Rapidly developing biotechnology applications aimed at improving major crops receive large investments and could, in theory, play a role in the promotion of underutilised plant species in the tropics and subtropics, in order to address current and emerging challenges for agriculture. The application of such methods is, however, sometimes controversial, and the frequently considerable costs involved must be weighed against the limited resources available to develop underutilised species, as well as against the many alternative methods available for promotion. Through database searches, we take an evidence-based approach to assess whether there are clear examples where biotechnology has been used practically to enhance the cultivation of underutilised plants at a field level. We conclude that tissue culture and micropropagation techniques have proven useful, but for other applications benefits are generally unclear at present, although ongoing work suggests genomic and genetic modification approaches may in future be significant for a subset of underutilised species. Successful outcomes, however, appear to be limited by a lack of integrated thinking during the use of biotechnology methods. We review the particular limitations and risks associated with applying biotechnology to underutilised crops, including the negative consequences of technology centralisation. In addition, the specific actions needed to ensure that smallholder farmers in low-income countries better benefit during the use of biotechnology on underutilised species, by placing a stronger emphasis on partnerships and by proper monitoring of benefits along value chains, are described.
- Practical application
- Underutilised plants