Food: What have we forgotten?

Recently I had a craving for Thai food. I visited Thailand a few years back, and I can say the common knowledge about Thai cuisine is true: it takes your taste buds on an adventure. Like most South Asian cuisine, Thai cuisine incorporates contrasting flavours and textures in just the right balance. But, since Thai restaurants in my city are few and rather pricey, I decided to make my biannual (not-so-famous) Thai green curry at home.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Chinese aubergines

While browsing my neighbourhood market, “Pacific Trading”, to gather the ingredients — including some slender Chinese aubergines — I got side-tracked for about 20 minutes in the snack aisle. Mesmerized by the brightly-coloured packages emblazoned with Chinese and Korean characters, my eyes finally fell upon some symbols I could comprehend: “Purple Potato Crisps.” Without hesitation I chucked the package in my shopping basket.

Later, while chopping up the aubergines, I opened the package of crisps, getting ready for a delicious, nutritious, antioxidant-rich alternative snack experience. But, alas, what did I find inside? Some very ordinary, yellowish rectangles that tasted of anything but exotic, Andean purple potatoes. Upon inspection of the ingredients, I discovered that purple potatoes were not even the first ingredient! Instead, wheat flour, sugar and palm oil had the first slots.

How could this company pass off an uninspired wheat flour snack as a healthy alternative? Did anyone even notice? It got me thinking… 

purple potato crisps

Stapled to our diets

Wheat, maize and rice—only three crops now provide over half of the world’s plant-based food. Depending on who you ask, these “staple” crops, which constitute the main ingredients in a plethora of foods the world over, may be viewed as the panacea for a hungry world’s woes. After all, mass-produced food products have helped to ensure food security in the developed and many parts of the developing world over the past 50 years or so. Still, more and more people are starting to see these mega-crops as little more than an insurance policy against empty stomachs.

What we’ve forgotten is nutrition!

Poor diets are the leading contributor to death and disability worldwide, and over-consumption is increasingly linked to obesity and micronutrient deficiencies. More and more, we hear of a “double burden of nutrition”: the paradoxical dual challenge of overweight and obesity rising at the same time as undernutrition, stunting and wasting. This is happening even within countries.

Looking at this trend, we have to ask ourselves: Is our agri-food system moving in the right direction if it’s meant to nourish a growing population while using resources responsibly and sustainably?

usual suspects 2
The “usual suspects” in our dietary arsenal: Some of the most globally common plant crop species, found in whole or processed form on the large majority of market shelves. From left to right: Apple – 75.5 million metric tons produced annually; banana – 107m mt; wheat – 700m mt; tomato – 159m mt; and potato 373m

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 75 percent of the world’s caloric intake comes from just 12 plant and five animal species. Those 12 plant species include the staple crops mentioned above, plus a few fruits and vegetables, most of which any primary school student would be able to pick out from a line-up.

Without a doubt, the short list of crops (for the moment we’ll leave livestock aside) has served us very well: improved varieties developed during a period of intensely ramped-up agricultural production—known as the “Green Revolution”—have fueled development, economic growth and global health improvements. And still today, crucial research is going into new pest-resistant, drought-tolerant and more nutritious varieties of maize, rice, wheat, and potatoes and other edible roots and tubers. (Check out the latest on wheat breeding here.) But is continuing to ramp up production of the same few crops the best path for us to take?

breakfast
On the left: A Peruvian punch made from seven nutritious cereals, typically enjoyed in the morning. On the right: A popular North American breakfast cereal whose first ingredient is a blend of refined white sugar and yellow corn flour.

 The Un-usual Suspects

What we’ve forgotten is diversity.

“Forgotten foods” – whether called neglected and underutilized species, indigenous foods, orphan crops or future foods – are crop and animal species that don’t get much press. FAO notes that they are “often overlooked by policymakers, researchers and extension agents” and that “governments rarely allocate resources for their promotion and development.” 1

Chachafuto-21
Quinoa varieties from the Peruvian Andes.

However, though demand for them in today’s markets is rising relatively slowly, forgotten crops have immense consumer and cultural value. Fruits and vegetables; legumes and pulses; cereals and grains; nuts and seeds; roots and tubers—just about every part of a plant has potential to be used, improved, or have value added, in order to make it appealing to consumers. Quinoa, for instance, has gained popularity in recent years for its versatility in dishes and as a good source of fiber, protein and all nine essential amino acids. Take a stroll around any vibrant urban center these days and you’re bound to find at least one hipster munching on a “Buddha bowl” whose ingredients feature this edible seed, along with an ample helping of avo.

ZambaraoFruit_field_Kenya_Photo_1600x600
Jujube (Zambarau) fruit from the County of Busia, in Kenya (Latin name: Ziziphus jujube).

The tens of thousands of forgotten plant species which have not yet been discovered by savvy business people are not waiting around. They are providing nutritious and healthy foods for local communities as we speak, as they have for many generations. They are preferred for their resilience to changing weather patterns, climate change, pests and diseases, thanks to their inherent robustness. What’s more, they constitute rich diversity in agro-ecosystems and landscapes, and protect farmers’ livelihoods by giving them a greater number of species to choose from when rotating their crops.

Yet, these crops remain neglected, under-resourced, and underutilized in the broader global food system. Their use has declined over time due to negative social perceptions, the pervasive impact of policies, lack of interest from research institutions, limited awareness of their value among consumers and challenges in establishing markets and end-uses.

Moringa and Bambara groundnut granola bar
Moringa and Bambara groundnut granola bars: an example of value addition which can make forgotten foods more appealing to consumers.

If “forgotten” implies an involuntary act, then perhaps the more apt word to use here is “ignored”. What we have today is a global agri-food system that focuses on a “Yield-for-Profit” paradigm defined by an intentional set of choices motivated by the bottom line. It’s a system based on delivering calorie-dense foods by way of climate-vulnerable agricultural systems and carbon-heavy supply chains. It’s a system that, for the large part, ignores the health of humanity and the biodiversity of the ecosystems on which we all depend.

Poverty in all its forms

Maybe what we’ve forgotten is what it really means to be poor.

To restore diversity in agriculture, we have to first re-evaluate poverty. Sustainable Development Goal 1 appeals to us to do everything possible to eradicate poverty in all its forms, everywhere, by 2030. The only way this can be accomplished is by changing the dominant conceptions of lack and abundance. What does it really mean to be in poverty, besides simply lacking buying power? Perhaps we need to move from a definition based only on economic poverty to one that includes nutritional poverty (lack of healthy diets), species poverty (lack of crop diversity and thriving ecosystems) and cultural poverty (lack of knowledge of food heritage).

This broader definition of poverty can remind us of what we may be missing—nutritionally, environmentally, socially. It can help us put food back into a healthy perspective, not just as a source of calories or novel tastes, but as elements of our well-being and identity. And it can impel us to open dialogue with the smallholder farmers who have been, and continue to be, the custodians of our planet’s biodiversity.

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Vegetables for sale in market in Nepal.

In this way, we will start to see farmers not as “beneficiaries” of new research and technologies, but as protagonists, key actors who can share their knowledge and traditions of foods and genetic resources, cultures and practices to enrich everyone’s lives. By empowering farming communities as agents of change, the wider adoption of the foods we’ve forgotten can help eradicate poverty of all kinds, and help support humanity in an uncertain future.

At the end of the day, we only stand to gain by remembering Forgotten Foods and actively tapping their potential to bring better nutrition, agro-biodiversity, climate resilience and empowerment to the farmers who grow them.

So, now that you know about some of the challenges, what’s being done to address them, you ask? Click here to read the latest news on partners’ activities within the GFAR Collective Action on Forgotten Foods. And stay tuned! In the next post on the GFAR Blog, we’ll share some insights from a large-scale survey on forgotten foods done earlier this year with GlobeScan and the Lexicon of Sustainability.

 

Blogpost by Charles Plummer, GFAR Secretariat

Related posts from the GFAR Blog:

Diversified Agri-food Systems: Bastions of biodiversity, nutrition and resilience

Are Forgotten Crops the Future of Food? 

GFAR Talks: The Value of ‘Forgotten Foods’

All aboard the Chachafruto Express

Forgotten fruit always tastes better

1Taken from Promoting neglected and underutilized crop species, FAO

Photo credits: 1- aziatische-ingredienten.nl; 2- left: perufood.blogspot.com, right: https://www.chinahao.com/product/566442287124/; 3- created from images labelled for reuse; 4- left: Wapa.pe, right: Evan-Amos; 5- Bioversity International/A. Camacho; 6- Lusike Wasilwa; 7- Crops for the Future; 8- Bioversity International/B. Sthapit.

 


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