Lead: Iago Hale
Abstract: Farming systems around the world face unprecedented environmental, resource, and biotic challenges to their sustained performance, while the demand for productivity increases. One strategy for helping to address this challenge entails a radical diversification of cropping systems through the development of currently underutilized plant species, particularly those which exhibit superior adaptation, nutritional composition, and stress tolerance traits. Of the estimated 50,000 edible plant species on the planet, a mere three (corn, rice, and wheat) provide roughly 2/3 of the world’s consumed calories. The potential of so-called orphan, neglected, under-researched, or underutilized crops to complement well-established cropping systems, not only providing new options for producers but enhancing overall food system resilience, is increasingly being recognized, particularly in the developing world where many climactic, environmental, and resource limitations have become evident. Such constraints are global, however, suggesting that the strategic development of underutilized plant genetic diversity is likely to be a key component of agricultural adaptation in the coming decades, including here in New England. The long-term vision motivating this working group is the establishment of an interdisciplinary, externally-funded center at UNH dedicated to the practical improvement of underutilized crops as essential components of forward-looking regional food systems. The first step toward that vision is the development of a coherent roadmap for such research, which is the short-term goal of this project over the coming year.