Crops For the Future with Professor Sayed Azam-Ali

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Episode Transcription:

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: This episode of the WSU Wheat Beat podcast was recorded on March 22, 2019, during the WSU Plant Science Symposium. The theme of the symposium was foundations for the future, embracing new agricultural technologies. As part of the program, five innovative researchers from across the U.S. and the world agreed to speak about their research. All five researchers also agreed to sit down with me for a few minutes to explain their work, and how it may relate to wheat growers in Eastern Washington.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Welcome back to our special series from the 2019 WSU Plant Science Symposium. My guest today is Sayed Azam-Ali. In 2011, Professor Sayed was appointed as the founding Chief Executive Officer of the Crops for the Future Research Center based near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Crops for the Future is the world’s first center dedicated to underutilized crops for food and nonfood uses. The essential problem tackled by Crops for the Future is that only four major crops now provide over 60% of the world’s food. This extreme lack of diversity in agriculture carries severe risk for global food supply, especially for a rising global population and a hotter, more volatile world. To alleviate these risks, Crops for the Future aims to unravel the potential of currently underutilized crops to diversify the global food basket with nutritious crops in the face of climate change. Hello Sayed.

Prof. Sayed Azam-Ali: Hello Drew.

Drew Lyon: So how are we going to feed the estimated 10 billion people who are going to be on this planet in 2050 and a planet that’s also hotter than it is today?

Prof. Sayed Azam-Ali: Well, the first thing to do is to recognize how much success we’ve already had. We have actually got global food security. We can always discuss distribution problems and waste and oversee, you know, transport chains and things but the four crops we have already are super-crops. They’re wonderful. They have fed us, and they actually provide the raw materials for most of the food. And maybe something like 65% of the world’s food is coming from four crops but that brings a problem with it because once — they have been successfully feeding 7 billion, 7.4 billion I think now the global population, will there be enough to feed 10 billion and, as you say, on a hotter planet? And if they won’t by themselves, we must look for other crops to complement them because we’re putting enormous pressure on those four crops to actually successfully not just feed us, but they’re providing fuel. And they’re providing, of course, animal feed. And they’re now providing biomaterials and that is a risk. If one of those crops fails, we all suffer.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So what are some of these forgotten foods, and why are they so important to you?

Prof. Sayed Azam-Ali: Well, we call them forgotten foods but actually we mean forgotten crops because the crops, of course, could be raw materials for lots of things. So we, ourselves, don’t list the crops. We don’t say here are the next ten. These are going to be the new, you know, we talk about quinoa. And we talk about these crops that suddenly become very significant. And if we do it one by one, it won’t really solve the problem. Each crop has got its own potential but actually what we’re trying to do is identify an approach that we can say — actually, you have to look at each crop following basic rules. The rules are the same. You know we have to start growing it. What is the potential in different conditions? What can we get from it critically? Can we get a market for it? If we can install the germplasm in gene banks, that’s great. But if we can actually use these crops, we must find an end-use. And actually what I’ve learned from 30 years of work in this field is that we have to start at the market end and not at the research genetic resource end. Of course, we’ve got to provide the results later, but we need a pipeline. You know, are we’re looking for energy crops? Are we looking for nutrition? Are you looking for new ways to make snacks that are actually lower in fat and obviously higher in protein? These sorts of issues are all related to what is the end-use that we actually want from our crops? And we call them forgotten foods because there are so many of these crops, of course, that can help diversify the human diet and that really seems to be what’s captured interest is the forgotten food title rather than the forgotten crops title.

Drew Lyon: Okay. I know even here in the states before coming to Washington I was a dryland cropping system specialist in Nebraska trying to diversify the cropping systems, and the markets are really important. So we could identify a lot of crops that sounded really interesting but until you can develop that marketplace and that whole chain of how you move the crop to the — from the field to the market, that’s all very important. And even here in Washington, I think we see the requirement to diversify our farming systems but it’s still difficult to find the markets. And I imagine you just multiply that by a factor of ten or more when you go to some of these other places in the world where they’re not — don’t have the infrastructure we have here in the United States.

Prof. Sayed Azam-Ali: You’re right. But I think if you mention your previous life, this is being, for me, and I’m very pleased that actually, I’m at Washington State University because my Ph.D. was in physics. And a very famous alumnus here, Professor Gaylon Campbell, was the co-supervisor or actually a very close friend of my supervisor, John Monteith. And they — you know, they did some fundamental work in the 70s and 80s on defining physics by physics and how we have to understand the whole system. And at that time it wasn’t very fashionable. We were basically either agriculturalists or, you know, sort of physicists. But what I learned from that is there are a lot of crops around that have suffered and survived. In other words, they’re still around without help, without research, without improvement. What we have to do is actually reconnect with those crops. Some of them will be good. Some of them will be very climate resilient and actually will have properties that we can now look at. So the journey has been a long one, but I really feel now there is public interest in diversity.

Drew Lyon: I think as we look at our student body here, a lot of our students are very interested in, like, quinoa that you mentioned and some of these alternative crops. And so I think there’s a lot of enthusiasm. And maybe it’s a way to attract students. How do you see us getting more students in agriculture?

Prof. Sayed Azam-Ali: You know, at the end of the day the consumer is getting a bit weary. And, of course, eating very similar foods all over the world is exciting at the beginning but later on, you want to go somewhere and eat something different. You want to find something which you haven’t seen before. And therefore there is, I think, a cultural drive now to find new food and look at new ingredients again. And there is a dietary requirement. And one of the interesting things and probably one of the very concerning things is we often think of climate change as it’s going to affect the yield of crops. We think of heat and drought and CO2, of course, itself. What it’s doing is it’s affecting the nutritional content of crops. And this is work. It’s called the great nutrient collapse. And it’s work being done in experiments around the USA as well as around the world looking at the effect of carbon dioxide and the effects it has on micronutrient content of the staple crops. So if you take zinc, selenium, iron, vitamins, they are decreasing with elevated carbon dioxide. Now if we just depend of those crops, we’re going to have a problem because that’s where our micronutrients are coming from. And there is other work now showing that the more diverse your diet, we don’t quite know why, but the more species you eat, the healthier you are because the number of species counts for all the ingredients within them. There are all these interactions in your gut, things which we haven’t really fully understood but it’s clearly associated with healthier lifestyles and therefore diversity is actually a health benefit as well as a cultural one, I think.

Drew Lyon: So you see this diversity as one of the emerging trends in our food systems around the globe today?

Prof. Sayed Azam-Ali: I’m convinced of that because the big industry is now getting interested. And when the big industry gets interested, clearly they are seeing that there is a potential. Now I’ve been around for long enough to know that 20 years ago if I said, “I’ve got a new crop for you,” it would have fallen on dead ears because — deaf ears because they would’ve said well, actually we’ve got perfectly good products already. Can we just improve the product? Can we actually make something out of a potato that looks different? That might give us a different market. The ingredient would still be the same. Now actually, the agri-food sector saying actually we want some more crops. We want ingredients that look and taste and feel different to the ones we’ve got now and once they’re interested — and the consumer is driving this not the agri-food sector — consumers are demanding more interesting food, quite frankly. And the interesting dynamic is it’s coming from the north. You know there is change: food, culture change in a country like Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany. I’m sure a large part of the USA, people are now saying actually we’re very interested in artisanal food or food that’s got an identity that’s different from what everybody else is eating and that’s also related to lifestyle. Now we might say it’s all middle-class. And you might just turn around and say well, actually, you can afford that. What about poor people? But it’s also part of that direction because it’s a time bomb. If you actually take health now, we have more fat people than thin people. We have more over-nourished than under-nourished people on the planet. And one of the big time bombs, demographic time bombs we’re facing is something called hidden hunger. Have you heard of hidden hunger?

Drew Lyon: I have not. Tell us a little bit about that.

Prof. Sayed Azam-Ali: So hidden hunger is when you look well-fed but actually, you’re short of micronutrients. And that means your diet, you’re eating plenty of calories because you look pretty good but, you know, you might be overweight but at the end of the day you don’t look ill but your micronutrient deficiencies are affecting. So things like zinc and selenium and iron, these are critical micronutrients that affect brain development. So, young children who are given a very monotonous diet end up having micronutrient deficiencies which, of course, they’ve got for life because it affects their brain development.

Drew Lyon: Right.

Prof. Sayed Azam-Ali: And they are becoming stunted. So we have a generation now of children in middle-class or affluent areas of the world who are actually micronutrient deficient. We call that hidden hunger and that’s why diet is going to be so important because who’s going to pay the bill?

Drew Lyon: Okay. So can you describe or tell us about one or two of these forgotten foods or forgotten crops that — maybe you can give us an example of what you’re doing and how — what kind of impact they have?

Prof. Sayed Azam-Ali: Let me give you a couple. Yeah. I mean there is a plant called moringa. Now moringa actually grows as a tree. It’s a shrub. And you can keep chopping the leaves off so it’s once. You know it’s perennial, keep growing it, but it’s got multiple uses. Now in traditional Indian diets, the pods become very — the pods are long. They call it the drumstick tree because it’s like a drumstick and, of course, that’s what people eat. But what we now know is the leaves contain enormous amounts of protein, very healthy, and vitamins. And what we’re doing is drying the leaves and making them into a powder, into something which you can then make into a soup or you can add the noodles or you can make into snack foods and cookies and biscuits and, of course, it’s very nutritious. But another name for the moringa is it’s called a miracle tree because it grows in very, very poor conditions. It originated in the Himalayas but has been spread across Africa and India and Southeast Asia and that is a tree that’s really got the credentials to be a crop of the future because it’s multi-use, resilient, and nutritious. Now that could be made into lots of products. Of course, it’s green. The leaves are green because you know there are certain — some people would find a green food unattractive because we eat green food all the time but that could be addressed. Another crop we’ve got is an African legume called bambara groundnut. And we’ve been growing that and working on that for a very long time. It’s almost our signature crop. And that is one that is grown right across the tropics on a small scale. And again it’s drought resistant. It’s nutritious. And we’re now finding we can make it into food and cuisine, this thing about forgotten foods, old recipes which we can rediscover, on land that’s no longer suitable for the big crops and that’s the breakthrough. Can we grow crops on land that increasingly becomes too vulnerable for our major crops?

Drew Lyon: Okay. So Eastern Washington, wheat is kind of king. We grow a lot of wheat here. We export a lot of wheat here. How can some of what you’re doing — what are some lessons we can take from that for this part of the world?

Prof. Sayed Azam-Ali: I think the first place I would suggest, and I’m not from here and I don’t pretend to advise you on what to do, but what I would ask for us to think about is take a sort of baseline and say what could I grow here? Don’t immediately just start growing it but use our database. We’ve developed models and databases and knowledge systems for about 2,300 crops. And that means we’re not going to tell you which to grow until we’ve run that model and said your soil, your conditions, your environment, your climate, your season gives us a list of maybe 20 crops that would be suitable here. From those, we’ve got two which might have economic potential. From those, we’ve got one that we think could be worth growing. So we’re taking on a lot because we realize it’s farmers who take the risk. If you’re going to take a new crop on and we’re telling you to do it, we better be sure that we’re giving you the right advice. So we would do an initial analysis of your situation, come up with a list of crops, and then you decide what is the end use? Do you want a break crop? Do you want it in a rotation? Do you want it as an economic niche crop, specialty ingredients? These are all issues we can address once we’ve found out whether you can actually grow it or not and what the increasing risk will be. The big thing is as we get into more and more… if your seasons are now becoming very fuzzy because it’s not clear what is winter and what is spring, I notice it’s cold outside, but it’s very bright and sunny today and there might be a late snow. Who knows? These sort of conditions are more frequent, the unpredictability.

Drew Lyon: Right.

Prof. Sayed Azam-Ali: And we’ve got to build unpredictability into the farming system because we can’t guarantee the seasons anymore.

Drew Lyon: So if our growers wanted to go to your organization and find out what crops might work here, where would they go to get that information?

Prof. Sayed Azam-Ali: Well, I think they’d do two things. First, go on to our website which is And that would give you our website and therefore they’d get an introduction to CFF, Crops of the Future. But I would suggest then they talk to our knowledge base people and say actually we’d like to run this model. We won’t even come and do it. We basically ask you a location and then say given your climate and soil, this is what is potentially growable. And, of course, you could look at that and say actually that’s nonsense. That crop could never grow here. And you might be right. You know, we’re not pretending we’re going to be perfect the first time, but we will reduce the risks by coming up with a list of viable crops that are matched against the agri-climate conditions that you have. And then we can start from there and say is it worth looking at these crops as potential?

Drew Lyon: Okay. And again that’s

Prof. Sayed Azam-Ali: That’s the one.

Drew Lyon: Okay. Well, thank you very much. This is a very interesting topic. I’m sure our growers will be interested in it. And I appreciate you taking the time to visit with us.

Prof. Sayed Azam-Ali: Thank you very much. I’ve enjoyed it.

[ Music ]

Drew Lyon: Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcasting app. If you have questions or topics, you’d like to hear on future episodes please email me at drew.lyon That’s ( You can find us online at and on Facebook and Twitter @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University. I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.

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