When Australian Bruce French went to Papua New Guinea as an agriculture instructor 40 years ago, his students asked him to teach them about native edible plants.
“I knew nothing about Papua New Guinea food plants,” he recalls. “So I had to start learning.”
The result was a series of books on indigenous food plants, and the not-for-profit Food Plants International, which maintains a database of 25,000 edible plants that includes descriptions, lists of countries and climates where they grow, photos and drawings, and cooking methods. (click below to read more)
“There are thousands of nutritious plants, but people don’t have any information about them,” says Buz Green, an agriculturalist and member of the Rotary Club of Devonport North, Australia. “We’re trying to bridge some of the gaps.
“Rotarian teams in developing countries inevitably identify hunger, malnutrition, and food security as critical issues,” Green explains. “They tend to look to Western solutions to address food production issues.”
The problem, he says, is that Western crops don’t have the right nutritional profile for people in the developing world, whose diets often have little variety. Indigenous crops can allow them to eat more nutritiously and are already adapted to local pests, diseases, and climatic conditions.
The “green revolution” of the 1950s and ’60s, for example, led to increased agricultural productivity in Asian countries, but also to unforeseen effects. The weeds that grew in rice paddies had served as the primary source of vitamin A for villagers in India, and when those weeds were eradicated, the people became deficient.
“Virtually every woman in the tropical world is anemic,” French adds. “We go there with cabbages and make the situation 10 times worse.”
French and Green launched the Learn Grow project in June 2007 to help people in developing countries grow local food that suits their nutritional needs. Early last year, the RI Board recognized the Food Plant Solutions Rotarian Action Group, whose 195 members will help Rotarians implement Learn Grow efforts, according to its chair, Past RI Director John Thorne, of the Rotary Club of North Hobart, Australia.
In August 2010, Learn Grow launched a pilot project in the Solomon Islands, producing a compendium of local edible plants, field guides for growers, and a book on crops for schools and community groups. Local organizations provide support and distribute information. The project team has received inquiries from 20 developing countries; another effort is underway in the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.
The principles of eating locally are gaining momentum in the Western world, French says. “My children and lots of other people thought I was eccentric for 35 years. Now I’ve become fairly trendy in my old age.”