The demand for food and shelter is ever increasing with the growth of the world population. This is threatening environmental sustainability and expanding the gap between resources available and the ability to meet human needs. This is where multipurpose crops are playing a key role in supporting an overall farm system.
Multipurpose crops are successfully integrated with farming and forestry to improve crop yields, diversify products, and improve farm sustainability in the long-term.
Human beings are fulfilling their needs by depleting natural resources. Currently, exploring crop species that can fulfil the life requirements of both humans and animals without degrading natural resources has become a major challenge. Therefore, the research on underutilized crops is of high interest among plant scientists.
Plants with a long history are being researched because of their vigorous growth, high nutritional value and multipurpose applications in medicine, textiles, livestock feed, and environmental conservation. It can be cultivated in versatile conditions, including tropical, subtropical and temperate regions.
Here we discuss the multipurpose utilization and nutritional importance of multipurpose crops and their market needs.
What are Multipurpose Crops?
Farmers have been growing crops for different purposes for thousands of years. Most of the commonly grown plants are cereal like wheat, rice, maize and others.
These plants are grown to provide more than one significant purpose like conservation, fuelwood, shade, fiber, fodder or medicine.
Farmers are seen to grow multipurpose crops in various combinations with other crops for different purposes.
Farmers facing changing conditions in their present environment tend to change the crops they were cultivated to meet the market demands.
Benefits of Multipurpose Crops
1 Nitrogen Fixing
Nitrogen fixation is a process of nutrient cycling, which has proved to be very successful in legumes. Legumes, as you might be aware, are nitrogen fixers and are of particular importance in agriculture. Legumes are able to return their stored nitrogen to the soil through root decay for subsequent crops to utilize. They are very valuable in subtropical and tropical landscapes. They can be integrated into any farmland to restore nutrient cycling and fertility self-reliance. Scientists believe nitrogen produced as a result of rhizobia is the best way to supply the Nitrogen needs of a legume crop.
2 Improves Soil Quality
Multipurpose crops like fodder and forage help to restore the soil nutrients after the farmland has undergone a few seasons of farming. This is possible as the root systems of these perennial forages add significant amounts of soil organic matter. The soil organic matter aids in decomposing organisms, which in turn significantly affects the soil structure, water-holding capacity of the soil and its resistance to erosion.
3 Alley Farming
Alley cropping systems are sometimes called intercropping and are prevalent, especially in tropical areas. It is attractive to farmers interested in growing multiple crops on the same farmland to improve the whole-farm yield. Farmers prefer growing multipurpose crops in close proximity to other regular crops. This can create significant benefits to farmers, such as improved crop production and microclimate benefits and help them manage risk.
Uses of Multipurpose Crops
1 Sugarcane a Source of Biomass, a Renewable Energy Source
Sugarcane is a multipurpose crop, and its components are used for other purposes – like for various energy carriers or end-products (electricity, liquid biofuels and heat), which enhance its economic potential.
Over the years, agronomists have tried to increase the sucrose yields of the sugarcane crop. Today sugarcane is a popular multipurpose crop, especially in the developing tropics.
Sugarcane is one of the most promising agricultural sources of biomass energy in the world. Sugarcane plants produce a good amount of sugarcane biomass. Sugarcane primarily produces two types of biomass, Bagasse and Cane Trash.
Renewable energy is the world’s fastest-growing energy source, as it plays a vital role in meeting future energy demands. In such a scenario, biomass is considered a good source of renewable energy both in developing and industrialized countries worldwide.
As a result, global interest in sugarcane has significantly increased in recent years due to its large contribution to bioethanol, heat and electricity production.
Sugarcane is categorized as a high potential bioenergy feedstock because
-It has a larger annual biomass yield.
-Known for its high positive energy balance.
-It is photosynthetically efficient than most other crops grown in the tropical climatic conditions
The thermal power plants in most developing countries supply people with 30% of their household electricity needs. Once the juice is extracted from the sugarcane after crushing, it is then heated to dry before being squashed. In the incineration plant, the dried leftovers are burnt in a combustion chamber. The heat produced is used for boiling water and the steam produced is then utilized to drive a turbine of a generator that produces electricity.
2 Multipurpose Crops for Fiber
Kenaf – A Fiber Crop
The manufacturing industry today is increasingly using natural plant fibers in many industrial products because of their renewable and biodegradable nature. The kenaf plant is native to East Africa, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years for food and fiber.
The kenaf leaves were consumed in animal and human diets. It is a commonly found wild plant in the tropics of Asia and Africa.
The kenaf plant contains two kinds of fiber that are found in the bast (bark) and core (wood). The bast fiber is often used for manufacturing bags, cordage and sails for boats.
Kenaf is an annual bast fiber crop that provides fiber for several industrial applications like bedding material, insulation mats, composites, absorbents etc, as well as raw material for energy exploitation (solid biofuels). Also a source of textile fiber for products such as rope, bagging, twine and rugs.
Kenaf belongs to the Malvaceae family and is quite similar to cotton, hollyhock, okra and roselle. Kenaf is slowly gaining popularity and is being cultivated in 20 countries having a total production (kenaf and allied crops) of about 350,000 tons in 2011. Currently, Pakistan and China are the main producers of this multipurpose crop.
Kenaf is an annual non-food fiber crop that is cultivated for numerous purposes apart from fiber like paper pulp, fabrics, textiles, building materials and oil absorbents. Recently, it is also recognized as an important medicinal crop as its seed oil is recorded to cure specific health disorders and help in the control of cholesterol and blood pressure. Moreover, the leaves and flowers are being used in the treatment of heart disorders.
What are Fiber Crops?
Fiber crops or plant fibers are natural fibers as they are obtained naturally from different sources of plants. The different sources of plant fibers are – kenaf, cotton, jute, coir, hemp and flax. Before the introduction of any of these synthetic fibers, natural fibers were extensively used in the manufacturing of paper, cloth, ropes, etc. The fiber crops were the only source of these natural fibers in the manufacturing industries. Fiber crops are primarily grouped into three categories: textile fibers, filling fibers and cordage fibers.
3 Multipurpose Crop – Oil Crops
Oil bearing crops or oil crops as they are commonly called, include both perennial and annual plants whose seeds, fruits and nuts are valued mainly for the edible or industrial oils that are extracted from different parts of the plant.
Besides the most prominent oil crops like soybean, palm, peanuts, rapeseed and sunflower(from sunflower plant), many other crops such as canola, mustard, flax, jatropha, coconut, hemp and pennycress are also good resources of oil.
Most of these oilseed crops are harvested for the purpose of oil extraction, which is contained in their seeds.
Oilseed crops are also used as biofuels. In Europe, oil crops like rapeseed are the base ingredient for the production of biodiesel. Whereas in Brazil and Argentina, soybean oil is the most dominant biodiesel fuel feedstock. In south-east Asia, Indonesia and Malaysia harvest palm oil, which forms the main feedstock. In Europe, biodiesel primarily comes from crops like rapeseed, soybean and palm oil.
The usage of Corn oil is also gaining momentum in the United States, where massive volumes of maize are used in ethanol production. In recent years the US ethanol industry has implemented corn oil extraction technology; they have helped to increase revenue in the majority of US ethanol plants. In the US, corn oil forms the fourth most common biodiesel feedstock. The top three oil crops include soybean oil, sunflower oil and canola oil.
4 Multipurpose Crop – Fodder or Forage
Fodder crops are cultivated exclusively for livestock feed. These crops form the main source of nutrients for the livestock. Fodder crops are generally classified as either temporary or permanent crops.
The first type is cultivated and harvested like any other crop. Whereas permanent fodder crops generally refer to farmlands that are permanently (for five years or more) used for herbaceous forage crops.
Some of the best fodder crops are corn and hay. Fodder crops help in reducing the financial burden for the farmers who own dairy farms, sheep farms or goat farms, from buying commercial fodder.
Fodder crops differ from commercial and food crops in many ways, the way they are cultivated and harvested. Fodder crops show wide adaptability in terms of growth, regeneration potential, yield and quality of herbage.
In most developing countries, dairy animals are reared on crop residues. It is because there is only a 60% availability of dry fodder and cultivated fodder. Therefore, it becomes necessary to increase the area of cultivation under fodder crops.
The four classifications of fodder crops are:
- Cereal fodder
- Legume fodder
- Tree fodder
Fodder Crop Examples
1 Fodder Sorghum – cereal fodder crop example
- i) Grows fast.
iii) Drought withstanding ability.
- iv) Highly suitable for making hay and silage.
- v) The improved high breed varieties are capable of yielding 50 tonnes/ha.
2 Fodder Maize – cereal fodder crop example
- i) Maize has high demand as it is used as food, feed and poultry feed.
- ii) Can be grown in both seasons.
1 Guinea grass – grass fodder plant example
- i) Guinea grass is a perennial grass.
- ii) Grows to a height of more than 1m.
2 Blue Buffelgrass — grass fodder plant example
- i) Blue buffelgrass is also a perennial grass.
- ii) The Maize has high demand as it is used as food, feed and poultry feed.
3 Para grass — grass fodder plant example
- i) A perennial grass.
- ii) Grows to a height of more than 1m.
5 Multipurpose Crop – Cosmetics
Cosmetic products were used nearly 12,000 years ago when the Egyptians discovered the benefits of essential oils. Since then, cosmetics have been an integral part of religious ceremonies, especially those of the upper classes of society.
In Rome, women were not considered beautiful if they were not using cosmetics. This belief led to an increase in prices for beauty products.
Slowly cosmetics became popular in Japan, France, England and other European countries. Natural ingredients like flowers, fruit seeds, powders, oils, etc, were used to make these products.
With the advances made in the pharmacy industry, it is possible to use natural ingredients and prepare synthetic ingredients to be used in the beauty industry. As natural ingredients are safe to use, they are in high demand by the manufacturers.
Hence there is a great opportunity for farmers who focus on growing crops that are used in the cosmetics industry. Some of these crops include aloe vera, roses, calendula, lavender, jojoba, tea plant, chamomile, geranium, basil and rosemary.
Example of Popular Cosmetic Multipurpose Crops
i) Sunﬂower oil
Sunﬂower seeds contain polyunsaturated fats, typically rich in triglycerides of linoleic acid, an essential fatty acid our body needs to maintain healthy skin.
Recent studies indicate that the cutaneous application of the sunﬂower oil increases the linoleic acid levels of our skin. In addition, it also lowers transepidermal water loss, thus helping to eliminate scaly lesions commonly observed in patients with fatty acid deﬁciency.
Sunﬂower oil is used on bruises and for psoriasis, a skin disorder where cells multiply up to 10 times faster. The new varieties of sunﬂower-hybrid oil with high oleic acid content and excellent oxidative stability are used as a raw material in cosmetic preparation.
ii) Castor oil
Castor oil is obtained from castor beans containing 50% colourless oil, possessing only a slight odour. Itvhas unique characteristics as it acts as a barrier agent protecting our skin against harsh climates.
It is used in transparent soap, which dries and hardens well and is odour-free. Ricinoleic acid and its many derivatives are known for smoothing and moisturizing the skin besides improving other skin conditions like rough skin and acne.
iii) Coconut oil
The oil from the coconut is a valuable emollient and is widely used as an ingredient in skincare products, especially for dry skin. The nourishing fatty acid in coconut oil helps to hydrate and protect the skin.
Coconut oil is extracted from mature coconuts that have fallen from the trees. Modiﬁed coconut oil contains polyunsaturated fatty acids, a useful constituent of a barrier lipid mixture prevalent in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industry.
The pea plant has a vital role to play when treating acne. The pea seeds contain proteins, carbohydrates, lecithins, fats and salts.
The seeds are known for their nutritive and anti dermatosis properties and hence are claimed to have an effect on many types of skin complaints. For example, face masks are prepared from crushed peas while treating wrinkled skins.
You can read more about modern agricultural trends in our blog section.