Diversification or Desertification?


Monocultures will one day be our downfall – it’s a well-known fact in the agricultural world. Yet we are still stuck in this one-track, post-Green Revolution chess game, moving one square at a time, with the commodities reigning as king.

Many great points were made at the High Level Policy Dialogue on Investment in Agricultural Research for Sustainable Development in Asia and the South Pacific in Bangkok these past few days, but the one thing that stuck with me was when Dr. Keatinge of the World Vegetable Center (AVRDC)  made the point that we dispense so much money into researching and securing staple crops, but “not enough on vegetables, despite their importance.”

While large-scale farming has its merits, it is not without fault. I think that after the conference over the past 3 days, it’s imperative to keep in mind that in order to address food security, health, and nutrition issues, we must also consider discussing the role that post-colonialism plays in agriculture.

This concept of diet decolonization is already being discussed on both the small scale and the large, but it has yet to reach prominent focus in agricultural discussion.


Green for Future Generations

I spoke with Dr George Hall from Crops For the Future (CFF), whose organization recently created a Declaration on Agricultural Diversification to present at COP 21 in Paris this past week:

“It is almost universally accepted that the world’s climate is changing, and this will result not only in higher average temperatures across the globe but also the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events. Both of these consequences will have profound implications for agriculture, especially because just four crops (maize, wheat, rice and soybean) provide more than 60% of the world’s food.”

CFF is researching alternatives to these staple crops. You know – in case there’s massive crop failure amongst the few strains that largely exist on the global scale later on. In Malaysia, where he works, Dr Hall said they are focusing on cultivating whole grain crops such as millet and sorghum which grow well in dry-land environments (suitable for parts of Malaysia). Some of these crops have better nutritional value and are laden with micronutrients that are non-existent in certain modern strains of wheat and rice which often times are bred more so for size, taste, and sprout times.


Branch out or bust

Allan Bird, a representative from Papua New Guinea (PNG) at the conference, feels that his nation’s health has been severely hampered by the introduction of certain western, or (now) global foods. In particular, staple crops like rice, corn, and wheat have lessened the Papuans’ dependency on more traditional foods while inversely raising the rate of chronic diseases.

He experienced this firsthand through a battle with high cholesterol. He managed to cure his ailment through changes in diet:  less processed western food and more traditional plant-based meals that reflected the alimentary choices of his ancestors.

He explained that many of the people he knew in PNG suffered from obesity, heart disease, kidney problems, and other chronic non-communicable diseases. Curing disease on the operating table is extremely expensive and inaccessible to many Pacific Islanders who need to be flown to Singapore or Australia for hospital visits. He recounted the experiences of people he knew who steered themselves away from processed wheat products, lessened their intake of rice, and turned to tubers, traditional fruits and vegetables.


Complex carbs

Papuan traditional diets focus on root vegetables like yam, cassava, sweet potato, and taro which range supplementing micronutrients like zinc and magnesium to natural forms of Vitamins A and C. This along with native species of different varieties of corn, bananas, and papayas all covering the spectrum of the rainbow have enough antioxidants to drive away the (nutritional) demons like diabetes, high cholesterol, along with serving as cancer prevention mechanisms.

In Asia and the South Pacific, although golden rice and other biotech crops may perhaps serve as a viable alternative for some populations, we should also more seriously consider going back to the old days. Let’s get traditional.


Blogpost by Janine Furtado, #GCARD3 Social Reporter – J.Furtado (at)cgiar.org
Picture courtesy: Jkyog Youth

This post is part of the live coverage during the #GCARD3 Regional Consultation for Asia and Pacific region. This post is written by one of our social reporters, and represents the author’s views only.

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