is North Africa, a vast and desertifying area whose social collapse could take us from the Cold War to something like a reprise of the Crusades. One (hopefully fanciful) scenario involves Western troops facing hordes of villagers-turned-fanatics marching out of places such as Algeria and Libya and heading toward Israel, Mecca, and the world's main oil spigots around the Gulf. Of course things are unlikely to ever get that bad, but it seems to me new-croppers everywhere should be urgently funded to work on crops to stabilize North Africa's desertifying regions. Possible target species include jojoba, several species of prosopis, spineless cactus, tagasaste (a leguminous shrub from the Canary Islands), neem, leucaena, vetch, and jatropha (a plant that thrives in degraded lands and produces an oil that can be used for running diesel engines). These and other extremely drought-tolerant species can provide income, forage, and food as well as better living conditions and improved rural environments. Most of all, by bringing hope to the masses these new crops can help retain social stability, perhaps making one of the greatest contributions to long-term peace.

The other geopolitically vital desertifying area is South Africa. Here, too, the situation is both fragile and fraught with potential mass disillusionment and possible major disaster. The world is lucky to have Nelson Mandela, but he is not a young man and new-croppers should be helping him get South Africa quickly on its feet. Again the areas of greatest impoverishment are arid. New drought-tolerant plants (many of them the same as just listed) could turn out to be more significant than any of the diplomatic and political initiatives under consideration.


Although I could describe other plants with globally significant potentials, I hope these few examples give a sense of the immensely important possibilities. The truth is that waiting among the unused tropical biodiversity is a cornucopia of powerful living tools. New-croppers could and should be raising them up and getting them into everyday use.

To best accomplish this and to most efficiently capture the power inherent in such species, we really need a new branch of science. You might call it "Applied Biodiversity," the science for applying the full spectrum of natural-resources to the world's (not to mention the nation's) problems. That new discipline would be more vital in a practical sense than applied physics or applied mathematics. Indeed, applied biodiversity could be the most valuable of all the sciences. Yet it doesn't exist.

In theory, building this new frontier of science shouldn't be difficult. The biodiversity is there, the need is there, the latent interest is there, and only modest financial support is required. But it will indeed be difficult because the barrier is one of the mind. Currently, conventional crops dominate the priorities of all decisionmakers and institutions. This is understandable, however the present attitudes are skewed so steadfastly against creating new funding initiatives that grand opportunities for progress are being lost.

The species and situations I've mentioned above exemplify what might be achieved for mother earth. But no matter how important such topics could be, no part of government seems capable of supporting efforts to check them out; not the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Agency for International Development, the Department of Energy, nor the Environmental Protection Agency. And in my experience, most foundations are just as resistant to the possibilities of applying biodiversity against the global problems.

It's up to us to change this. We must find ways to get the new-croppers' knowledge of plants and techniques of crop assessment into global play. In other words, the knowledge, visions, insights, spirit of endeavor, and capabilities represented at this conference is of historical significance. To my way of thinking, new-croppers are among the most needed people on earth. With our special skills we can provide the tools for solving the problems that threaten today's future the way the nuclear holocaust did during that agonizing period when most of us were growing up.


More Water for Arid Lands. 1974. 149 p.

Underexploited Tropical Plants with Promising Economic Value. 1975. 184 p.

Making Aquatic Weeds Useful. 1976. 169 p.

Guayule: An Alternative Source of Natural Rubber. 1977. 77 p.

Tropical Legumes. 1979. 326 p.

Firewood Crops: Shrub and Tree Species for Energy Production. 1980. 236 p.

Water Buffalo: New Prospects for an Underutilized Animal. 1981. 111 p.

The Winged Bean: A High-Protein Crop for the Humid Tropics. 1981. 41 p.

Producer Gas: Another Fuel for Motor Transport. 1983. 95 p.

Mangium and Other Fast-Growing Acacias. 1983. 56 p.

Calliandra: A Versatile Tree for the Humid Tropics. 1983. 45 p.

Butterfly Farming in Papua New Guinea. 1983. 33 p.

Crocodiles as a Resource for the Tropics. 1983. 52 p.

Little-Known Asian Animals With Promising Economic Future. 1983. 125 p.

Firewood Crops: Shrub and Tree Species for Energy Production, Volume 2. 1983. 103 p.

Casuarinas: Nitrogen-Fixing Trees for Adverse Sites. 1984. 112 p.

Amaranth: Modern Prospects for an Ancient Crop. 1984. 74 p.

Leucaena: Promising Forage and Tree Crop (Second edition, 1984. 93 p.

Jojoba: A New Crop for Arid Lands. 1985. 100 p.

Quality-Protein Maize. 1988. 100 p.

Triticale: A Promising Addition to the World's Cereal Grains. 1989. 103 p.

Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation. 1989. 415 p.

Microlivestock: Little-Known Small Animals with a Promising Economic Future. 1991. 450 p.

Neem: A Tree for Solving Global Problems. 1992. 149 p.

Vetiver: A Thin Green Line Against Erosion. 1993. 185 p.

Lost Crops of Africa: Volume 1--Grains. 1996. 383 p.

Lost Crops of Africa: Volume 2--Fruits. (In preparation).

Lost Crops of Africa: Volume 3--Vegetables. (In preparation).

Underexploited Tropical Fruits with Promising Economic Value. (In preparation).

Tropical Fruits for Solving Global Problems. (In preparation).

Last update May 23, 1997 aw