Each spring, canola blossoms paint entire German landscapes a bright sunny yellow. Ever since the 16th century, this cruciferous plant has been a mainstay of our countryside – in the same way that the vegetable oil extracted from it is a mainstay on our supermarket shelves. Initially, however, the oil-rich seeds were bitter and inedible. Only after farmers had bred canola varieties without these bitter glucosinolates and erucic acid did they arrive at the current plant from which oil is pressed. According to the German Food Association (DGE), canola oil is considered the healthiest among the fats.
From orphan to star performer
It was the inedible canola that researchers now consider an “orphan crop”. It had been an orphan among the plants, and it only became a star through the process of domestication – a career that other orphan crops are still awaiting. After all, while Earth holds approximately 300,000 edible plants in store for humans, only a fraction ends up on our plates.
Instead, rice, wheat and corn feed half of humankind while – according to the Global Hunger Index 2021 – more than 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger. Meanwhile, the war in Ukraine, and the associated supply shortages of wheat, further exacerbate malnutrition. For these reasons, scientists are working on cultivating orphan crops. In Africa, universities, industry partners and non-governmental organizations have come together to form the “African Orphan Crops Consortium” with the goal of deciphering the genomes of the 101 most important African plant species.
Among them: ebolo. This plant, also known as Crassocephalum crepidioides, grows in Nigeria. With its basil-green leaves it resembles spinach, and it is consumed as a vegetable. Rich in vitamins and minerals, ebolo is also served as a popular salad in Australia and Asia. The downside: the plant contains a poison, even small amounts of which are capable of damaging the liver or even causing cancer. Researchers at the Technical University of Munich have thus set out to breed a variety without these toxins. Even the predecessors of today’s zucchini, tomatoes, peppers and potatoes employed toxins to protect themselves from pests, and it was only through breeding that palatable varieties were granted entry into our kitchens.