Crop Diversification Through a Wider Use of Underutilised Crops: A Strategy to Ensure Food and Nutrition Security in the Face of Climate Change

  • M. A. Mustafa
  • S. Mayes
  • F. MassaweEmail author


Global dependence on only a few crops for food and non-food uses is risky due to the multifaceted challenges that crop production faces. One such challenge is climate change and its effects on food production. Emerging evidence suggests that climate change will cause shifts in crop production areas and yield loss due to more unpredictable and hostile weather patterns. The shrinking list of crops that feed the world, has also been attributed to reported reduced agricultural biodiversity and increased genetic uniformity for yield traits in crop plants. This could lead to crop vulnerability to the dangers of pests and diseases. Part of the solution to these problems lies with crop diversification through a wider use of underutilised and minor crops. Underutilised, minor or neglected crop plants are plant species that are indigenous rather than adapted introductions, which often form a complex part of the culture and diets of the people who grow them. The wider use of underutilised crops would increase agricultural biodiversity (genetic, species and ecosystem) to buffer against crop vulnerability to climate change, pests and diseases and would provide the quality of food and diverse food sources to address both food and nutritional security.

There is evidence to suggest that people are increasingly changing their attitude in favour of crop diversification instead of specialisation on a few major crop species. This chapter provides a background on crop diversification and discusses the potential roles of underutilised crops to address major global concerns such as food and nutrition security, agricultural biodiversity, climate change, environmental degradation and future livelihoods.



Crop diversification

Cultivating more than one variety of crops belonging to the same or different species within a region, using multiple cropping, agroforestry and/or crop rotation systems, with diversity evident in form (e.g. genetic, species, structural), function (e.g. pest suppression, increased production) and scale (temporal and spatial) (Lin 2011; Makate et al. 2016).


The incorporation of trees or shrubs within a cropping system as part of crop diversification to maximise the benefits of interactions between the various biological components.

Crop rotation

A temporal approach to crop diversification by systematically varying the crops planted on a given plot between seasons, for example cultivating maize in summer and peas in the following season.

Multiple cropping

A spatial approach to crop diversification by systematically cultivating two or more crops in a given plot within the same season, for example, cultivating maize and peas simultaneously on the same piece of land.


Increase in the productivity of land as determined by the value of agricultural output, which can be market-driven (e.g. production of higher value crops) or technologically driven (e.g. better cropping practices) (Byerlee et al. 2014).


Focus on a single activity within a farming system, with the activity providing at least two-thirds of the farm income.

Food sovereignty

“The right of a nation or region to produce, distribute or consume food with appropriate productive and cultural diversity” (Altieri 2009).


A measure of a community’s exposure to stresses (social and/or environmental), sensitivity to the stresses, and ability to adapt (McCord et al. 2015).


  1. Adhikari, L., Hussain, A., & Rasul, G. (2017). Tapping the potential of neglected and underutilised food crops for sustainable nutrition security in the mountains of Pakistan and Nepal. Sustainability, 9, 291. Scholar
  2. Africa Rice Center (WARDA). (2008). Africa rice trends 2007. Cotonou: Africa Rice Center (WARDA).Google Scholar
  3. Alcamo, J., Dronin, N., Endejan, M., Golubev, G., & Kirilenko, A. (2007). A new assessment of climate change impacts on food production shortfalls and water availability in Russia. Global Environmental Change, 7, 429–444.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Alhassan, G. A., & Egbe, M. O. (2014). Bambara groundnut/maize intercropping: Effects of planting densities in Southern guinea savanna of Nigeria. African Journal of Agricultural Research, 9(4), 479–486.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Aliyu, S., Massawe, F., & Mayes, S. (2016). Genetic diversity and population structure of Bambara groundnut (Vigna subterranea (L.) Verdc.): Synopsis of the past two decades of analysis and implications for crop improvement programmes. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution, 63(6), 925–943.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Altieri, M. A. (1999). The ecological role of biodiversity in agroecosystems. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 74, 19–31.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Altieri, M. A. (2009). Agroecology, small farms, and food sovereignty. Monthly Review, 61(3), 102–113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Altieri, M. A., Funes-Monzote, F. R., & Petersen, P. (2012). Agroecologically efficient agricultural systems for smallholder farmers: Contributions to food sovereignty. Agronomy for Sustainable Development, 32(1), 1–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Anderson, P. K., Cunningham, A. A., Patel, N. G., Morales, F. J., Epstein, P. R., & Daszak, P. (2004). Emerging infectious diseases of plants: Pathogen pollution, climate change and agrotechnology drivers. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 19(10), 535–544.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Arezki, R., Deininger, K., & Seld, H. (2012). The global land rush. Finance and Development, 49, 46–49.Google Scholar
  11. Bale, J. S., Masters, G. J., Hodkinson, I. D., Awmack, C., Martijn Bezemer, T., Brown, V. K., Butterfield, J., Buse, A., Coulson, J. C., Farrar, J., Good, J. E. G., Harrington, R., Hartley, S., Hefin Jones, T., Lindroth, R. L., Press, M. C., Symrnioudis, I., Watt, A. D., & Whittaker, J. B. (2002). Herbivory in global climate change research: direct effects of rising temperature on insect herbivores. Global Change Biology, 8(1), 1–16.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Berg, A., de Noblet-Ducoudré, N., Sultan, B., Lengaigne, M., & Guimberteau, M. (2013). Projections of climate change impacts on potential C4 crop productivity over tropical regions. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, 170, 89–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Bonthala, V. S., Mayes, K., Moreton, J., Blythe, M., Wright, V., May, S. T., Massawe, F., Mayes, S., & Twycross, J. (2016). Identification of gene modules associated with low temperatures response in bambara groundnut by network-based analysis. PLoS One, 11(2), e0148771.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Boody, G., Vondracek, B., Andow, D. A., Krinke, M., Westra, J., Zimmerman, J., & Welle, P. (2009). Multifunctional agriculture in the United States. Bioscience, 55, 27–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Burchfield, E. K., & Gilligan, J. (2016). Agricultural adaptation to drought in the Sri Lankan dry zone. Applied Geography, 77, 92–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Bvenura, C., & Afolayan, A. J. (2015). The role of wild vegetables in household food security in South Africa: A review. Food Research International, 76, 1001–1011.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Byerlee, D., Stevenson, J., & Villoria, N. (2014). Does intensification slow crop land expansion or encourage deforestation? Global Food Security, 3(2), 92–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Chaifetz, A., & Jagger, P. (2014). 40 Years of dialogue on food sovereignty: A review and a look ahead. Global Food Security, 3(2), 85–91.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Chakraborty, S., Tiedemann, A. V., & Teng, P. S. (2000). Climate change: Potential impact on plant diseases. Environmental Pollution, 108(3), 317–326.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Cheng, A., Mayes, S., Dalle, G., Demissew, S., & Massawe, F. (2017). Diversifying crops for food and nutrition security - a case of teff. Biological Reviews, 92(1), 188–198.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Chivenge, P., Mabhaudhi, T., Modi, A. T., & Mafongoya, P. (2015). The potential role of neglected and underutilised crop species as future crops under water scarce conditions in Sub-Saharan Africa. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 12, 5685–5711.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Cotula, L., Vermeulen, S., Leonard, R., & Keeley, J. (2009). Land grab or development opportunity? Agricultural investment and international land deals in Africa. London; Rome: IIED; FAO, IFAD.Google Scholar
  23. Dawson, N., Martin, A., & Sikor, T. (2016). Green revolution in Sub-Saharan Africa: Implications of imposed innovation for the well-being of rural smallholders. World Development, 78, 204–218.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Dou, H., & Kister, J. (2016). Research and development on Moringa oleifera - Comparison between academic research and patents. World Patent Information, 47, 21–33.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Droogers, P., & Aerts, J. (2005). Adaptation strategies to climate change and climate variability: A comparative study between seven contrasting river basins. Physics and Chemistry of the Earth, Parts A/B/C, 30(6–7), 339–346.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Dzama, K. (2016). Is the livestock sector in Southern Africa prepared for climate change. South African Institute of International Affairs Policy Briefing 153. Johannesburg: South African Institute of International Affairs.Google Scholar
  27. Eitzinger, J., Stastna, M., & Zalud, Z. (2003). A simulation study of the effect of soil water balance and water stress on winter wheat production under different climate change scenarios. Agricultural Water Management, 61, 195–217.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. FAO. (2012). Crop diversification for sustainable diets and nutrition. Rome: Plant Production and Protection Division (AGP).Google Scholar
  29. Finckh, M. R., Gacek, E., Goyeau, H., Lannou, C., Merz, U., Mundt, C., et al. (2000). Cereal variety and species mixtures in practice, with emphasis on disease resistance. Agronomie. EDP Sciences, 20(7), 813–837.Google Scholar
  30. Frison, E., Smith, I. F., Cherfas, J., & Eyzaguirre, P. B. (2006). Agricultural biodiversity, nutrition, and health: Making a difference to hunger and nutrition in the developing world. Food and Nutrition Bulletin, 27(2), 167–179.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Godfray, H. C. J., Beddington, J. R., Crute, I. R., Haddad, L., Lawrence, D., Muir, J. F., Pretty, J., Robinson, S., Thomas, S. M., & Toulmin, C. (2010). Food security: The challenge of feeding 9 billion people. Science, 327(5967), 812–818.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Govereh, J., & Jayne, T. S. (2003). Cash cropping and food crop productivity: synergies or trade-offs? Agricultural Economics, 28(1), 39–50.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Guvele, C. A. (2001). Gains from crop diversification in the Sudan Gezira scheme. Agricultural Systems, 70, 319–333.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Hawkesworth, S., Dangour, A. D., Johnston, D., Lock, K., Poole, N., Rushton, J., et al. (2010). Feeding the world healthily: The challenge of measuring the effects of agriculture on health. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, 365, 3083–3097.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Heady, E. O. (1952). Diversification in resource allocation and minimization of income variability. Journal of Farm Economics, 34, 482–496.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Hochman, Z., Gobbett, D. L., & Horan, H. (2017). Climate trends account for stalled wheat yields in Australia since 1990. Global Change Biology, 23, 2071–2081.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Holden, N. M., & Brereton, A. J. (2006). Adaptation of water and nitrogen management of spring barley and potato as a response to possible climate change in Ireland. Agricultural Water Management, 82, 297–317.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Jacob, K. D., Charlotte, T. D., Henri, K. K., & Arsene, Z. B. I. (2014). Effect of intercropping bambara groundnut (Vigna subterranea (L.) Verdc) and maize (Zea mays L.) on the yield and the yield component in woodland savannahs of Côte d’Ivoire. International Journal of Agronomy and Agricultural Research, 5(1), 46–55.Google Scholar
  39. Kang, Y., Khan, S., & Ma, X. (2009). Climate change impacts on crop yield, crop water productivity and food security – A review. Progress in Natural Science, 19, 1665–1674.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Karunaratne, A., Azam-Ali, S. N., Al-Shareef, I., Sesay, A., Jorgensen, S. T., & Crout, N. M. J. (2010). Modelling the canopy development of Bambara groundnut. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology, 7-8, 1007–1015.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Karunaratne, A., Azam-Ali, S. N., & Crout, N. M. J. (2011). BAMGRO: A simple model to simulate the response of Bambara groundnut to abiotic stress. Experimental Agriculture, 47(3), 489–507.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Karunaratne, A. S., Walker, S., & Azam-Ali, S. N. (2015). Assessing the productivity and resource-use efficiency of underutilised crops: Towards an integrative system. Agricultural Water Management, 147, 129–134.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Kassie, M., Shiferaw, B., & Muricho, G. (2011). Agricultural technology, crop income, and poverty alleviation in Uganda. World Development, 39(10), 1784–1795.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Khoury, C. K., Bjorkman, A. D., Dempewolf, H., Ramirez-Villegas, J., Guarino, L., Jarvis, J., et al. (2014). Increasing homogeneity in global food supplies and the implications for food security. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(11), 4001–4006.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Kijima, Y., Otsuka, K., & Sserunkuuma, D. (2011). An Inquiry into Constraints on a Green Revolution in Sub-Saharan Africa: The Case of NERICA Rice in Uganda. World Development, 39(1), 77–86.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Kremen, C., Iles, A., & Bacon, C. (2012). Diversified farming systems: An agroecological, systems-based alternative to modern industrial agriculture. Ecology and Society, 17(4), 44.Google Scholar
  47. Leakey, R. R. B., & Asaah, E. K. (2013). Underutilised species as the backbone of multifunctional agriculture – The next wave of crop domestication. Acta Horticulturae, 979, 293–310.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Lin, B. B., Perfecto, I., & Vandermeer, J. (2008). Synergies between agricultural intensification and climate change could create surprising vulnerabilities for crops. Bioscience, 58(9), 847–854.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Lin, B. B. (2011). Resilience in agriculture through crop diversification: Adaptive management for environmental change. Bioscience, 61, 183–193.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Mabhaudhi, T., & Modi, A. T. (2013). Intercropping taro and Bambara groundnut. Sustainable Agriculture Reviews, 13, 275–290.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Maitra, S., Ghosh, D. C., Sounda, G., Jana, P. K., & Roy, D. K. (2000). Productivity, competition and economics of intercropping legumes in finger millet (Eleusine coracana) at different fertility levels. Indian Journal of Agricultural Science, 70(12), 824–828.Google Scholar
  52. Makate, C., Wang, R., Makate, M., & Mango, N. (2016). Crop diversification and livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Zimbabwe: Adaptive management for environmental change. Springerplus, 5, 1135. Scholar
  53. Massawe, F. J., Mayes, S., & Cheng, A. (2016). Crop diversity: An unexploited treasure trove for food security. Trends in Plant Science, 21(5), 365–368.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Mayes, S., Massawe, F. J., Alderson, P. G., Roberts, J. A., Azam-Ali, S. N., & Hermann, M. (2012). The potential for underutilized crops to improve security of food production. Journal of Experimental Botany, 63(3), 1075–1079.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. McCord, P. F., Cox, M., Schmitt-Harsh, M., & Evans, T. (2015). Crop diversification as a smallholder livelihood strategy within semi-arid agricultural systems near Mount Kenya. Land Use Policy, 42, 738–750.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. McIntyre, B. D., Herren, H. R., Wakhungu, J., & Watson, R. T. (2009). International assessment of agricultural knowledge, science and technology for development (IAASTD): Synthesis report with executive summary: A synthesis of the global and sub-global IAASTD reports. Washington, DC: IAASTD.Google Scholar
  57. Michler, J. D., & Josephson, A. L. (2017). To specialize or diversify: agricultural diversity and poverty dynamics in Ethiopia. World Development, 89, 214–226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Midega, C. A. O., Khan, Z. R., Amudavi, D. M., Pittchar, J., & Pickett, J. A. (2010). Integrated management of Striga hermonthica and cereal stemborers in finger millet (Eleusine coracana (L.) Gaertn.) through intercropping with Desmodium intortum. International Journal of Pest Management, 56(2), 145–151.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Midgley, S., & Methner, N. (2016). Climate adaptation readiness for agriculture: Drought lessons from the Western Cape, South Africa. African Institute of International Affairs Policy Briefing 154. Johannesburg: South African Institute of International Affairs.Google Scholar
  60. National Academy of Sciences. (1972). Genetic vulnerability of major crops. Washington, DC: NAS.Google Scholar
  61. Nguyen, H. Q. (2017). Analyzing the economies of crop diversification in rural Vietnam using an input distance function. Agricultural Systems, 153, 148–156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  62. Njeru, E. M. (2013). Crop diversification: A potential strategy to mitigate food insecurity by smallholders in sub-Saharan Africa. Journal of Agriculture, Food Systems, and Community Development, 3, 63–69.Google Scholar
  63. Onyango, A. O. (2016). Finger millet: Food security crop in the arid and semi-arid lands (ASALs) of Kenya. World Environment, 6(2), 62–70.Google Scholar
  64. Orr, A. (2000). Green Gold’?: Burley tobacco, smallholder agriculture, and poverty alleviation in Malawi. World Development, 28, 347–363.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  65. Patterson, D. T., Westbrook, J. K., Joyce†, R. J. V., Lingren, P. D., & Rogasik, J. (1999) Climatic Change, 43(4), 711–727.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Pellegrini, L., & Tasciotti, L. (2014). Crop diversification, dietary diversity and agricultural income: Empirical evidence from eight developing countries. Canadian Journal of Development Studies, 35, 211–277.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Perfecto, I., Vandermeer, J. H., Bautista, G. L., Nuñez, G. I., Greenberg, R., Bichier, P., & Langridge, S. (2004). Greater predation in shaded coffee farms: The role of resident Neotropical birds. Ecology, 85, 2677–2681.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Prasanna, R. P. I. R., Bulakulama, S. W. G. K., & Kuruppuge, R. H. (2011). Factors affecting farmers’ higher grain from paddy marketing: A case study on paddy farmers in North central province, Sri Lanka. International Journal of Agricultural Management and Development, 2, 57–69.Google Scholar
  69. Rahman, S. (2009). Whether crop diversification is a desired strategy for agricultural growth in Bangladesh? Food Policy, 34, 340–349.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Ray, K. D., Ramankutty, N., Mueller, N. D., West, P. C., & Foley, J. A. (2012). Recent patterns of crop yield growth and stagnation. Nature Communications, 3, 1293. Scholar
  71. Rosenzweig, C., & Parry, M. L. (1994). Potential impact of climate change on world food supply. Nature, 367, 133–138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Saenz, M., & Thompson, E. (2017). Gender and policy roles in farm household diversification in Zambia. World Development, 89, 152–169.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Samberg, L. H., Gerber, J. S., Ramankutty, N., Herrero, M., & West, P. C. (2016). Subnational distribution of average farm size and smallholder contributions to global food production. Environmental Research Letters, 11(12), 124010. Scholar
  74. Scherm, H., & Yang, X. B. (1995). Interannual variations in wheat rust development in China and the United States in relation to the El Nino/Southern Oscillation. Phytopathology, 85, 970–976.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Seck, P. A., Tollens, E., Wopereis, M. C. S., Diagne, A., & Bamba, I. (2010). Rising trends and variability of rice prices: Threats and opportunities for sub-Saharan Africa. Food Policy, 35, 403–411.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  76. Senger, I., Borges, J. A. R., & Machado, J. A. D. (2017). Using the theory of planned behavior to understand the intention of small farmers in diversifying their agricultural production. Journal of Rural Studies, 49, 32–40.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Smith, S. E., & Read, D. J. (2008). Mycorrhizal symbiosis (3rd ed.). Amsterdam: Academic Press, Elsevier.Google Scholar
  78. Sserunkuuma, D. (2008). Assessment of NERICA training impact. A study report prepared for the Japan international cooperation agency (JICA). Tokyo: JICA.Google Scholar
  79. Tadele, Z. (2017). Raising crop productivity in Africa through intensification. Agronomy, 7(1), 22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Tadele, Z., & Assefa, K. (2012). Increasing food production in Africa by boosting the productivity of understudied crops. Agronomy, 2(4), 240–283.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Taffesse, A. S., Dorosh, P., & Asrat, S. (2012). Crop production in Ethiopia: Regional patterns and trends. Ethiopia strategy support program (ESSP II). Washington, DC: International Food Policy Research Institute.Google Scholar
  82. Thilakarathna, M., & Raizada, M. (2015). A review of nutrient management studies involving finger millet in the semi-arid tropics of. Asia and Africa. Agronomy, 5(3), 262–290.Google Scholar
  83. Touma, D., Ashfaq, M., Nayak, M., Kao, S., & Diffenbaugh, N. (2015). A multi-model and multi-index evaluation of drought characteristics in the 21st century. Journal of Hydrology, 526, 196–207.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  84. UN. (2016). Sustainable development knowledge platform. Retrieved from
  85. Van den Berg, M. M., Hengsdijk, H., Wolf, J., Ittersum, M. K. V., Guanghuo, W., & Roetter, R. P. (2007). The impact of increasing farm size and mechanization on rural income and rice production in Zhejiang province, China. Agricultural Systems, 94, 841–850.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Vandermeer, J., van Noordwijk, M., Anderson, J., Ong, C., & Perfecto, I. (1998). Global change and multi-species agroecosystems: Concepts and issues. Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 67, 1–22.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Weltin, M., Zasada, I., Franke, C., Piorr, A., Raggi, M., & Viaggi, D. (2017). Analysing behavioural differences of farm households: An example of income diversification strategies based on European farm survey data. Land Use Policy, 62, 172–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  88. Wheeler, T., & von Braun, J. (2013). Climate change impacts on global food security. Science, 341, 508–513.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  89. Wilhite, D. A., & Vanyarkho, O. (2000). Drought: Pervasive impacts of a creeping phenomenon. In D. A. Wilhite (Ed.), Drought: A global assessment (pp. 245–255).Google Scholar
  90. World Bank. (2008). World development report 2008: Agriculture for development. Washington, DC: World Bank.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Yachi, S., & Loreau, M. (1999). Biodiversity and ecosystem productivity in a fluctuating environment: The insurance hypothesis. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 96, 1463–1468.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Zhu, Y., Chen, H., Fan, J., Wang, Y., Li, Y., Chen, J., et al. (2000). Genetic diversity and disease control in rice. Nature, 406, 718–722.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.The University of Nottingham MalaysiaSemenyihMalaysia
  2. 2.Crops for the FutureSemenyihMalaysia
  3. 3.Plant and Crop Sciences, BiosciencesUniversity of NottinghamLoughboroughUK

Personalised recommendations