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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2005
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Sierra Magazine
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Food for Thought: Beyond Wheat, Rice, and Corn
Biodiversity you can taste
by Stephen Phillips

Next time you're enjoying a peppery arugula salad, spare a thought for Stefano Padulosi. As head of the underutilized-crops division at the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute, Padulosi's job is to catalog rare edible plants and devise sustainable ways to raise them. In the early 1990s, the eagle-eyed ethnobotanist collected the then-obscure weed, also known as rocket, amid the ruins of Pompeii; he went on to help organize a network of growers that transformed the rare delicacy (with a racy history as a Roman aphrodisiac) into a fixture on restaurant menus.

Biodiversity, in Padulosi's view, goes beyond fungi and bugs to encompass the incredible gamut of human foodstuffs. "Rocket is an amazing vegetable," he enthuses. "But there are thousands of other species with potentials yet to be explored." These are nature's forgotten fruit, the neglected plants whose survival depends on the preservation of ecosystems and of indigenous local cultures.

The global diet, Padulosi warns, relies on a dramatically shrinking number of species, with only 30 crops providing 95 percent of the calories humans consume. (Wheat, rice, and corn alone account for half of all calories.) For that we have to thank modern farming practices, which emphasize a narrow range of high-yield crop strains adapted to industrial agriculture.

Traditional cultures, meanwhile, feast from a far wider spectrum: The Yanomami Indians of Venezuela eat from 418 to 1,400 different species (compared with 75 for Italian university students). Three-quarters of the genetic diversity of food crops was lost in the 20th century, according to the United Nations, and a 1998 audit of seed banks found that more than half the 5,300 food plant species held were represented by a single variety, when there were often hundreds in the wild.

Amid such official neglect, the propagation of orphan or minor crops has been left to the gardeners and foragers of endangered cultures. Traditional diets in Crete, for example, include 26 varieties of wild plants, many of them highly nutritious. Some little-known species pack nutritional properties dwarfing those of more familiar fare: Rocket possesses twice the vitamin C of spinach, which is also handily outstripped by three varieties of leafy greens harvested from the wild in Africa.

But traditional ways of life are rapidly vanishing, and with them traditional knowledge about food sources. "These minor species are often just as domesticated as corn, wheat, or potatoes," says David Williams, international-affairs specialist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agriculture Service. "They're cultural artifacts, encapsulating centuries of human cultivation."

Some of these foods, especially those from highly adapted traditional subsistence systems, have the potential to provide important dietary insights to the rest of us. The Masai people of east Africa, for example, consume artery-clogging quantities of meat and milk, yet remain largely free of high cholesterol counts and heart disease.

Cardiovascular fitness and heredity could play into this medical anomaly, says Timothy Johns, director of the Centre for Indigenous Peoples' Nutrition and Environment at McGill University. But his research also points to powerful health benefits conferred by the plant-based antioxidants with which they leaven their diets, like the gum of Acacia nilotica, which may lower cholesterol.

A chewing gum that counters the effects of a burger-and-fries diet is still a long way off, but other previously underused foods may hit supermarket shelves sooner. According to Williams, among the first may be South America's "incredibly delicious" Sapotaceae fruits, like the sapote and star apple.

Padulosi's predictions for the "next new things" include the Andean grain quinoa, which has more protein and calcium than wheat; nutritious millets from India and Nepal; and the Bambara groundnut, "a legume very popular in sub-Saharan Africa, highly nutritious, and whose taste is close to that of chestnuts." Look for it in the produce section next to the yarayara and maiapi.


Stephen Phillips is the U.S. correspondent for the London Times Educational Supplement. He has also written for the Financial Times and Business 2.0.

How to decode those annoying produce stickers: five digits starting with "9" indicate organic; conventional has four digits starting with "4"; five digits starting with "8" is genetically modified.


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