Five 'super' crops that can change the world

Written by Mathilde Zins

On International Day for Biological Diversity, IFAD calls attention to five super crops that have strong nutritional properties and the ability to withstand climate change.

20 May 2016 - Did you know that only 20 crop species provide for 90 per cent of the world's food requirements? And that wheat, maize, and rice account for 60 per cent of the world's diet?
Research shows that throughout history there have been around 30,000 edible plants, out of which only 7,000 have been cultivated or collected as food.

Why is this so important?

Biodiversity is the foundation for life and essential for ecosystems. Having a diverse range of crops to plant is crucial for smallholder farmers and rural communities to improve their harvest yields, fight against malnutrition and adapt to climate change.

A rich biodiversity can also help rural people improve their livelihoods, which is the theme of this year's International Day, celebrated annually on 22 May.

In honour of the day, IFAD is putting the spotlight on five ancient and forgotten crops, showing the great potential they hold for smallholder farmers in providing improved nutrition, income and helping to adapt to climate change.

Here are some interesting facts about five 'super' crops that may surprise you.


Super power: Tolerates drought and poor soil conditions better than most other food plants
Cassava is an essential source of food and income in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. 

About 600 million people depend on the plant for their survival, deriving calories and income from the roots and leaves. Once known as 'poor man's food,' cassava has shown great potential for reducing poverty and building the economy.

One of cassava's main 'super powers' is that it is climate-tolerant and can grow in harsh conditions, poor soil fertility and areas with low rainfall. 

It is also a nutritious crop. The root is a carbohydrate source, rich in calcium and vitamin C. And, it provides protein which contains essential amino acids. 

There is a lot of potential for many African economies hidden in this starchy tuber. Its root starch can be used in food products, textiles, plywood or paper, while the plant is also a feedstock for the production of ethanol biofuel. 

In Ghana, an IFAD-supported programme set out to raise the income of 760,000 cassava farmers by increasing yields and connecting them to markets. Improved varieties of cassava is also making a difference for farmers in the country.  

"The cassava has improved my life as a farmer, we need more research so that we can spread the program to other farmers," said Christopher Boadu, a small farmer who was given a high-yielding variety of cassava.

Want to try cassava at home? Here is a recipe for cassava bread with coconut and anise seeds


Super power: Have up to 30 times more calcium than rice and much higher levels of micro-nutrients.

Millets are a powerful grain, with up to 30 times more calcium than rice and much higher levels of micro-nutrients. A low water-consuming crop, they are also resilient to a changing climate. 

As regions around the world are facing drought, millets can be a good ally to increase food security. Moreover, millets are not dependant on the use of synthetic fertilizers, so millet farmers can use farmyard manures which are a boon to the agricultural environment.

Minor millets used to be a staple food in India, but in the last five decades almost half of their cultivation has been replaced with more lucrative cash crops and government subsidized rice, resulting in a major change in people's diets.  

IFAD is working with the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation to get minor millets back on the menu. The project worked with women's groups to farm up to six different varieties of millet on their small farms, use machinery to remove the grains’ tough outer shell, and put 11 organic products on market shelves across India.

Learn eight interesting ways to cook with millets.


Super power: Reduces cholesterol and can protect cells from cancer.

Once a sacred grain for the Aztecs, amaranth and its incredible nutritional properties have long been forgotten in Mexico. 

Amaranth reduces cholesterol and can protect cells from cancer. It has all the amino acids, it's a complete protein that can substitute milk and meat, the leaf is full of calcium, it's gluten-free, and a natural anti-depressive. 

Mary Delano Frier, biotechnical engineer, founder and Director-General of México Tierra de Amaranto, recently made the case for amaranth in her IFAD AgTalk showing that reawakening the ancient crop's importance in local food cultures could go a long way to reducing childhood malnutrition. 

"With only 20 grams of amaranth a day we can assure the full development of a child's brain," said Delano Frier. "For the rural communities, amaranth is the strategic grain that can help us improve nutrition, health and living condition," she concluded. 


Super power: Grows in a wide range of soil and climatic conditions, and can thrive in arid areas.

Sorghum is an incredible crop that has plenty of properties that can help improve the lives of small farmers. Sorghum is highly drought-resistant, can grow in dry climates, and requires less water than wheat.

Sorghum's health benefits are also immense. Sorghum includes more antioxidants then blueberries, high protein and fibre, and no gluten - which makes it a perfect dietary grain for those with celiac disease.

IFAD is supporting a number of projects that are reintroducing sorghum to rural communities. For farmers in eastern Kenya, for example, the dry season is getting longer. Climate change has become a daily challenge -  rivers are drying up and farmers are struggling to get access to water. With less rain, three out of the last four maize harvests had failed. Then farmers from a local cooperative heard that sorghum did better than maize in dry conditions. They decided to try it out. 

The farmer cooperative received quality sorghum seeds and training through an IFAD-supported project. The results were immediate. As one farmer put it:

''Sorghum has changed my life. I can use it to make nutritious food and feed my animals so meat and eggs are no longer a problem. I can afford to pay the school fees as well.'' 


Super power: Has the perfect balance of all nine amino acids essential for human nutrition.

Quinoa is making a comeback around the world, and is believed to be one of the world's healthiest foods. It is nutritionally renowned for its protein content and while it does have a decent amount, it’s not actually the amount of protein that’s so impressive. Instead, it’s the type of protein. 

Quinoa has the perfect balance of all nine amino acids essential for human nutrition. This type of complete protein is rarely found in plant foods, though common in meats. Also, quinoa varieties are known to grow in temperatures ranging from -8 degrees to 38 degrees Celsius and from sea level to 4,000 meters above sea level.

Yet in Bolivia, the world's largest grower and exporter, quinoa has been seen as "poor people's food" and many Bolivians have favored less nutritious imported grains. A campaign to promote quinoa consumption in Bolivia improved diets and the livelihoods of small farmers. 

This special project was funded through an IFAD grant to Bioversity International and implemented by PROINPA Foundation in Bolivia. More than 3,000 varieties of Quinoa are found in the Andes. Understanding the differences in these varieties will undoubtedly lead to increased consumption and a brighter future for these Andean farmers.

Crazy about quinoa? Try this recipe.