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3 Insanely Important Crops You've Never Heard Of

September 12, 2013

Everybody knows the names of plants we grow in the western world - our top five are corn, soybeans, hay (grass), wheat, and cotton. But there are crops around the world feeding millions of people - and most of us have never even heard of them. Here's a roundup of some of the most interesting crops you likely haven't seen at the supermarket.


Scientific name: Vigna unguiculata.

Where it's grown: Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, Asia, and parts of North America.

Why it's a big deal: The cowpea is so nutritious and adaptable that NASA chose to study it as a plant to grow on space stations. The cowpea withstands heat, drought, poor soil, and shade, so it's adaptable to poor growing conditions. It's such a bad-ass plant that it will even improve poor soil if the roots are left in the soil to rot after harvesting.

Bonus trivia: Millions of African families sell their cowpea crops for a living, but weevil infestations can destroy up to half of each year's crop after it's harvested. In 2009, Purdue University delivered a simple solution to farmers doing battle with the weevil: the PICS bag (short for Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage), a three-layer sack that protects the crop from weevils. Purdue even filmed a sketch explaining how a simple bag can solve pest problems, without the need for post-harvest pesticides.


Scientific name: Pennisetum glaucum.

Where it's grown: India, plus the drylands of West and Central Africa.

Why it's a big deal: Pearl millet is a staple food for more than 90 million people in the driest parts of Africa and Asia. It's a cereal crop, but is super drought- and heat-tolerant, so it'll grow where maize and sorghum can't. It's also a very healthy food, providing protein, amino acids, iron, and zinc.

Bonus trivia: Even though pearl millet is an extremely nutritious food, there's a cultural stigma attached to it. In some areas it's considered "poor-man's food," so it's hard to market. This is a situation similar to what potatoes and even lobster faced in the U.S. years ago - so attitudes can change.


Scientific name: Manihot esculenta Crantz.

Also known as: Yuca, manioc, and mandioca.

Where it's grown: Around the world; these 10 countries account for 75% of global production: Nigeria, Brazil, Thailand, Indonesia, Congo, Ghana, Tanzania, India, and Mozambique.

Why it's a big deal: Several studies say that cassava contributes more than any other single crop to household income. It's a staple food for 500 million people, who rely on it for calories - and many farmers feed its leaves to animals as fodder. Cassava is also handy because you can leave it in the ground until you're ready to eat it. Hey, free food storage!

Why it may soon be a bigger deal: One bummer about cassava is that it's not a great source of nutrition. This is especially a problem for children, who receive only 4% of the vitamin A they need from a typical meal of standard cassava. A team of scientists developed BioCassava Plus, which beefs up the crop's beta-carotene content by 3,000% (the body converts beta-carotene to vitamin A), and its iron content by 400%.

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