Food crops of the future and drought
Food crops of the future and drought
Food crops of the future and drought
Food crops of the future and drought
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Food crops of the future and drought


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Which would be our food crops of the future if climate change occurs ? Which drought-resistant species will we use ? The spekboom can be one of them.

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Food crops of the future and drought

  1. 1. FOOD CROPS OF THE FUTURE AND DROUGHT-RESISTANT SPECIES TO COMBAT DESERTIFICATION AND POVERTY<br />Willem VAN COTTHEM<br />Ghent University (Belgium)<br />Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development<br /><br /><br />In addition to my article published in March 2010:<br />AFRICA: Finding the food crops of the future<br />(see a former posting on my desertification blog above and HYPERLINK "" " _blank"<br />I am dedicating a special part of this text and some photos to the ‘spekboom’ or ‘elephant bush’, also called ‘elephant’s food’ and ‘porkbush’ (Portulacaria afra Jacq.).<br />If it ever occurs, climate change could make that classical staple foods can't be grown anymore in the same climatic zones.  People would need to grow other crops. In our own country, which would be the food crops of the future? What kind of options for continued food security will we have?  Do we need scientists to do years of research work on climate models linked to agriculture and horticulture to determine which will be the crop yields in the future?  Or can we use existing climate-resilient crops in a 'new' environment created by the impact of climatic changes on the existing vegetation?<br />Some scientists believe that intensive research work is needed to produce these 'new' varieties of food crops, e.g. drought-resistant ones.  Models are already used and still perfected.  Some believe that experimenting with these models, or with genetic modification of existing food crops, 'will save the time that would have been spent on field trials and help speed up the agricultural research cycle' (see Jennifer OLSON in the article mentioned above). Therefore, highly estimated institutions provide extremely important research grants to encourage such 'innovative solutions'.<br />I fully agree with Jennifer OLSON that 'bioscience can improve crop resilience to climate change, or perhaps improve the shelf-life of a food product', but I want to express my serious doubts about the necessity to spend millions of dollars on developing 'new' varieties of climate-resilient crops, when in nature one finds a considerable number of species and varieties of plant species that can successfully be introduced in regions or countries affected by climate change, e.g. drought-stricken areas. It suffices to accept that under the new conditions these drought-resistant plants, having a high nutritional value for men or livestock, can be shipped as seeds from elsewhere to become the 'new' staple food.<br />If we can't grow maize (corn) anymore, but another, less water-consuming cereal, why should we stay hungry?  If our region is not adapted to olives, oranges, almonds, papayas, bananas etc., why would we hesitate to choose other already existing fruits from other climatic zones?<br />It is my most sincere conviction that Africans can be perfectly happy with food crops now growing in Asia or South-America and vice-versa.  I also believe that we should pay more attention (do some rather inexpensive research work) on opportunities to introduce Asian or South American food crops in the African drylands or the other way around.<br />Do we need to fear invasive crops? Let someone explain first to us what would be an 'invasive' food crop.  Would it become a noxious weed?  Would we have to destroy it or eat it?<br />I leave that discussion open for now, trusting in the fact that if the Brazilians in their 'Nord-Este Province' have enormous plantations of the spineless prickly pear cactus (Opuntia ficus-indica) with edible fruits and green disks that can be used as fodder, etc.), my good friends in the Sahelian countries or even in the Sahara desert would be bewildered if they could get a good opportunity to set up such plantations in their drylands.  Invasive species?  No way, because the spiny prickly pear grows all over that part of the world.  Too expensive?  No way, because it suffices to put a disk in the dry soil to see it shooting.<br />This Opuntia is only one single example of a drought resilient species or variety that should be dispersed all over the desertified world, where it can help people to eat some fruits or give some fodder to their livestock.<br />Being a scientist myself, I have no hard feelings against enormous grants given to research work.  But accepting that research work must go on, I can't stop dreaming of extremely inexpensive research work to disperse 'all good things' that Mother Earth is offering us today.<br />Every time I am reading about the fantastic qualities of one or another plant species or a variety, I am dreaming about the possibility to use seeds or parts of that plant to improve the living conditions of all the people who don't have the chance to profit from this exquisite species.  This way, my action 'Seeds for Food' was born. Whenever you have a chance to let a melon grow in the drylands, go out there and look at the eyes of a child when it bites for the first time in such a juicy fruit.<br />Why would we hesitate to send all the seeds of the melons we consume to climate zones where they can grow?  Why don't we offer those rural people, or even the people in cities or towns in the drylands, a chance to grow avocado trees (Persea americana), tomato trees (Cyphomandra betacea), cherimoyas (Annona spp.), spekbooms (Portulacaria afra), pitayas or dragonfruits (Hylocereus undatus), ...<br />Knowing that all these 'goodies' are already there, we do not have to wait for the results of years of research work.  We only have to take the decision to spread the 'goodies' around, of course in a well-organized way, e.g. as seeds.  That's what 'organizations' are set up for. <br />To produce climate-resilient food crops or to use existing ones, for me it is not a question anymore.<br />Portulacaria afra Jacq., the spekboom<br />South African saying: “As long as your spekboom is growing and prospering, so will your finances”.<br />2010-04 Rooted cutting of Portulacaria afra – (Photo Johan VAN DE VEN)<br />Almost a month ago, my friend Johan Van de Ven of Bamboo Sur offered me some rooted cuttings of the spekboom, elephant bush or elephant’s food (Portulacaria afra), a fantastic plant species, native to South Africa, resisting extreme drought in dry, rocky places.  It is a hardy, succulent, soft-wooded bush (shrub or small tree) with brownish stout stems or trunks  (up to 4-5 m high in nature) and juicy, bright green leaves, shriveling when drying, but plumping up with some additional water. It can also grow well in containers, so one does not need a huge garden to grow some attractive plants at home. It can be seen in most of the botanical gardens because of its ease of culture.<br />2010-05 – Portulacaria cuttings 40 cm high, leaves 1,0-1,5 cm long (Photo WVC)<br />Spekbooms are mostly propagated from cuttings or ‘truncheons’ (supersize cuttings), but also from seeds.  I am convinced that Portulacaria afra is a great species for combating desertification and poverty in all the drylands.  In some very dry parts of South Africa, e.g. the Karoo, it is growing in extravagant abundance in thickets all over the hills in the Eastern Cape region. <br />2010-05 – Portulacaria afra cuttings with small lateral branches (Photo WVC)<br />Grown as a living hedge around gardens or fields it makes a good, very dense and almost impenetrable fence. Its branches can be bent. Pruning of the upper parts stimulates outgrowth of lateral branches and thus thickening of the hedge. Fallen branches reroot quite easily.<br />2010-05 - Root development of the spekboom in plastic bottles (Photo WVC)<br />Its root system develops extremely well on poor, rocky or sandy slopes, thus preventing soil erosion. There is even a ‘prostrate’ variety of the spekboom, developing its branches not higher than 15 cm above the soil and forming a dense ground cover.<br />In spring, the spekboom produces pink to lilac blossoms with a lot of nectar, which makes it interesting for beekeeping. Being the favourite juicy food of elephants, ostriches and cattle, the leaves are eaten by humans too. A number of publications mention that its raw leaves have been and still are used in salads. After tasting a couple of leaves myself, I agree that more research work in this field could reveal some interesting potentialities of spekboom leaves to become a valuable part of the fresh food (vitamins and mineral elements). The slightly acidic, lemony taste reminded me of that of spinach or purslane (Portulaca oleracea L.). In South Africa it is also used for its medicinal properties, e.g. diabetes treatment. Some local women eat the leaves to stimulate milk production. <br />It can also be used to make great bonsai plants (‘the jade plant’), low-care commercial crops exportable to the developed world and thus contributing to the enhancement of the rural people’s annual income. Its amazing ability to soak up CO2 (a great potential for carbon sequestration) is another interesting quality for carbon trading.<br />2010-05 – Small lateral branches (2-4 cm) and leaves of Portulacaria afra rooting in a plastic box (Photo WVC)<br />As the spekboom is not an invasive species, I believe this hardy and adaptable shrub or small tree can be introduced in many arid and semi-arid countries without displacing natural biomes. It goes without saying that we all have a huge responsibility to conserve and protect the natural vegetation types everywhere. However, vast desertified dryland and urban areas, without any possibility of restoring the natural vegetation, are in desperate need of greening (see the numerous reforestation projects on all continents). Therefore, the planting of useful or attractive species that are not invasive can be a good option. Available information indicates that the use of Portulacaria afra in greening initiatives has great potential. For people in other parts of the world it is interesting to know that the spekboom can tolerate fair amounts of frost. Attention should be paid to possible overgrazing by cattle.<br />Hopefully, many people will set up some experiments with this remarkable bush plant and discover its unique potentialities for sand fixation, combat of erosion, creation of a dense vegetation cover in dry areas, carbon sequestration, food and fodder, production of economically interesting bonsai plants, etc.<br />A lot of interesting information on the spekboom and many photos (<!/photo.php?pid=857805&o=all&op=1&view=all&subj=91773653593&aid=-1&id=1664871862&fbid=1343656165858> can be found thanks to a Facebook group, the Spekboom Carbon and Poverty Alleviation Project, actively growing and distributing spekboom plants by obtaining sponsorships that enables them “to provide Spekboom cuttings to, and pay impoverished citizens to plant spekboom in rural communities such as Barrydale in the Western Cape, South Africa.”  Join the group at HYPERLINK "" " _blank"<br />Let me wish you good luck and a greener environment, wherever you live in the drylands or in the cities, where the spekboom could be a precious plant for sidewalk greening or guerilla gardening. Anyway, in regions affected by severe droughts it is better to grow such a truly invaluable evergreen plant, resisting to bush fires, than all those rubbish, but readily accepted ‘exotic ornamentals’ of which some are invasive too. <br />`<br />