As one of 17 megadiverse countries in the world, South Africa boasts a rich tapestry of agro-biodiversity of which neglected and underutilised crop species (NUS) form a part. There is growing momentum to promote NUS to sustainably address topical challenges such as drought and water scarcity, food and nutrition security, climate change adaptation, environmental degradation, and employment creation in poor rural communities. Over the years, we have been conducting research aimed at (i) identifying the potential of underutilised crops under water scarcity, (ii) determining their potential to contribute to a water-food-nutrition-health nexus, (iii) assessing challenges and opportunities to their promotion, and (iv) mainstreaming NUS into food system as healthy alternatives. Emerging evidence has showed that as products of generations of landrace agriculture, several NUS are resilient and adapted to the needs of farmers in marginal agricultural environments. Their suitability to such niche marginal and low input environments, as well as association with specific gender roles, offers economic opportunities in poor rural communities. Evidence also suggested that their inclusion in cropping systems could contribute to agro-ecosystem and dietary diversity to improve nutrition. Their economic and food security potential, together with their status as a subset of agro-biodiversity offers an opportunity to address several Sustainable Development Goals (e.g. SDGs 1, 2, 3, 8 & 15) on addressing social, economic and environmental issues. A major constraint to mainstreaming NUS into the food systems remains a lack of supportive policies. Current policies still support a handful major crops, which may not always be suitable for production in harsh environments where most smallholder farmers are located. This has also led to researcher apathy due to lack of funding for NUS research and development. Given that South Africa continues to be affected by poverty and food insecurity at a household level, there is a need for a paradigm shift in order to sustainably address these challenges under conditions of water scarcity and climate change. Promoting NUS as part of a sustainable and healthy food system is central to such a shift.
Centre for Transformative Agricultural and Food Systems, School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of KwaZulu–Natal, Private Bag X01, Scottsville 3209, Pietermaritzburg, South Africa