Kitchen Garden Guides

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Human Health, Starvation and Biodiversity

I have been reading three very interesting pieces of work. One chapter of one book is about gathering winter wild food in France, by Eliot Coleman. What most people would call weeds, are sought out as prized winter food by old time French men, mostly, who explain that nature has provided these foods in winter as it is then that they are filled with the nutrition we need to help our bodies cope with the cold of winter.

This is something I have often thought was more relevant to healthy eating habits than is given credit. If you eat what is grown there, wherever you are right now, it is the right thing for you.... it has experienced the same weather, air, water etc as you have and if your food is thriving in that situation, then, when you eat it, you thrive too. Its no good shipping tomatoes from a place where it is summer, to where it is winter and expecting it to supply what your winter body needs.

The second is on this fascinating blog, simply called Vaviblog which recounts the travels and recent tracing of the footsteps of the prominent Soviet botanist and geneticist, Vavilov, best known for having identified the centres of origin of cultivated plants.  As pointed out and written about so beautifully, from this introduction, through every engrossing page...

Agricultural biodiversity is all that stands between the world and starvation. I hope that by giving a voice to Vavilov this web site will help people to understand why that is so and to take steps to safeguard our past … because it is our future.

Here is an excerpt from the blog, where the author comes upon a market under a tree in Ethiopia...

...At last we saw the shiny black seeds of noog piled high, next to other oilseeds such a peppergrass and sesame. Next to the many colors of ground cumin and chile pepper, there were brilliant golden piles of ginger, as well as masses of intact but sinewy ginger roots. One woman hand-roasted and weighed various grades of Ethiopian wild and domesticated coffees right before your eyes, while another sold various colors and textures of sea salt nested in pale brown paper containers, each looking much like a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a sugar cone. There were countless medicinal herbs as well as the crystallized globules of Ethiopian myrrh and “false” frankincense. Surrounding all the herbalists were huge piles of blue Hubbard squash, papayas, onions, Swiss chard, kale, mustard greens, and pomelos...

Elders from Europe, Africa, Asia and indigenous people all over the world know that wild, natural food has all the nutrition they need at the time of picking. It is fact that even something as simple as a cos lettuce has in it vitamins and minerals in different proportions, according to how, where and when it is grown. In winter, for example, it may be bitter and far from this being a disadvantage, we should take that bitterness, as it is a wonderful immunity boost and helps ward off winter ills.

So it is with great joy that I find I am able to gather food at the Cygnet Community Garden, because I garden there.... and yes, I did go on Monday! While my home garden is still very young, I would hate to have to buy vegetables grown away from here. The vitality that local food gives me far outways its identity as a carrot or apple and this is why there is so much more to nutrition than science has yet discovered.

Thirdly is a report from the Settimana della Biodiversità in Rome, organized by Bioversity International, which states that:

Efforts to increase production have so far been based on simplified systems that depend on a few varieties of even fewer crops, which require large amounts of energy-dependent inputs such as fertilizers and pesticides. These simplified systems are both vulnerable to shocks and are unsustainable.

“This leads me to the conclusion that we must change paradigm and invest in intensification without simplification,” said Frison. He called on governments and funding organizations to invest in research and development for agriculture, based on this new paradigm.

Amir Abdullah, Deputy Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer of the World Food Programme (WFP), addressed WFP’s work with chronically hungry people. “One of the causes of malnutrition is the lack of biodiversity. We recognize every day the impact that lack of biodiversity has on the people we work with. For that bottom billion, it’s a matter of life and death.”

These three pieces reflect what surely we already know in our hearts, that human health depends on eating the food that grows naturally where you live and eating as much variety as possible, every day of your life. It is a very cheap, short term aid to send war torn, malnourished nations thousands of kilograms of white rice and other equally processed stomach fillers. It is much harder but more important to see to it that "that bottom billion" has access to land to grow whatever grows naturally in their soils and climates, and with the greatest biodiversity possible, so there will always be food to harvest, no matter what shocks occur.

We all buy spices from far, far away but as a general rule of thumb please, see your soil and your toil as your health insurance. Do whatever you can to reject out of season produce and in-season but grown far away produce. Instead seek out anything that grows wild in your area and in your garden. Plant as wide a diversity of food plants that you can squeeze in, that will grow happily in your conditions.

I don't suppose I will ever stop saying it but that's because simplicity is often the answer that stares us in the face, while we search for complexity.... Saving seeds will sinlgehandedly save the world.



Heiko said...

Great post, Kate. I simply don't eat tomatoes unless I or someone I know has grown them. You won't find a rural Italian in their right mind serving you a fresh tomato salad in the middle of winter.

I have a slightly shamefaced admission to make, too... Erm, you know that amaranth stuf... you know the one I can't grow from seed... erm you know... I've been pulling it out in other places where it has grown all along without me realising. At least I'm fairly certain that's what it is. Che brutta figura!

Kate said...

hahahahaha plonk Heiko!That's me laughing my head off!