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Throughout history, human beings have used thousands of plant species for food, many of which have also been domesticated. Today only 150 plant species are cultivated, 12 of which provide approximately 75 percent of our food and four of which produce over half of the food we eat. This involution has increased the vulnerability of agriculture and impoverished the human diet. As a result, many local crops that have traditionally been important for feeding the poorest sectors of society are nowadays underutilized or neglected.

There can be no doubt that the use, domestication and cultivation of the most widespread plant species have to a great extent been brought about accidentally and are conditioned by the social, economic and political values of the dominant cultures. It is highly likely that, had the process been carefully planned and the species selected on the basis of the scientific data available to us today, the result would have been different. At present, new biotechnologies constitute a powerful means of halting the involution process and, consequently, of accelerating the domestication of other promising plants as well as the genetic improvement of those that have been neglected. However, the economic and political interest necessary to promote research that would benefit the poorest social strata with the least purchasing power may be lacking.

The discovery of America, which brought into contact two different worlds with their own history, cultures and traditions, at the same time formed a bridge between two ecological macrocosms. When the settlers arrived in America, as well as their language, religion and customs, they brought with them plants that were cultivated on the Eurasian continent. In return, together with tales of amazing riches, mysterious cultures and exotic customs, they took back products of the earth that were unknown in the Old World. Thus began a long-lasting exchange of plants and animals which profoundly transformed eating habits on both sides of the Atlantic in the following centuries.

In the course of this exchange, products that in the past had occupied a prominent place in the economies and food supplies of vast regions, particularly in Latin America, either disappeared or were set aside, giving way to crops from the other continent. Eventually, the change in eating habits that was triggered by the introduction of these plants, which were not always well suited to local agro-ecological conditions, created a food and economic dependence in some countries of Central and South America which, today, remains a serious obstacle to their development.

At a time when the world is experiencing an exponential increase in its population and is anxiously wondering if it will be able to bring an end to the hunger and scarcity of food that now exist in many regions without causing fresh damage to our natural environment, it would seem logical to look to the past for possible solutions in species that have fed humanity throughout its history.

Such is the aim of this book which, beginning with an analysis of the characteristics of these plants, attempts to identify possible areas of research and development in order to facilitate, where possible, their reintroduction in regions to which they had become so well adapted over the centuries. Its purpose, therefore, is eminently practical and, in cooperation with institutions active in this field and with possible donors, it aims at reawakening an interest in the efficient exploitation and distribution of these crops.

This work is also a first step towards implementing the principles stated at the United Nations Conference on the Environment and Development, held recently in Rio de Janeiro, and is in keeping with FAO's continuous effort to find systems and methods of cultivation that make it possible to combine development with a respect for the environment.

Edouard Saouma
Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations


Aegean Regional Agricultural Research Institute (Turkey)

CATIE/GTZ Tropical Agricultural Research and Training Centre/German Agency for Technical Cooperation

Cocoa Research Centre (Brazil)

Executive Committee of the Cocoa Farming Plan (Brazil)

Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research

International Centre for Tropical Agriculture

Forestry, Agricultural and Livestock Research Centre (Mexico)

International Potato Centre

Agroforestry Research Centre of Western Amazonia (Brazil)

Agricultural Research Centre for the Humid Tropics (Brazil)

Supreme Council of Scientific Research (Spain)

European Economic Community

Brazilian Agricultural Research Enterprise

Higher Technical School of Agricultural Engineering (Madrid)

International Board for Plant Genetic Resources

Bolivian Institute of Agricultural Technology

Colombian Agricultural Institute

International Centre for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas

International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics

Science and Agricultural Technology Institute (Guatemala)

Agricultural Research Institute of Panama

Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture

International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

Institute of Nutrition of Central America and Panama (Guatemala)

National Institute of Agrarian Research (Portugal)

National Institute of Agricultural Research (Ecuador)

National Institute of Forestry and Agricultural Research (Mexico)

National Institute of Agricultural Research and Promotion (Peru)

National Research Institute of Amazonia (Brazil)

National Institute of Agricultural Research (France)

National Institute of Agricultural Technology (Argentina)

World Conservation Union

Cartagena Agreement Board (Peru)

Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (Costa Rica)

Ministry of Agricultural Development/Nicaraguan Institute of Agrarian Reform (Nicaragua)

National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (India)

Organization of American States

Secretariat of State for Agriculture and Water Resources (Mexico)

Autonomous University of Chapingo

University of Costa Rica

National Autonomous University of Mexico

National University of San Cristóbal de Huamanga

United States Department of Agriculture

N.I. Vavilov All-Union Scientific Research Institute of Plant Breeding (CIS)


Conceived as a project by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Neglected crops: 1492 from a different perspective was copublished with the Botanical Garden of Córdoba, Spain. This cooperation came about as a result of the "Etnobotánica 92" congress, convened in September 1992 by the Botanical Garden and the City of Córdoba. The contents and aims of the congress were fully consistent with the sentiment behind the planned publication which would thus serve as an initial protocol for discussion at a symposium on neglected crops, oriented towards defining priorities, designing new projects for researching and improving these crops and planning strategies to finance them.

The aim of the book is to analyse the present situation and the prospects for improving certain traditional crops that were more important in other times and have now either been completely forgotten or relegated to a marginal role. After discussing the repercussions that 1492 had on natural resources and ways of life, both in America and Spain, the discovery of America and successive eras are studied, not as historic events that gave rise to a great genetic and cultural flow but, on the contrary, as possible immediate or delayed causes of certain crops being neglected.

The concept of a neglected or "marginalized" species in agricultural terms needs to be made clear. It basically refers to cultivated crops and therefore excludes those species which, in spite of their possible ethnobotanical or economic interest, are taken directly from their wild populations. They are crops which, at other times and under other conditions, were of greater importance in traditional agriculture and in the diets of indigenous peoples and other local communities. It does not necessarily imply promising crops. This is because they have already been cultivated and because the aim of their reinstatement is not to convert them into crops for intensive cultivation or export. Marginalized crops are those whose use and productivity need to be considerably increased as a means of raising the living conditions and improving the diet of ethnic groups and populations accustomed to living in economic systems that have engaged little interchange.

How has this situation of "marginalization" come about? There have been various contributing factors: the introduction of species that supplanted traditional ones; the loss of competitiveness of these species compared with other more productive species; gradual changes in demand; economic, cultural, political or religious prohibitions; and the disappearance of ethnic groups that understood the techniques and uses of the plants as well as their cultivation methods. We need to recognize, as the present study does, that among the social. agronomic and biological reasons for the neglect of such plants, it is the social factors that predominate. In many cases this has been a consequence of the premeditated eradication of self-sufficient ways of life and their replacement by other foreign systems, based on outside interests. Thus, in the traditional societies of Latin America, a dependence on external forces developed and subsequently resulted in poverty.

Four main sections of this book basically deal with Latin America, where three areas of anthropological action are identified, corresponding to the three main centres of phytogenetic diversity and origin of agricultural experiments: Mesoamerica, the Andean region and the Amazon. In keeping with the general approach of "Etnobotánica 92" - organized to analyse the consequences of 500 years of genetic and ethnobotanical exchanges between the two sides of the Atlantic - it seemed logical to include a final section on the marginalization of crops in Spain and its possible connection with 1492.

The list of species studied has been restricted to food crops and, with a few exceptions, to those exclusively of interest as human food. This does not mean that the same phenomenon of marginalization, as defined here, has not occurred in other types of crops. Perhaps the most drastic cases are to be found among industrial crops: dye, fibre or medicinal plants that have now been replaced by synthetic products, whose cultivation is left to the poorest communities which are unable to obtain the artificial substitutes, or which survive to be used at times when, as a result of certain market contingencies, the natural product once again can claim a limited consumption.

Some chapters are monospecific while others refer to groups of crops which are taxonomically and agronomically close. With the aim of meeting the basic objective of improving agricultural species in regions where they are traditionally exploited, attention has been paid to the following points:

Importance of genetic resources. Emphasis is placed both on the direct use of new germplasm with a superior yield, quality or resistance, and its application in previous genetic improvement programmes, using more sophisticated techniques. Mention is also made of conservation programmes and germplasm banks as well as of national and international institutions that coordinate conservation activities and the use of these resources. Genetic variability or biodiversity (known cultivars, related species, wild intraspecific variability, etc.) are evaluated and the current risks of genetic erosion are assessed.

Forms of consumption. The direct causes of or factors contributing to crop marginalization include the loss - either through neglect or cultural suppression - of forms of consumption (preparation, preservation, culinary habits, alternative uses) of foods based on marginalized traditional plants. For this reason, it has been considered of the utmost importance not only to reinstate the use of these crops but also to highlight their nutritional values and forms of preparation.

Prospects for improvement and limitations. The attention of specialists has been centred on rescuing neglected crops and, therefore, on indicating the direction to be taken in order to improve them. Age-old crops must be developed while taking into account the needs of the communities which consume them. With modern technology, it is possible to put improvement programmes into practice but, for this, the starting-point must be the experience acquired by farmers themselves. Research must be carried out at various levels and should range from the study and evaluation of seed material and traditional cultivation practices to the inclusion of a biotechnology suited to farmers' practical problems.

In spite of the fact that the editors of this work laid down a very rigorous theme structure, the diverse nature of the subjects dealt with and the different approaches of specialists from more than nine countries have necessarily led to a certain lack of uniformity which has in fact enriched the work. Highly specific information is frequently provided, much of which has never before been published. Also included are value judgements, observations and personal opinions which may be of use to those who carry out field work.

The first two chapters present an overall view of the biodiversity of American phytogenetic resources and the processes that caused marginalization. This phenomenon is linked directly or indirectly to the introduction of flora from the Old World into America from 1492 onwards.

In the section on Mesoamerica, some little-known beans, gourds and other native cucurbits, custard apples and cherimoyas, prince's feather (huautli) and amaranth, sapodillas, Spanish plums and tomatilloes or husk-tomatoes are studied. The numerous lesser crops of the region have not been included because of their restricted geographical distribution.

In the section on Andean agriculture, crops are grouped into grains and pulses, tubers, roots and fruits. The grains studied include quinoa, canihua (qañiwa), love-lies-bleeding (kiwicha) and Andean lupin (tarwi); tubers include oca, ullucu, bitter potatoes and mashwa; roots include arracacha, leafcup (yacón), mace and mauka; and fruits include the mountain papaw, sweet cucumber and tree tomato.

The section dealing with Amazonian and Caribbean agriculture examines neglected crops in the Amazon region understood in the broad sense and, by extension, species of the Caribbean region and others that are subtropical in environment and origin. There is a study of the cupuaçu, peach-palm, Paullinia sp., arazá, feijoa, jaboticaba, Guinea arrowroot, Paraguay tea and yautia or tanier.

The last section examines the possible influence of American flora on the marginalization of various Iberian crops. Leguminous species (for animal feed and human consumption) and horticultural species are considered. Fruit-trees and groups of plants of separate economic interest for human consumption ought to have been included.

Many other crops have not been mentioned and perhaps only a minority of those which urgently need to be rescued have been included but it is hoped that at least a contribution has been made towards increasing awareness of such crops, thereby encouraging an exchange of available information.

What is sought now is the participation of different national and international institutions that may be able to contribute resources, technology and expertise to less developed countries where marginalized crops play an important role as a source of food.

Perhaps what should first be achieved is a change of attitude in Latin American countries themselves regarding the species and the products which are derived from them, but which are currently neglected either because of the passive or disparaging attitude of consumers, or because of the lack of incentives to promote and improve them. These efforts must be accompanied by new studies on postharvest handling, marketing channels and the publicizing of nutritional values, bearing in mind that the prime beneficiaries of this undertaking must be the farmers and consumers.

J.E. Hernández Bermejo and J. Leon

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