In most tropical countries, a significant part of the people’s food and energy requirements is derived from a remarkable diversity of crop plants existing in the wild or under limited cultivation. The fruits, seeds, and leaves of many of these plant resources already form common ingredients in a variety of traditional native dishes for the rural population in developing tropical countries.
Such plant resources, abounding especially in the tropical forests and savanna, are in most cases wild relatives of crops, some with useful characters. Unfortunately however, most of these indigenous species of food plants in the tropical regions, which have been utilized by native peoples since ancient times, were pushed aside during the colonial era when consumer demands in Europe largely determined the cultivation and research priorities of indigenous or traditional crop plants.
Indigenous food and useful plants in the tropics have suffered neglect, being considered ‘poor people’s food’ and therefore agriculturally unimportant. Nevertheless, local inhabitants still rely heavily for survival on these neglected and lesser-known indigenous forest and wild gathered food crops, especially in times of periodic drought or crop failure and pre-harvest hungry season.
Wild gathered food resources are an important source of variation and complementation, especially with regard to vitamins and minerals, in the diet of rural dwellers in Africa. Tribal people in India have also observed that edible wild plants were prominent in the diets of local tribes during both drought and adequate rainfall in some countries of sub-Saharan Africa, and that their reliance on this wide range of local wild plants facilitated food diversity and drought-related survival strategies. It is also noted that wild edible plants comprised 21% of the estimated volume of the total diet in certain study areas.
Grivetti et al. (1987) reviewed the dietary role of wild plants among some sub-Saharan people and observed a wide diversity of foods and recommended that these underutilized and underexploited wild plants should be considered a research priority within agricultural development programs. Moreover, many of these food plants grow in a much broader spectrum of soil and weather conditions, some even in marginal conditions, and are often highly drought-tolerant. Quite a number of them are now under serious threat of genetic erosion and the danger of total extinction as long as they remain neglected and underutilized.
Local seeds producers
Farming started when local communities started collecting, planting and selecting seeds – modifying them to meet their needs in the process. Today’s seed also embodies centuries of knowledge about how to conserve, change, plant and guide it to fruitful expression. Seed is about culture, tradition, spirituality, cooperation and diversity. And finally, seed is about survival, about getting diverse and healthy food on the table every day. If Africa has such a tremendous rich diversity of food crops and other plants, it is thanks to local farming communities collecting, conserving, developing and exchanging seeds for millennia.
Seed is life
But seed is also about control. Ever since the giant corporations started to gain control of the seed market globally, seeds have also been about making money, big time. Uniformity replaced diversity as the standard. Monopoly control based on property rights increasingly took over from sharing as the new system of seed distribution. And seeds have been turned into a global commodity in the service of industrial farming and huge corporations, with short shrift given to local adapting process to the specific methods, ecosystems, and needs of family farms.
Who control our seeds control our lives
The picture often painted for us is that we need corporate seeds to feed the world: they are alleged to be more efficient, productive and predictable. Locally developed farmer varieties are painted as backwards, less-productive and disease-ridden. But those of us with our feet on the ground know that this is not the reality in Africa. Just to start with a sobering fact: the vast bulk of food produced on the continent comes from homegrown farmers’ seeds (some studies put the figure at 80%). If these seeds are so “backward,” what moves farmers to keep preserving and planting them? What benefits do they derive from them? What challenges do they encounter in this effort? How must they be supported so that they can do their work more effectively?
An organization called Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) and another nonprofit organization called GRAIN decided to find out. They worked with numerous partner organizations across the continent, many of them involved in local seed diversity activities. AFSA along with many other civil society organizations (CSO) on the continent have adopted the term farmer-managed seed systems (FMSS) to acknowledge certain practices that have been dismissed as ‘informal’ by some.
They proposed a collaborative research project to these CSOs designed to answer these questions, involving interviews with the farmers they work with in order to document their responses. They also asked them to assess the policy situation in their country: what policies are being pushed and implemented, by whom, and to what end? What policies are actually needed? This on-the-ground work was complemented by a literature review and further reflections on the subject.
The outcome of these efforts is captured in this report and the six country case studies on which it is based. We think the results are encouraging. There are so many initiatives promoting the diversity of farmer-managed seed, and there is a widespread appreciation of that diversity and the need to nurture it. But we also note worrisome developments. The corporate lobby for industrial seeds, GMOs, and commodity plantations is relentless. Policymakers are often seduced by the grand narrative and propaganda purveyed by these interests. We hope that their report will serve to refocus our collective attention on the real food and seed producers of Africa, and make sure that their needs are met. It is also intended for this report to spur debate on the kind of food system that Africa really needs: one based on diversity, on our own resources and our knowledge? Or one based on uniformity, plantations and foreign corporate control? This report is intended to help us ensure that we proceed down the right road for Africa.
Modern technology and farming practices have no doubt contributed to more than doubling yields of cereals and even tripling the yield of some fruits and vegetables over the last half-century. Topping the list are strawberries with an eight-fold yield increase in productivity since the 1950s.
However, this has been at a huge sacrifice of taste, minerals, vitamins and the complexity of antioxidants. The work of crop breeders and companies manufacturing a wide range of inputs—from fertilizers to pesticides, has delivered yields but at the expense of nutrition density.
There is plenty of research data showing that in corn, wheat and soybean, that are ubiquitous in processed foods, the higher the yield, the lower the protein and oil content. The higher the tomato yield, the lower the concentration of vitamin C and the antioxidant lycopene. Grow yellow tomatoes not just for diversity’s sake but for antioxidants such as the precursor of vitamin A called beta carotene found in valuable amounts in yellow tomatoes and in many other vegetables.
In an attempt to regain nutrition commercial food is now boosted with synthetic micronutrients. For example you may read ‘added lycopene’ on a tomato sauce bottle. However this is produced by the ‘synthesis of intermediates’. It’s also used as nutrition supplements in juices, breakfast cereals, ice creams and lots more processed foods according to the FAO of the United Nations.
We know now that plants with larger fruits or vegetables tend to dilute nutrient density, a phenomenon labeled the ‘dilution effect’. At the same time ‘improvements’ make crops more vulnerable to pests. High levels of readily available nitrogen in soils tend to reduce nutrient density as well and the intensity of flavors. In order to feel satiated we need to eat more. No wonder we are growing fat.
In addition to that, there is ample archeological evidence of those human societies that made the shift from hunter- gatherers to agriculturalists that restricted diet to a few major crops lacked the diversity, therefore the full range of vitamins and minerals. In our documentary Our Seeds filmed in eleven countries and produced by Seed Savers, there are interviews of isolated Pacific islanders making that very point.
The best diet comes from eating from the home garden grown from locally adapted seeds needing no pesticides to grow, in natural soils, and complementing that with harvests from the wild.
There is a decline in the nutrient-density of fruit and vegetables stems, in part, from the fact that high-yield crops devote energy to producing large fruit, grains or seeds, and put less emphasis on absorbing micronutrients. Faster growing plants that produce larger fruits and vegetables tend to dilute nutrient concentrations, a phenomenon labeled the “dilution effect” by scientists in the early 1980s.
Despite impressive increases in crop yields around the world, much of humanity remains malnourished, including the three billion people in poorer nations who suffer from caloric and micronutrient deficiencies, and those in wealthy nations who consume too many calories on a daily basis, yet inadequate levels of several essential nutrients.
As breeders have programmed plants to produce larger tomatoes, shorter-stature wheat with bigger grain heads, and corn that can tolerate closer spacing in the field, these plants have devoted less energy to other factors, like sinking deep roots and generating health-promoting compounds known as phytochemicals, many of which are antioxidants and vitamins.
For a wide range of fruits, vegetables and grains, reducing pesticide use has been shown to boost phytochemical content, sometimes dramatically.
The tradeoff between yield and nutrient level seems to be widespread across crops and regions, as plants partition their limited energy between different goals. Substantial data show that in corn, wheat and soybeans, the higher the yield, the lower the protein and oil content.
The higher tomato yields (in terms of harvest weight), the lower the concentration of vitamin C, levels of lycopene (the key antioxidant that makes tomatoes red), and beta-carotene (a vitamin A precursor). High-production dairy cows produce milk that is less concentrated with fat, protein and other nutrition-enhancing components, and are also more vulnerable to a range of metabolic diseases, infections and reproductive problems.
Think of this relationship between yield and nutritional quality as farming’s equivalent of “no free lunch.” That is, higher yields, while desirable, may come with the hidden cost of lower nutritional quality, and in some cases, heightened risk of food safety and animal health problems.
High levels of readily available nitrogen tend to reduce nutrient density and the intensity of flavors, and sometimes make crops more vulnerable to pests.
Nutrients in compost, manure, cover crops and other soil amendments tend to be released more slowly in step with crop needs, and often help to boost crop nutrient levels, the efficiency of nutrient uptake, and flavor profiles.
Although agriculture has dramatically expanded both the human food supply, and in turn helped increase population, diseases and disorders rooted in nutritional imbalances and deficiencies have lingered.
The Green Revolution, the shift to higher-yielding grain varieties adapted to high-input farming systems in poorer nations that is often credited for averting mass hunger in the 1960s and 1970s, led to a large increase in caloric availability.
But increased grain production often came at the expense of more nutritious legumes, root crops, other minor grains, and vegetables, reducing dietary diversity and contributing to widespread micronutrient deficiencies.
In South Asia, for instance, per capita grain consumption increased about 15 percent in the last 40 years, but per capita consumption of legumes has dropped more than 50 percent.
A reanalysis of this British government data found “marked reductions” of seven minerals in twenty fruits and twenty vegetables from the 1930s to the 1980s, concluding that “in every sub group of foods investigated there has been a substantial loss in their mineral content.”