Orphan Crops: A Best Fit for Dietary Enrichment and Diversification in Highly Deteriorated Marginal Environments
Orphan crops are indigenous and invariably grown by small and marginal farmers under subsistence farming systems. These crops, which are common and widely accepted by local farmers, are highly rich in nutritional profile, good for medicinal purposes, and well adapted to suboptimal growing conditions. However, these crops have suffered neglect and abandonment from the scientific community because of very low or no investments in research and genetic improvement. A plausible reason for this is that these crops are not traded internationally at a rate comparable to that of the major food crops such as wheat, rice, and maize. Furthermore, marginal environments have poor soils and are characterized by extreme weather conditions such as heat, erratic rainfall, water deficit, and soil and water salinity, among others. With more frequent extreme climatic events and continued land degradation, orphan crops are beginning to receive renewed attention as alternative crops for dietary diversification in marginal environments and, by extension, across the globe. Increased awareness of good health is also a major contributor to the revived attention accorded to orphan crops. Thus, the introduction, evaluation, and adaptation of outstanding varieties of orphan crops for dietary diversification will contribute not only to sustained food production but also to improved nutrition in marginal environments. In this review article, the concept of orphan crops vis-à-vis marginality and food and nutritional security is defined for a few orphan crops. We also examined recent advances in research involving orphan crops and the potential of these crops for dietary diversification within the context of harsh marginal environments. Recent advances in genomics coupled with molecular breeding will play a pivotal role in improving the genetic potential of orphan crops and help in developing sustainable food systems. We concluded by presenting a potential roadmap to future research engagement and a policy framework with recommendations aimed at facilitating and enhancing the adoption and sustainable production of orphan crops under agriculturally marginal conditions.