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Breathing new life into ancient crops for climate resilience


The world’s food systems need to be transformed to build climate resilience, reduce hunger and improve nutrition. With staple crops such as rice, wheat and maize increasingly vulnerable to rising temperatures, soil salinization and changes in rainfall, underused ancient crops are important ingredients in this transition.  

IDRC’s contributions to food system transformation build on a long history of supported research in agriculture, nutrition, food security and women’s economic empowerment. In the context of climate change, decades of research into a range of traditional, underused foods — such as quinoa, small millets, sorghum and pulses — takes on new relevance. A review of IDRC’s long-term investment in underused crops argues that not only are they valuable in increasing resilience to droughts, pests, disease and other impacts of climate change, but they can enhance nutrition.  

Along with testing, improving and expanding cultivation of these sustainable and nutritious foods, IDRC-supported research explores entire value chains to seek opportunities to scale up production and consumption while empowering small-scale producers and vendors, most of whom are women.  

Supporting new markets and green jobs through quinoa 

Today prized as a superfood for its high protein, fibre and mineral content, quinoa is a traditional Andean pseudograin that has found its way into kitchens around the world. With its ability to grow in arid, salty soils and mountainous terrain and its many cultivars suited to a wide range of growing temperatures and rainfall levels, quinoa offers a valuable climate-resilient food source. 

IDRC was an early investor in research on quinoa. Starting in the 1970s, the Centre funded Bolivian research on new varieties adapted to different conditions. We have sustained our support over decades, including backing efforts by Bolivia to have 2013 declared the UN International Year of Quinoa. This designation provided a global impetus for further research, new markets and wider adoption. 

Our support for quinoa-based livelihoods in Bolivia continues today, with current research focused on creating green jobs for Indigenous women. Quinoa production is a key livelihood source for many Indigenous households, but these livelihoods are precarious. In 2019, household surveys found that 91% of agricultural employment was vulnerable, with women, mostly Indigenous, the least secure. Research led by the Institute for Advanced Development Studies is exploring how social security measures, carbon markets, fair trade standards and agricultural insurance can better support Indigenous women in the quinoa sector while also testing climate-adapted agricultural best practices. 

IDRC-supported research is also expanding adoption of this ancient grain in water-scarce Morocco, where 30% of the soils in irrigated areas are salt-affected. Quinoa was first introduced in the early 2000s, but a 2016 survey of studies conducted over 15 years showed that expanding its production and consumption in the Middle East and North Africa would require well-adapted high-yield varieties, effective crop management practices, strong value chains and linking farmers to markets. Working with six farmers’ cooperatives in Rhamna province, research generated new evidence to promote the scaling of quinoa as a strategic crop that can improve both resilience and livelihoods.  

Improved varieties introduced and tested during the project increased the yields of rainfed crops by 38% and of irrigated crops by 121%. Thanks to these added yields and quinoa’s high tolerance to environmental stress, the net profit per hectare more than tripled, with producers able to earn more than seven times what they would have from planting wheat and barley.  

Working with four women-led cooperatives, the project introduced new machinery that substantially reduced the drudgery of processing quinoa grains. Women further benefited from expanded market access, with one cooperative now distributing through Morocco’s main supermarket supply chain. Export opportunities have also opened up thanks to the creation of the country’s first group of organic quinoa producers.   

Photo by Petterik Wiggers/Panos
Petterik Wiggers/Panos

Putting small millets back on the table 

Once a staple for many farming families in India, micro-nutrient-rich small millets were largely displaced by the industrialization of agriculture and the widespread promotion of wheat and rice through the country’s public distribution system. As these higher-yielding cereals prove vulnerable to a range of climate stresses, small millets are once again proving their value.  

The International Year of Millets in 2023 will bring renewed focus to these small but mighty grains. Needing little water or fertilizer, they have a short growing season that allows farmers to include them in warm spells during their seasonal crop rotation. For farmers with few resources to invest, small millets offer healthier diets, food security and economic opportunities.  

Building on earlier research that demonstrated their nutritional value while also highlighting key barriers to expanding their production and consumption, IDRC supported a series of innovations to reintroduce small millets on a wider scale. One key challenge is the drudgery of hulling the grains, a job typically done by women. Through collaborative research, Canadian and Indian scientists worked jointly to scale up the use of more efficient dehullers that reduce this labour.  

Working across local value chains, they also created business opportunities for equipment manufacturers and food enterprises, increasing local access to affordable ready-to-cook and ready-to-eat small millet products. Medium-scale enterprises in 10 states in India were supplied with 192 units for processing millets, with the resulting products serving nearly 300,000 customers.  

In Tamil Nadu, micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises received tailored support to improve the quality and hygiene of their production and marketing practices. The project also promoted value-added technologies across eastern, central and northern India, building the capacity of potential adopters and promoters such as NGOs and government agencies. The research involved with these innovations contributed to “Millet Mission” initiatives in several states and has helped make the case for including small millets in government-subsidized food distribution programs. 

Towards more resilient and empowering food systems  

Solutions that combine climate resilience, healthy diets and the empowerment of women and other vulnerable groups is critical across IDRC investments in food systems. In partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation, Catalyzing Change for Healthy and Sustainable Food Systems is synthesizing new evidence to advance healthy, equitable and sustainable diets through transformative food systems. 

In Ethiopia, for example, researchers are mapping food systems to identify entry points for policy action to influence the availability and affordability of protective and healthy foods. In Kenya, research is exploring how microbusinesses can play a role in shifting consumer preferences from ultra-processed foods to more sustainable and healthy choices.  

Achieving climate resilience in agriculture is also fundamentally about strengthening the resilience of agricultural communities using social, economic and policy levers that provide a greater say for vulnerable communities in shaping their future.  

In Central and South America, the Middle East and North Africa, a cohort of seven projects supported under IDRC’s Transforming Food Systems Initiative aims to advance a shift in food-system leadership by understanding how equity-seeking groups can benefit from and drive the change process. Research in three territories of Colombia, for example, will test how empowering Indigenous communities can contribute to positive changes in their agri-food systems.  

Tapping Indigenous knowledge, the project will investigate what changes best respond to community aspirations and find ways to help equity-seeking groups shape key decisions about their food systems. 

Learn more about IDRC’s work to transform food systems