July 30, 2014

Landscapes as Sources of Traditional, Culturally-Acceptable and Nutritious Food

 Aquatic ecosystems are equally important in Sri Lanka where they provide a good source of animal protein for village dwelle

Aquatic ecosystems in Sri Lanka provide a good source of animal protein for village dwellers.

By Teresa Borelli and Danny Hunter, Bioversity International

Good things often come in small packages. Reaching just 10-15 centimeters in length, mola (Amblypharyngodon mola), a small freshwater fish native to South Asia, is packed with vitamin A and plays a star role in the efforts of Bangladesh and World Fish to cut back malnutrition. Aquatic ecosystems abound in Bangladesh in the form of floodplains, ponds, rivers, canals and ditches where thriving fish populations provide a cheap and readily available source of animal protein to rural communities who otherwise struggle to obtain sufficient nutrients and variety in their diets.

While malnutrition persists and solutions like fortification and biofortification are promoted as cost effective solutions to global undernutrition, there is renewed interest in food-based solutions that put traditional, culturally-acceptable and nutritious food at their core—and that simultaneously take into account the protection of landscapes as providers of this ecosystem service.

In Lao People’s Democratic Republic, as in many Asian countries, rice fields contribute more to people’s livelihoods and food security than merely rice. In the wet season, rice paddies supply local communities with almost 200 edible species—between fish, crustaceans, mollusks, amphibians and insects—with fish contributing 85 per cent of animal protein intake and providing essential micronutrients such as calcium, iron, zinc and vitamin A, found only in limited quantities in rice. Yet in these areas watersheds and aquatic systems are at risk from hydroelectric development.

Similarly, in Kenya and Cameroon indigenous fruit trees, either wild or cultivated, are of paramount importance for nutrition security and income generation with trees such as baobab (Adansonia digitata), marula (Sclerocarya birrea) and white crossberries (Grewia tenax) respectively providing significant quantities of vitamin C, vitamin A and iron to people’s diets. All the while, trees contribute to climate change mitigation and to making farming systems more resilient in the face of environmental shocks. It should be added that indigenous crops are normally friendlier to the environment as they are better suited to growing in degraded soils, need less fertilizer and are more resistant to pests and diseases.

These examples are drawn from the book Diversifying Food and Diets, which is a call to action to maintain, enhance and use the variety of wild and cultivated plant and animal species to their full potential while protecting the landscapes where they grow. Using case studies from around the globe, the book explores current strategies for improving nutrition and diets and identifies the main barriers that need to be addressed to successfully promote the better use of agricultural biodiversity for this purpose.

Traditional foods are often negatively perceived as “food for the poor” by younger generations and strategies to improve their appeal are needed. Thankfully the tide is turning and local initiatives such as Let’s go Local, as well as global movements like Slow Food and Food Revolution are raising the profile of traditional foods and healthy eating.

Do you know of other initiatives that are successfully using traditional agricultural biodiversity to improve diet quality, change consumer behavior and perceptions on local foods and landscapes? Visit our dedicated case studies webpage and submit your contribution.


Photo: S. Landersz

1 Comment

  • Colm Barry
    August 8, 2014 at 10:13am

    “… rice paddies supply local communities with almost 200 edible species …” Something no one “in the West” tells us, normally. If that is so, then “golden” rice certainly is less necessary than probably showing these people how to further enhance these rice fields according to their immanent properties. This is being clumsily copied by us oh-so-modern Westerners in the form of permaculture and aquaponics, which, while all nice and more eco-friendly than other ways of agriculture, they are still not exactly “traditional” but totally artificial, i.e. they would not look back on a millenia-old tradition with a proven track record plus they are always posing challenges and are often an uneasy equilibrium that falls apart if not a lot of parameters are (artificially) measured and kept in check. “Traditional foods are often negatively perceived as “food for the poor” by younger generations”. – Well, like the scandal over imported baby formulae as against breast feeding, this may also be an effect of aggressive advertising by those we-all-know-who fast food chains and processed food manufacturers. It generally takes a few generations, as we can see a few traces in the US, Canada and Europe, to overcome this superstition of “modern/technological” = better. I remember a friend of mine, exchange professor to China from a European university, who was all excited to now be able to buy “real” silk socks during his assignment. To his dismay, he was proudly offered nylon socks by every shop owner (that was shortly after the reforms after Mao’s death). Only after haranguing the shop owners did he finally go to the back and come back with a dusted box handing him silken socks with a face of utter dismay.