3 Insanely Important Crops You've Never Heard Of

Ramadhan Abdulla holds cassava on his farm in Tanzania.  © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Jake Lyell
Ramadhan Abdulla holds cassava on his farm in Tanzania. © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Jake Lyell / Ramadhan Abdulla holds cassava on his farm in Tanzania. © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Jake Lyell

Everybody knows the names of plants we grow in the western worldour top five are corn, soybeans, hay (grass), wheat, and cotton. But there are crops around the world feeding millions of peopleand most of us have never even heard of them. Here's a roundup of some of the most interesting crops you likely haven't seen at the supermarket.

1. Cowpea

Farmers and cowpea merchants attend the PICS bag opening ceremony in Garko village in Kano State Nigeria on April 12, 2010. Photo © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Akintunde Akinleye.

Scientific name: Vigna unguiculata.

Where it's grown: Sub-Saharan Africa, South America, Asia, and parts of North America.

Why it's a big deal: The cowpea is so nutritious and adaptable that NASA chose to study it as a plant to grow on space stations. The cowpea withstands heat, drought, poor soil, and shade, so it's adaptable to poor growing conditions. It's such a bad-ass plant that it will even improve poor soil if the roots are left in the soil to rot after harvesting.

Bonus trivia: Millions of African families sell their cowpea crops for a living, but weevil infestations can destroy up to half of each year's crop after it's harvested. In 2009, Purdue University delivered a simple solution to farmers doing battle with the weevil: the PICS bag (short for Purdue Improved Cowpea Storage), a three-layer sack that protects the crop from weevils. Purdue even filmed a sketch explaining how a simple bag can solve pest problems, without the need for post-harvest pesticides.

2. Pearl Millet

Franscica Ejaa separates the seeds from a finger millet flower in front of her house in Kenya. (Right: detail of ground finger millet seeds.) Photos © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Frederic Courbet.

Scientific name: Pennisetum glaucum.

Where it's grown: India, plus the drylands of West and Central Africa.

Why it's a big deal: Pearl millet is a staple food for more than 90 million people in the driest parts of Africa and Asia. It's a cereal crop, but is super drought- and heat-tolerant, so it'll grow where maize and sorghum can't. It's also a very healthy food, providing protein, amino acids, iron, and zinc.

Bonus trivia: Even though pearl millet is an extremely nutritious food, there's a cultural stigma attached to it. In some areas it's considered "poor-man's food," so it's hard to market. This is a situation similar to what potatoes and even lobster faced in the U.S. years agoso attitudes can change.

3. Cassava

Ester Wanjiru Sami and her neighbor pose for a portrait in a field in Murango, Kenya where a variety of crops are growing in November 2011. They are holding freshly harvested cassava. Photo © Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation/Frederic Courbet.

Scientific name: Manihot esculenta Crantz.

Also known as: Yuca, manioc, and mandioca.

Where it's grown: Around the world; these 10 countries account for 75% of global production: Nigeria, Brazil, Thailand, Indonesia, Congo, Ghana, Tanzania, India, and Mozambique.

Why it's a big deal: Several studies say that cassava contributes more than any other single crop to household income. It's a staple food for 500 million people, who rely on it for caloriesand many farmers feed its leaves to animals as fodder. Cassava is also handy because you can leave it in the ground until you're ready to eat it. Hey, free food storage!

Why it may soon be a bigger deal: One bummer about cassava is that it's not a great source of nutrition. This is especially a problem for children, who receive only 4% of the vitamin A they need from a typical meal of standard cassava. A team of scientists developed BioCassava Plus, which beefs up the crop's beta-carotene content by 3,000% (the body converts beta-carotene to vitamin A), and its iron content by 400%.