Breakthrough Crop Challenge to award $1.3m to root out world’s ‘forgotten food’

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

Some of the most nutritious, sustainable crops remain largely undocumented and 'forgotten'. Pic: GettyImages/HAYKIRDI
Some of the most nutritious, sustainable crops remain largely undocumented and 'forgotten'. Pic: GettyImages/HAYKIRDI

Related tags Harvest for Health Breakthrough Crop Challenge Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition The Rockefeller Foundation Crops Cereals Ancient grains Food security FAO Wheat

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR), in partnership with the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), is on a mission to attract more private sector investment in the development of underutilised crops to feed an increasingly expanding and diversified global population.

FFR and GAIN – with funding from RF Catalytic Capital, The Rockefeller Foundation’s public charity – is offering $1.375m in awards to pioneers in the crop space.

Of the more than 50,000 known edible plant species, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) notes that just three staples – rice, wheat and maize – account for two-thirds of the world’s food supply, while 95% of the world’s foods needs are provided by just 30 species of plants.

However, with increasingly frequent extreme weather events, however, placing such enormous reliance on so few is proving to be ludicrous, if not downright dangerous, flirting with the nutritional security for billions around the globe.

In stark contrast to the figures above, almost 13,000 plant species have been deemed edible but remain underutilised, often referred to as forgotten food.

These crops range from certain species of wheat, millet, teff and quinoa, to pulses and nuts, fruits, veg, roots and tubers, immediately boosting the diversity of ingredients that manufacturers are looking for to appeal to the consumer’s ever more critical demand for new flavours, experiences and healthier, sustainable options.

The crops typically boast a rich nutritional profile, but alongside their commercial potential, come with stark environment benefits – particularly in the face of climate change and the greater need to protect an ailing planet – and play an important role in the subsistence and economy of poor people throughout the developing world.

The forgotten, or little-used, crops are typically grown by traditional farmers and consumed within the community. These remain poorly documented and neglected by mainstream research, despite their potential as a major contributor to the food system’s health and environmental sustainability.

Rooting out the forgotten crops

FFAR now want to unlock this treasure chest and is calling on the private set to get involved.

Under its Harvest for Health initiative, the Breakthrough Crop Challenge​ is hoping to root out a predictive model that can screen underutilised crops to determine a crop’s usefulness as a source of functional ingredients or nutrients.

“There are tens of thousands of crops that are underutilised for human consumption,”​ said Dr Lawrence Haddad, executive director of GAIN.

“Can any of them provide a triple win: good for nutrition, good for the environment and good for prosperity? The Breakthrough Crop Challenge is for those who are inspired by this challenge and can rise to it, through ingenuity and innovation.”

The Breakthrough Crop Challenge is part of FFAR’s Harvest for Health initiative, designed to increase the diversity of nutritious foods on the market.

While underutilised crops have great functional and nutritional potential, the development of such crops for consumption or use in other products is time intensive and can be prohibitively expensive. The pooling of insight, ideas and resources could go a long way to fast-track development, or at least get industry on the right road.

“Underutilised crops have the potential for a variety of economic benefits to food and ingredient manufacturers, and nutritional benefits to consumers,”​ said Lucyna Kurtyka, senior scientific programme director at FFAR.

“The Breakthrough Crop Challenge will provide new opportunities for farmers, appeal to more consumers, and contribute to our food system’s health and environmental sustainability.”

Calling on international submissions

The Breakthrough Crop Challenge​ consists of two parts: Seed Funding concept and Predictive Model development and is open to any US or non-US public or private institution, consortium, non-profit organisation, for-profit company and tribal government entity.

In the seed funding part, FFAR will award five grants of up to $75,000 per concept note that describes the development and validation of a predictive model. Deadline for these is 20 July 2022.

For the predictive model development and validation part, applicants will be eligible to receive $1m for the model they have developed and validated (applicants do not need to apply for Seed Funding to participate in this challenge). Applications for the predictive model development and validation will open in the spring of 2023.

Harvest for Health will use the winning predictive model for the commercial development of select crops that have market potential.

The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) builds public-private partnerships to fund bold research addressing big food and agriculture challenges. FFAR was established in the 2014 Farm Bill to increase public agriculture research investments, fill knowledge gaps and complement USDA’s research agenda – with the end aim to benefit farmers, consumers and the environment.

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