blog header banner
whole grain millets

The rise of high-yield commodity crops during the last half of the 20th century helped dramatically decrease world hunger. Yet, even as wider distribution of the “big five” crops—wheat, rice, corn, potatoes, and soybeans—delivered calories to underfed populations, another form of deprivation emerged known as “hidden hunger.” 

Hidden hunger refers to deficiencies of micronutrients such as zinc, iron, iodine, and vitamins A, B9, and B12 in foods resulting in widespread malnutrition, says Kiruba Krishnaswamy, assistant professor of sustainable food systems engineering at the University of Missouri-Columbia and chair of IFT’s International Division. “When we talk about hunger, we tend to talk about chronic hunger,” Krishnaswamy adds, “but hidden hunger is just as dangerous and affects roughly one-third of the global population.” 

A new white paper developed from an expert roundtable convened by IFT’s Food and Nutrition Security Steering Committee explores how food science and technology can tackle hidden hunger by developing the world’s so-called “underutilized crops” and through biofortification, a process that boosts crops’ nutritional value. Both approaches support the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030, from achieving zero hunger to combating climate change.

“Underutilized and biofortified crops have tremendous potential to improve food and nutrition security around the globe,” says Krishnaswamy, who served as a panelist for the roundtable and is a 2024 recipient of the National Science Foundation’s prestigious CAREER award to fund her ongoing research in these areas. “It’s the task of food science and technology to unlock this potential.” Below, she delves into these dual approaches and the promise they hold for people and the planet.

What are underutilized crops and how can they fight hidden hunger? 

Underutilized crops refer to the thousands and thousands of grains, fruits, and vegetables that exist in every corner of the world but, due to a variety of factors, have been ignored or underdeveloped. These crops are high in vitamins and minerals, can withstand drought, and are resilient when it comes to climate change. They hold significance for local and Indigenous populations but are generally not grown in large volumes and don’t have a supply chain set up that makes them readily accessible to consumers. Some examples are millet, quinoa, elderberries, and black walnuts. With their high nutritional profile and strong sustainability factors, these and other underutilized crops are keys to solving the problem of hidden hunger, and I see their recovery as a win-win situation. We need to feed people with nutritious food, and we also need to think about water, energy, and land resources. 

With all their many benefits, it seems these crops should be maximized. Why aren’t they?

It has to do with a complex interaction of social, economic, and political factors that took place over decades and short-term decisions that were made without thinking about longer-term impact. Traditionally, most of the knowledge about growing these crops was transferred from one generation to the next when people were living in agrarian communities. But in the wake of the industrial revolution and after the world wars, people started moving away from their communities to urban areas. In the process, this knowledge transfer was lost. In addition, governments started to focus on the production of major crops like rice, wheat, and corn, and subsidies were given only to these crops. Naturally, farmers began growing crops that would earn them income. So, over the past 50 years, we have vastly reduced consuming, growing, and processing these underutilized crops. 

Another approach to combating nutrition insecurity is biofortification. Can you explain what it is and its overlap with underutilized crops?

Biofortification is the process of increasing the micronutrient content of a food crop through breeding and genetic modification. With biofortification, we can embed micronutrients right into the grain to make iron-rich beans, zinc-rich rice, or vitamin A-rich orange-flesh sweet potatoes, so that when people are consuming those foods, they’re taking in those important nutrients. Some underutilized crops might be candidates for biofortification—that’s where these approaches overlap. 

Why is this topic so urgent right now? 

This topic is critically important because of factors like the climate crisis. When we have droughts and floods, we need alternative food solutions so that we are no longer dependent on the major five crops. During Covid, we saw how vulnerable our food supply chain is. It’s high time we realize we need a backup plan; we need to create resilient food systems. If we want to be more resilient, we need to be more diverse.

You grew up in India. Are there underutilized crops that you ate during your youth that are experiencing a revival? 

My grandfather used to grow rice and millets, and I grew up eating a lot of millets. With globalization, rice was given more economic incentives, and so farmers turned to rice farming intensively. But now, millets are making a comeback. The United Nations declared 2023 the International Year of Millets, and this gave these ancient grains a big boost in terms of public attention. In India, there are startup companies, such as Wholsum Foods – Slurrp Farm that are developing millet-based noodles and other millet-based healthy foods. There are a lot of product development, breeding, and processing initiatives happening, and the government is supporting these initiatives. 

How about in the United States?

Millets are also making a comeback in the U.S. Go to a grocery store and you can see a whole slew of them—proso millet, little millet, finger millet, pearl millet. The beauty of it is that each one has a different nutritional profile; the essential amino acids, the dietary fibers, the protein content all vary from one type to the next. I was surprised to learn that most of these millets used to grow in North America, and even here in the Midwest, we’ve learned that millets were once part of the food ecosystem for the Native Americans. Research from professor Rob Myers, director of the Center for Regenerative Agriculture at the University of Missouri-Columbia, has proven that the Midwest continues to be a wonderful place to grow all kinds of millets. These crops can be grown with limited inputs; all we need to do is revive them.

What is the biggest challenge to increasing our use of underutilized crops? 

The biggest challenge is supply chain. Most of these crops come from smallholder farmers, and the supply chain is just not there yet. But there are initiatives in the works to change this, and the more we talk and the more there is consumer demand, the supply chain will develop. Another challenge is with processing. We’ve had discussions with farmers in Nebraska and Idaho who grow millets but need better infrastructure in place to process them. Different millets vary by size, shape, and morphology, and they need to be dehulled and shelled accordingly. We need the proper equipment to ensure these grains don’t get broken during processing, causing food loss. 

Underutilized crops, like millet, seem like a golden opportunity for product developers. Can you speak to this?

Most millets are gluten free. That ticks off the biggest box. And, they have very interesting texture profiles. Some have very high protein, interesting essential amino acid profiles, and different functional properties, so there is enormous potential for their use in baked goods, health drinks, and other new food and beverage products. These are untapped resources that deserve much more exploration and development.  

Interested in learning more? Check out IFT's new white paper on biofortified and underutilized crops issued by our Food and Nutrition Security Steering Committee; explore the work of IFT’s International Division, many of whose members helped informed the white paper; and delve into additional IFT food and nutrition security resources.

April Content Spotlight: AgTech

Stay up to date on the latest topics and trends in agricultural technology with IFT's featured resources, from blogs to peer-reviewed articles to on-demand videos.

Get More Brain Food

Read More Blog Posts