University of Nottingham Malaysia

Inspiring people

Sayed Azam-Ali
Discovering and developing the crops of the future
Professor of Global Food Security (with CFFRC), Faculty of Science
Can you explain your research?

In future the planet will be four-degrees hotter. There will be 2 billion more people to feed. Food production will have to double in the next 20 years. We need to rethink our current approach to agriculture to meet demand and find crops to survive such extreme conditions.

I head up the only centre dedicated to alternative crops in the world. Our aim is to promote the global agenda for agricultural diversification. The future of food will depend on more than maize, wheat, soya, potatoes, and barley - the monoculture crops we’ve all eaten for the last 50 years. In the past, humans used to eat a variety of other crops. They were hardy and grew in tough conditions but are in rapid decline today.

Future foods should be climate-resilient ones. Bambara is one, moringa is another that we showcase as exemplars because they’re nutritious, tough, resilient, grow in different environments and make tasty products. Winged bean is a fantastic, versatile vegetable, capable of growing in drought conditions.

Our work is to fast track the scientific potential of these unknown and unfamiliar crops to use as products people want to buy to eat or use to feed livestock.  

What is the global impact of this research?

In the 1960s and ‘70s, there were massive famines in Africa and India and millions died from starvation.  It created a huge incentive to increase the yield of crops.  During the green revolution that followed certain crops with potential to produce very high yields were selected - wheat, rice, maize, etc. They are good crops.  But not the only crops. 

When people are starving to death, you’ve got to feed them calories.  People who are malnourished need lots of energy.  All those crops are full of carbohydrate, but no nutrition.

Now we face a new global food crisis - nutrition. We now have a whole generation that is energy rich, but micronutrient deficient - lacking iron, selenium and zinc. That affects brain development, childhood mortality and maternal health.

Malaysian people, for example, were malnourished 20 years ago; now they are obese because they eat the same junk food as North America and Europe. Obesity is a major public health issue, not just in Malaysia but worldwide.  With obesity comes a hidden hunger epidemic. Micronutrients are not found in big crops, but they are contained in minor ones.

Instead of genetically manipulating big crops to biofortify them, let’s harness the nutritional value from small crop species before they disappear.

I head up the only centre dedicated to alternative crops in the world
What are the next steps in your research?
Everything we do is at prototype level. The next stage is scaling, commercialisation and marketing of crops that we know are nutritious as potential snacks and ingredients. If market leaders like Unilever and Nestle grasp that potatoes aren't the future and turn these concepts into must-have products on the shelves in the supermarkets, we’ve done our job. 
What other research interests you?

In our Forgotten Foods initiative, we are interviewing older generations to find recipes from the past that use ancient crops. We want to celebrate them, put them online and make them available to everybody. We also want to measure the nutritional value in those recipes. It would be something we can then promote along with the capabilities of these foods in future climates.

Forgotten Food’s has the endorsement of the Prince of the Wales; and has caught the interest of top chefs looking for unusual new ingredients with nourishing benefits.  We hope one day Forgotten Foods will become a term like organic that people are comfortable with and seek out as a healthy alternative.  


Research and Knowledge Exchange Hub

University of Nottingham Malaysia
Jalan Broga, 43500 Semenyih
Selangor Darul Ehsan

telephone: +6 (03) 8924 8034