Potatoes may seem fairly humble, but there are more than 4,500 species of potato in the world. Likewise, there are at least 1,000 pepper plant varieties, 7,500 tomato species, and 7,500 known apple varieties worldwide.
However, the incredible variety of the planet’s plant life is disappearing. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that approximately 75 percent of the Earth’s plant genetic resources are now extinct. Another third of plant biodiversity is expected to disappear by 2050. This is no small problem--humans eat biological diversity.
Unfortunately, most investment in agriculture is for crops such as wheat, rice, and maize, rather than more nutritious foods--and this focus has had devastating consequences. Global obesity rates have doubled over the last 30 years, increasing the risk of diet-related illnesses including diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease in industrialized and developing countries alike.
But many indigenous crops can be environmentally sustainable, improve food security, help prevent malnutrition, and increase incomes.
"I don't believe we can address the issues of nutrition security, poverty, and health in Kenya without relying on African indigenous crops. With a soaring food crisis, and maize harvests predicted to be 16 percent below former years as a result of changing Kenyan weather patterns, the only grains that could adequately replace maize in my opinion would be indigenous millets and sorghum, which are more drought tolerant," said Mary Abukutsa-Onyango horticultural scientist, teacher, and researcher at Nairobi's Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology.
Enset is one crop that has multiple benefits. Also known as the false banana, enset is a staple crop common to Southern Ethiopia and traditionally harvested by women. Enset requires few inputs and, in addition to food, it's used for clothing, shelter, and medicinal purposes.
“[Enset] helps to feed approximately ten million people in Ethiopia and Eritrea,” writes Peter Schmidt, Director of Sub-Saharan Africa Program of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).
And like enset, there are thousands of other indigenous crops you may not know exist. Here are fifteen indigenous vegetables, which are nutritious, delicious, and contribute to the livelihoods of people around the globe.
1. Amaranth: This versatile plant, which grows quickly in the humid lowlands of Africa, is a leafy vegetable typically consumed in Togo, Liberia, Guinea, Benin, and Sierra Leone. The plant thrives in hot weather and is an excellent source of protein, vitamins, and essential minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, and zinc.
2. Bunya Nut: Bunya nuts have long been a prominent food in the culture of Australian Aboriginals - so much so that, prior to European settlement, Aboriginal tribes would travel long distances to attend festivals celebrating the Bunya season. The Bunya nut is similar to the chestnut, both in appearance and taste. The nuts grow on enormous Bunya pines in the few rainforest regions on the continent.
3. Cowpea: Originating in Central Africa, this legume is one of the region’s oldest crops. It is also drought resistant and can thrive in poor soil conditions. In addition to the peas, the leaves of the plant are also consumed.
4. Enset: Also known as the false banana, enset is native to tropical regions of Africa. The plant’s outward appearance resembles that of a banana tree, but the two actually are very different. Fruit of the enset tree is inedible, so the plant is primarily grown for the meat inside its trunk and roots. The pulp inside the tree is similar in both taste and appearance to a potato. Enset has been a staple crop in Ethiopia for thousands of years.
5. Filder Pointed Cabbage: The cruciferous vegetable provides a rich source of beta-carotene, vitamins C and K, and fiber, and it serves as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Cabbage can be stored cold for months at a time and is eaten in the dead of winter when other vegetables are dormant.
6. Formby Asparagus: Formby asparagus is notable for its coloration: white base, green stem, and purple-tinged tip. The vegetable is rich in protein, fiber, vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium, and zinc. It aids in protein synthesis, reduces calcium loss, and has antioxidant properties.
7. Hinkelhatz Pepper: The Hinkelhatz pepper has been cultivated by the Pennsylvania Dutch since the 1880s. The plant produces small, heart-shaped peppers with a red or yellow color. Hinkelhatz peppers have a stocky, spicy flavor, so they are frequently pickled or pureed into a pepper vinegar used as a food topping. The pepper is important because it is cold-tolerant, pest and disease-resistant, and a prolific producer.
8. Kumara: Also known as the sweet potato, kumara is cultivated in many Pacific Islands and was a staple crop for hundreds of years. The vegetable is a great source of protein, vitamins A and C, iron, calcium, and fiber.
9. Lifou Island Yam: This starchy tuber plays an important role in both nutrition and food security in many Pacific Island nations. The vegetable is also very versatile--it can be roasted, fried, grilled, boiled, smoked, or grated. Yams are important because they can be stored for long period of time, and the vegetable has a social and cultural significance on many islands.
10. Målselvnepe Turnip: This hardy, root vegetable variety has been improved over the years through selective cultivation in Norway. It has a strong and distinct taste compared to other turnip varieties. It can be eaten raw, roasted, baked, and boiled, and is frequently used to enhance the flavor of soups, salads, and side dishes. The turnip is an excellent source of vitamin C and potassium.
11. Mungbean: The mungbean is important in Asian diets and valuable for its easily digestible protein. High levels of iron in the vegetable can help improve the diets of the most vulnerable women and children, and mungbean production offers an opportunity for increased income for small-scale farmers. In addition, the vegetable can fix nitrogen in the soil, making it valuable for crop rotations.
12. Okra: The edible green seed pods of this plant are a common ingredient in soups and sauces and popular in Indian and Pakistani cuisine. Okra is also an important export crop in The Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam. The vegetable is a rich source of vitamins and minerals and the seeds provide quality oil and protein.
13. Papalo: This popular herb, known for its strong skunk-like smell, is used in the American Southwest, Mexico, and South America. Papalo, typically eaten as a garnish, is valued for its medicinal properties, including regulating blood pressure, relieving stomach disorders, and addressing liver problems. This unique herb has a hardiness to heat, allowing it flourish in hot climates.
14. Perinaldo Artichokes: This popular thistle vegetable, valued for its tasty center, is native to the Mediterranean region and originally cultivated in ancient Greece. The edible flower bud is a good source of fiber, vitamin C, folic acid, and various minerals. This variety of artichoke is drought resistant and very hardy.
15. Rourou (Taro Leaves): In a number of Pacific Island countries, including Fiji, taro leaves are eaten and used in various cooking techniques. The leaves provide an excellent source of vitamins A and C. The leaves also have a social importance in ceremonial feasts and are a good local cash crop. In addition, the corms of the giant swamp taro plant have the potential to help feed a large number of Pacific Island countries.