For the last 20 years I have grown and studied a wide range of food crops – many of them still little known in Ireland and even Europe.   The Irish climate is ideal for crop production and yet only a small percentage of organic fruit and vegetables are produced in Ireland.  This leaves a great opportunity for growers to develop new markets.  Diversification of crop production and finding new crops for evolving markets especially as functional foods has great potential.

Of all the crops I researched the following two crops showed the greatest potential in Ireland due to their high yield, disease resistance and multi-use function.

The first one is one of the Lost Crops of the Incas – yacon, and the second is Jerusalem artichoke which originates from North America and had been introduced to Europe many centuries ago.

As part of the GFP group with six fellow scholars from all over the world, the countries visited included Italy, Canada (British Columbia), USA (Washington DC and Texas), Argentina and Chile.  The GFP trip enabled me to understand the bigger picture of worldwide agriculture.  It was enlightening to see the diversity of farming enterprises all over the world, the different scales of operations and different levels of sustainability.

On my own travels I visited Peru, Bolivia, New Zealand and Hong Kong.  Peru and Bolivia are the homelands of some of the most important food crops and most importantly the potato.  There are over 3,000 native potato varieties in Peru.  It remains a mystery why only the potato made it to world fame and all the other crops that were developed by the Incas in the 15th Century are still unheard of.  These are the Lost Crops of the Incas and only recently has there been an immense upsurge in these crops that were luckily kept alive by the native Quechuans and Aymara cultures in Peru and Bolivia.  These crops are now grown in New Zealand, Japan and China amongst many other countries.

Over the last few decades agriculture has increasingly become specialised focusing on fewer and fewer crops.  Worldwide over 50% of proteins and calories are coming from only three crops – maize, wheat and rice.  There are only about 150 crops which have been commercialised.  However throughout the world there are over 7,000 edible plants which were developed throughout human history with many of them still present in rural areas.  These crops have never been developed further by science to date and thus have the greatest potential for further development.

Many of these crops are often suitable marginal ecosystems and may grow in difficult areas where modern commercialised plant could not grow.  This capacity will become increasingly important in a world with unpredictable weather conditions and more and more crop failures as a result of it. A more diverse food system is a lot more resilient to these changing weather patterns.

Most of the underutilised crops can be grown with very low inputs both in terms of fertilisers and plant protection products.

My findings are:

  1. There is a massive potential for the production of yacon and Jerusalem artichoke in terms of yield potential and profitability.
  2. A number of bioproducts can be derived from Jerusalem artichoke and yacon – inulin, fructooligosaccharides, fructose, natural fungicides, antioxidants and bioethanol.
  3. Both yacon and Jerusalem artichoke have shown potential health benefits for people suffering from diabetes.
  4. Oca, mashua and other Inca crops could find a place as a niche or specialist crop in an ever more diversified diet often promoted by TV chefs.
  5. There is no expectation that these crops will replace our staple crops but that they can play an important part in a more diverse future food system.

This report has been developed as a result of visits, interviews, horticultural crop trials research organisations, plant breeders, growers, agronomists and manufacturers.

Read about Klaus here

Klaus will be presenting the findings of his research at the 2019 Nuffield Ireland Conference in the Castleknock Hotel on November 15th.  Book tickets here