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539. Prospects and Potential of Amaranths and Underutilized Crops for Health Promotion

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Large-scale climate change and severe malnutrition, referred to as ‘hidden hunger’, are among the global challenges with more severe effects in developing countries, where population growth rates and urbanization are accelerating, than in developed countries. JIRCAS, in collaboration with the World Vegetable Center, has been conducting research on vegetable utilization and nutritional properties of amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), one of the underutilized genetic resources known as ‘orphan crops’, with the aim of improving human health and income of farmers in developing countries.
The global food system is dependent on a few plant and animal species and lineages, leading to vulnerabilities in crop breeding strategies aimed at conserving genetic diversity and improving environmental adaptability. Biofortification is based on a breeding strategy to increase the nutritional value of crops and is already widely accepted in Africa (De Brauw et al., 2018). The use of orphan crops may be an effective way to address climate change and human nutrition issues that are prominent in developing countries in Africa and Asia (McMullin et al., 2021). However, the potential role of many locally adapted varieties and plant species in adapting to global challenges remains poorly validated and understood, and is neglected in modern plant breeding technology (Kamenya et al., 2021).
Orphan crops include fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains that are restricted to specific regions and are not traded internationally (McMullin et al., 2021). Although orphan crops are less important in the economies and agriculture of developed countries (Sogbohossou et al., 2018), most orphan crops include species and cultivars that are nutritious and adaptable to extreme environmental stress (Dawson et al., 2019). Orphan crops are therefore not only likely to contribute to sustainable agricultural technologies for people living in low-income countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America (Tilman et al., 2011), but also have the potential to provide novel and diverse health foods for consumers in developed countries (Dawson et al., 2019).
To build a sustainable food system for future societies,  it is indispensable to ensure healthy living and low environmental impact. A review article Prospects and potentials of underutilized leafy amaranths as vegetable use for health promotion recently published in the international journal Plant Physiology and Biochemistry, discusses the potential of orphan crops that are nutritious, adaptable to current agricultural production systems, and highly resilient under environmental stresses, as a strategy for building sustainable food systems that are healthier and have less environmental impact. In particular, the potential of amaranths in terms of environmental variability, nutritional value, health benefits, and medicinal uses was described, focusing on the physiological and medicinal functions, biosynthetic pathways, and molecular and biochemical mechanisms of betalains, a unique antioxidant component in amaranth vegetables. While considerable progress has been made in nutritional research involving orphan crops, amaranth and betalains in the past decade, many aspects of research still lag far behind. It is hoped that amaranth germplasm will be collected worldwide to characterize genetic resources, identify cultivars, use genotyping and omics tools, and develop genome-wide DNA markers. The use of amaranth, an orphan crop that is highly nutritious and demonstrates resilience to extreme environmental stresses, is likely to benefit future sustainable agricultural systems.
Based on the findings of this review, JIRCAS will promote research on environmental adaptability and nutrition using underutilized genetic resources such as amaranth to help solve the problems of climate change and human nutrition that are prominent in developing regions in Africa and Asia.
1. Orphan crops: include fruits, vegetables, legumes, and grains that are produced and consumed in specific regions and not traded internationally. Examples include amaranth, baobab, moringa, quinoa, and finger millet. Orphan crops are underutilized food plants and are of low importance in the economies and agriculture of developed countries.
2. Antioxidant: a general term for substances including polyphenols and carotenoids that inhibit the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS) and their functions.
3. Betalains: plant pigments that give reddish purple and yellow color to plant flowers and fruits. It is divided into two types: betacyanin, which gives red to reddish purple color, and betaxanthin, which gives yellow color. The production of betacyanin is restricted to plant species of the order Caryophyllales that includes amaranth, cactus and carnation. It is known to have a high antioxidant function that removes reactive oxygen species (ROS).
Photo: Phenotypes of diverse amaranth genetic resources grown at the World Vegetable Center in Taiwan


Dawson, I.K., Attwood, S.J., Park, S.E., Jamnadass, R., Powell, W., Sunderland, T., Kindt, R., McMullin, S., Hoebe, P.N., Baddeley, J., 2019. Contributions of biodiversity to the sustainable intensification of food production–Thematic study for The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture.

De Brauw, A., Eozenou, P., Gilligan, D.O., Hotz, C., Kumar, N., Meenakshi, J., 2018. Biofortification, crop adoption and health information: impact pathways in Mozambique and Uganda. Am. J. Agric. Econ. 100, 906-930.

Kamenya, S.N., Mikwa, E.O., Song, B., Odeny, D.A., 2021. Genetics and breeding for climate change in Orphan crops. Theor. Appl. Genet. 134, 1787-1815. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00122-020-03755-1

McMullin, S., Stadlmayr, B., Mausch, K., Revoredo-Giha, C., Burnett, F., Guarino, L., Brouwer, I.D.,

Jamnadass, R., Graudal, L., Powell, W., Dawson, I.K., 2021. Determining appropriate interventions to mainstream nutritious orphan crops into African food systems. Glob. Food Sec. 28, 100465. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gfs.2020.100465

Sarkera, U., Lin, Y.-P., Oba, S., Yoshioka, Y. Hoshikawa, K. 2022. Prospects and potentials of underutilized leafy Amaranths as vegetable use for health-promotion. Plant Physiology and Biochemistry, 182, 104-123. DOI:10.1016/j.plaphy.2022.04.011

Sogbohossou, E.D., Achigan-Dako, E.G., Maundu, P., Solberg, S., Deguenon, E.M., Mumm, R.H., Hale, I., Van Deynze, A., Schranz, M.E., 2018. A roadmap for breeding orphan leafy vegetable species: a case study of Gynandropsis gynandra (Cleomaceae). Hortic. Res. 5, 1-15. DOI 10.1038/s41438-017-0001-2

Tilman, D., Balzer, C., Hill, J., Befort, B.L., 2011. Global food demand and the sustainable intensification of agriculture. PNAS. 108, 20260-20264.

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Contributor: HOSHIKAWA Ken (Biological Resources and Post-harvest Division)