New Agriculturist Focus on /3 Focus on Neglected species

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New Agriculturist - Focus on... 08/3
Focus on... Neglected species

Around the world there are over 7,000 plant species that are cultivated or harvested from the wild for food. But increasingly, global food security has become dependent on a shrinking basket of a select number of crops. Only 150 crops are grown commercially and traded globally, and three main staples, rice, wheat and maize provide over 50 per cent of all the protein and calories consumed worldwide.

With prices for these three crops having recently doubled or even tripled, it is timely to re-focus on the neglected or underutilised crops that can provide food security and income generation, particularly for the poor. In this edition of New Agriculturist, we Focus on a number of plant species that have been overlooked or undervalued but have the potential to provide increased commercial opportunities and improved nutrition for communities in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

African leafy vegetables come out of the shade

Native to North Africa, Europe and West Asia, the deadly nightshades (Atropa belladonna and Solanum nigrum) are renowned for their poisonous berries and leaves. These nightshades are often confused with the African nightshades (e.g. Solanum scabrum, S. americanum, S. villosum ), which are non poisonous and cultivated widely in many regions in Africa. Nightshade is the common name for a diverse group of plants in the family Solanaceae. This family also includes a number of important food crops, including tomato, eggplant and potato.

Broad leaved African nightshade (Solanum scabrum) can be found in many regions in Africa. In East Africa, nightshades are just one of a wide range of indigenous plants eaten as leafy vegetables. Despite being rich in vitamins, minerals and trace elements, African leafy vegetables have, however, been increasingly overlooked in preference to cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, amongst other more exotic vegetables. And yet, with increasing food prices at local markets, it seems that these leafy vegetables may yet find their place on the plates of rural and urban households.

Shedding light on leafy vegetables

In East Africa, the renewed interest in nightshade and other indigenous vegetables including amaranth, African eggplant, Ethiopian mustard, cowpea, jute mallow and spiderplant, has been partially stimulated by a successful campaign in Kenya and Tanzania led by Bioversity International, Farm Concern International and The World Vegetable Center (AVRDC), who have worked to promote the nutritional benefits of the crops as well as encouraging improved production techniques.

According to Patrick Maundu of Bioversity International, nightshade provides good levels of protein, iron, vitamin A, iodine, zinc, and selenium at seven times the amounts derived from cabbage. The high levels of vitamins and micronutrients, he says, are especially important to people at risk of malnutrition and disease, particularly HIV/AIDS.

Maundu reports demand has increased significantly since Kenyan supermarkets started stocking nightshade. "When the crop first hit the Uchumi supermarket shelves in Kenya and Uganda, it was just a matter of time before Nakumatt supermarkets and other major chains took it up. In Tanzania, the crop is widely sold in the vegetable retail markets. As a result, farmers in peri-urban areas have also increased production to keep up with local demand," he enthuses.

The campaign has focused on the taste preferences of different consumer groups. In Kenya, for example, coastal and western communities opt for the bitter types while those living in the central highlands and urban areas prefer the non-bitter varieties. In Tanzania, most communities have a preference for the bitter leaves but the broad leaved sweeter types newly introduced by AVRDC are increasingly being adopted.

Whilst the market gears up for increased demand of nightshade, crop breeders are developing higher-yielding and tastier varieties. Dr. Christopher Ojiewo, crop breeder at Okayama University in Japan says he is currently breeding new cultivars that produce fewer fruits and more leaves. "I have already produced two mutants which I have sent to Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture & Technology (JKUAT) for trials before eventual release to farmers," says Ojiewo.

Seeds of success

Although seed developers were initially sceptical of taking up nightshade, evidence of its increased presence in supermarkets and at informal vegetable markets has stimulated a market for seed of indigenous leafy vegetables. Through collaboration with the Africa Regional Center of AVRDC in Tanzania, several seed companies are now commercialising indigenous vegetable seed across the region. Simlaw Seeds, for example, produces S. villosum (medium-leaved bitter nightshade), and the high yielding Giant Nightshade (the broad-leaved non-bitter variety), for markets in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

Although promotion and marketing of nightshade has been limited to East Africa, Bioversity International and AVRDC have extended projects to Malawi, Mozambique and Rwanda. "We have talked to supermarkets such as Shoprite and they have agreed to stock these leafy vegetables. We also believe that, just like the success story in East Africa with nightshade, other neglected crops in other regions can be promoted using similar strategies," says Maundu. In Tanzania and Malawi, other neglected crops like African eggplant are already being stocked in supermarkets.

Considering the growing global interest in indigenous vegetables, Maundu suggests that East African countries may also consider marketing nightshade as a dried vegetable, particularly to southern African countries where they are more popular in dried form. "There are good prospects in Malawi and South Africa," Maundu says, "and one day maybe even the diaspora in the US, UK and elsewhere will also enjoy the benefits of eating vegetables that are gaining popularity once more in their home countries."

With contributions from: Mel Oluoch, World Vegetable Center

Maya nut: a forgotten treasure

One of the largest trees in the forests of Central America, the Maya nut used to be abundant throughout the region. Its seeds were once a staple food of the Mayan people, as well as sustaining dense populations of deer, another Mayan staple. Its leaves, pulp and seeds continue to be central to the diet of many forest birds and animals. However, as areas of forest have been felled for timber and for maize, Maya nut numbers have declined and the tree has become extinct in some areas.

Yet, this nutritious nut, which can be stored for up to five years, is an excellent drought and climate change-resistant food for rural communities. Entire villages have survived by eating Maya nut; the flour was used as a valued emergency food in Guatemala after Hurricane Stan (October 2005) and after Hurricane Felix in Nicaragua (September 2007). But in many areas, the nut is considered only as a 'famine food' and consumption has dropped to less than five per cent of local diets.

Demonstrating the value

To counter this trend, over 8000 women from villages in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico have been trained since 2001 by The Equilibrium Fund to raise awareness of the potential of Maya nut. Communities are encouraged to conserve the tree, to establish community nurseries and reforest depleted areas, and are taught the nutritional value of the nut. During demonstration cooking days, the women are shown how to make new and traditional recipes, substituting Maya nut for maize.

"It is inspirational to witness the change in the health, self-esteem and status of so many women. Recognising the benefits of Maya nut has helped them change their lives," enthuses Erika Vohman, Executive Director and Founder of the NGO. Through its work, the organisation has inspired communities to plant more than 300,000 Maya nut trees, supplementing food and income, and protecting water sources, and forest biodiversity.
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Maya nut (Brosimum alicastrum)

Known as Capomo, Breadnut or Ramon nut, amongst many others, the Maya Nut - a relative of the fig family, is rich in fibre, protein, vitamins A, E, C and B, and minerals, including calcium, potassium, folate, iron and zinc.

Nutritionally comparable to amaranth, quinoa and soyabean, it is not surprising that the nut was a favoured food amongst indigenous groups of Mesoamerica.

In addition, Maya nut tolerates marginal soils, salt and drought and is an excellent species for rehabilitating degraded land. Once established, the tree requires no inputs yet, once mature, can yield over 180 kg of nuts each year, and provide food as well as valued ecosystem services for over 150 years.

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Scaling up the benefits

The benefits of Maya nut have not just been at household level. In 2005, Alimentos Nutri-Naturales, a women's Maya nut producer group in Guatemala, opened the first Maya nut processing plant in the world. The plant is owned and operated by the group, which won a $10,000 award in recognition of its efforts by being selected from over 100 entrants as one of the top ten businesses in Guatemala.

The same group won the prestigious Equator Prize in 2007, which included a $30,000 cash award. The women have used this money to implement a school lunch programme, which will provide Maya nut-based school lunches to rural Guatemalan schools. Their goal is to revitalize the economies of producer communities, improve children's health, reduce dependence on imported food and motivate communities to reforest and protect Maya nut trees in Guatemala.

Another Guatemalan women's organization, CODEMUR - the Committee for Rural Women's Development - is using a grant from the United Nation's Development Programme (UNDP) to promote Maya nut consumption, conservation and reforestation amongst some of the poorest communities in the southern coastal region of Guatemala. As Vohman observes, "Through their enthusiasm for Maya nut, they are now teaching other rural women about the uses and nutritional value of the nut in areas where this information is most needed."

Looking to the future

But, while thousands of hectares of rainforest have been conserved as a result of the work of The Equilibrium Fund and its partners, the Maya nut remains endangered in many areas and is probably extinct in parts of Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. Unfortunately, in-situ conservation is the only option for the tree as the seed is 'recalcitrant', i.e. it does not survive drying or freezing. However, a variety that produces fruit in four years, half the usual time, was recently discovered in Merida, Mexico.

Vohman estimates that at least 200 Maya nut landraces are currently vulnerable to extinction and is keen to conserve landraces and identify the fastest growing and most nutritious varieties to reforest areas. She concludes, "Investing in research and genetic improvement of this species, as well as encouraging its use for food, fodder and environmental services, may well be one of the most positive things governments and organizations can do right now to improve agro-ecosystem resilience to climate change and thereby secure the future of both human and wildlife populations in the neotropics."

More than just popcorn

The markets of Nairobi bustle at lunchtime, as workers emerge from offices to pick up something to eat. Increasingly popular among commuters wanting a quick meal, and children with an endless appetite for snacks, are French fries or chips. But at Matayos Self-Help Youth Group based in Busia, western Kenya, a team of experts is developing a healthier snack option: popcorn. Not that maize is the only cereal that can be popped; the group has discovered a whole range of cereals and legumes that make a nourishing and light snack, which promises to add value to some of these often undervalued indigenous crops.

Matayos Self-Help Youth Group has targeted the healthfood market with the intention of introducing a diversity of popped 'corns' as snacks. Examples include finger millet, cowpea, soybean and Bambara groundnut. It is hoped that this initiative will help restore awareness of the value of these once popular crops used in traditional cooking, crops that have been displaced in recent years by imported varieties of maize and wheat which, though high yielding, cannot offer the pest or climatic resistance - nor the biodiversity - of indigenous crops.

Under-exploited potential

The rich genetic diversity and the vitamins and minerals represented in indigenous cereals and legumes has not been lost on the Wahayo people of western Kenya, who for centuries have prepared healthy dishes of finger millet and sorghum as staple foods, accompanied by amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) and cowpea (Vigna unguiculata) leaves, African nightshades (Solanum spp.), spiderplant (Cleome gynandra) and Ethiopian kale (Brassica carinata). But with the influx of high-yielding maize varieties, and with changing values favouring introduced foods and beverages over indigenous grains, pulses and leafy vegetables, the use of such indigenous crops is declining and knowledge about their use is being lost.

With technical support provided by researchers from Bioversity International, the Matayos Self-Help Youth Group worked on an experimental investigation to pop new grains and market them locally. The group has developed a machine which uses high pressure to pop and add value to the grains, producing a wide range of healthy popped snacks. This has been achieved by using a pressure cylinder fired by gas. A single grain of rice for example, becomes eight to nine times larger when it is popped.

Different landraces of grains were collected by the group and their popularity as popped grains in the marketplace was noted. Popping recipes and skills were developed through trial and error, based on variables such as pressure levels, duration of heating, quality of grain, flavouring and packing. Successful samples of the popped grains include rice, maize, sorghum and soybean.

Popular snacks

These four grains are offered for sale in plastic packets costing five, ten, 20 and 25 Kenyan Shillings. And, as well as selling to individual buyers, the group is also supplying local shops, kiosks, supermarkets and schools. Different combinations of flavours and colourings are also being tested, including sugar syrup and salt. But, comments group coordinator Francis Oundo, "Not too much sugar or salt! We are aware of the health implications of adding flavourings and only apply enough to add taste."

As for the future and marketing potential of the popped indigenous grains, Oundo recognises that while opportunities exist, they need to be developed: "To meet market needs we really need to achieve higher success rates with pressure-popping, because the current success rates are only 50-60 per cent. There are still some technical problems, such as spontaneous pressure leakage around the lid of the metal cylinder."

But community and urban demand is there. The next steps, says Oundo - apart from improving the efficiency of the cylinder - will be identifying suitable varieties for popping based on people's preferences, improving on quality, labelling and packaging, and scaling up the volumes of popped grain to satisfy an eager market. Perhaps Nairobi's new lunchtime snack will be just what people working with indigenous grains, such as sorghum and millet, have been waiting for, to ensure that these grains regain their popularity and become a valued and integral part of urban diets.

Karat Gold - the life-saving banana of Pohnpei

The Micronesia island of Pohnpei is facing a public health time bomb as rates of vitamin A deficiency, cancer and heart disease have increased rapidly in the last three decades. Now, more than half of children on this Pacific island under the age of five suffer from vitamin A deficiency and one-fifth of adults have diabetes. But help may be very close at hand, in the form of 'Karat' (Musa spp), a Fe'i banana of the Australimusa series.

Karat, known for its yellow-orange flesh and erect bunches, has been grown in Pohnpei for centuries. The fruit is very high in beta-carotene, a provitamin A carotenoid that can be converted in the body into vitamin A. Diets containing foods rich in beta-carotene can also help protect against certain chronic diseases, and raising awareness of the benefits of Karat and other locally-grown foods is bringing about a sea change in Pohnpei's eating habits.

Downward spiral

"Islanders have traditionally treasured Karat - it's their infant food, along with breast milk after six months of age," says Dr Lois Englberger, of the Island Food Community of Pohnpei (IFCP). "But, in recent years, it's been neglected and has become rare."

In the late 1960s and 1970s, the diets of Pohnpeians - traditionally rich in starchy foods such as breadfruit, banana, taro, and yam - took a turn for the worse. Lifestyle changes and food aid programmes, based on imported rice, saw rice quickly become an established staple. Other food imports also gained favour due to their low cost, convenience, long shelf-life and perceived status. As consumption of instant noodles, soft drinks and fatty, processed meats like corned beef and 'turkey tail' soared, so too did Pohnpei's health problems.

By 2005, locally-produced food accounted for only a quarter of islanders' calorie intake. What Englberger calls "the three white sins" - white rice, flour and sugar - were in high demand and official advice to change eating habits was falling on deaf ears. "People were being told to eat local food because it was good for them, but there was no proof behind the health claims," recalls Englberger. "That's when people started telling me about Karat."

Samples of Karat were tested and found to contain high levels of beta-carotene and other provitamin A carotenoids. Encouraged by the findings, Englberger then investigated the possible health properties of other neglected indigenous species, including giant swamp taro, seeded breadfruit and pandanus; all contained high levels of provitamin A and other carotenoids, as well as essential micronutrients including zinc, iron and calcium.

Spreading the word

But, despite being armed with scientific evidence, changing islanders' eating habits remained a formidable challenge. So, IFCP and its partners used local radio and television to raise awareness of the benefits of local foods, with Karat as the figurehead. They also wrote songs, distributed posters and introduced the 'Let's Go Local High School Club' to promote island foods. In collaboration with the Federated States of Micronesia Philatelic Bureau, postage stamps depicting Karat and eight other rare, carotenoid-rich banana varieties were printed. The result: Karat bananas can now be found on sale at local markets, where previously they were hard to find. "People have become very excited because their own food is being promoted," says Englberger. "For the Pohnpei islanders, offering rice used to be a sign of status and initially it was embarrassing for some people to offer local food," she says. "This attitude is changing now."

Rekindling belief in Karat, and promoting locally-grown food, may be showing signs of success in Pohnpei, but challenges remain in other Pacific islands. Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, have Karat-like varieties but local people have expressed concern about the way their urine turns bright yellow after eating them. This effect is due to Karat's high riboflavin (vitamin B2) content, but some incorrectly believe the banana causes yellow fever or hepatitis. In Fiji, there are reports of a banana similar to Karat, called the 'mountain banana', but few people are aware that it is edible. Tahiti and Vanuatu also have their own Karat-like Fe'i bananas - though, again, few are aware of their health benefits.

Nevertheless, Englberger is encouraged by the progress so far. "We need to continue to help people understand the many benefits of local foods, help provide planting materials of the rare varieties, and develop smallscale processing of local foods for convenience and value-addition. People are talking about local food much more now," she continues. "The ongoing challenge is to get these messages repeated as widely and as many times as possible."

Australian acacias for Africa

With its gnarled limbs and jagged thorns the acacia is perhaps one of the most striking symbols of the African landscape. But acacias are not restricted to Africa. Worldwide, there are over 1200 species with the vast majority being native to Australia. Known also as wattle trees, the seeds of certain Australian acacias are tasty, nutritious and safe to consume, and are providing a valued food source in parts of West Africa.

The Sahelian region of West Africa is among the poorest and least food secure regions of the world. In Niger, the almost total destruction of trees and shrubs in the agricultural zone between the 1950s and 1980s resulted in recurring drought, strong winds, high temperatures, infertile soils and increased desertification. Combined with rapid population growth and poverty, these problems contributed to chronic hunger and periodic acute famine.

Whilst drought and crop failure is still a problem in Niger - the last severe famine was in 2005 - there are areas where farmers have been able to protect and regenerate degraded land and combat the effects of desertification. Building on twenty years of successful and sustainable agricultural approaches tried and tested by the Maradi Integrated Development Project (MIDP), farmers have been encouraged to take up an integrated agroforestry farming system. These involve a range of multi-purpose Australian acacias, other agroforestry trees, crop residue mulching and annual crops.

Re-greening of the Sahel

Through MIDP's work, millions of hectares of farmland in Niger have been transformed over the past two decades. Natural regeneration of trees by farmers has proved particularly successful. This system, known as Farmer Managed Natural Regeneration (FMNR) is based on the natural regeneration and management of tree stems from underground stumps. FMNR provides firewood, building timber, improves crop yields, increases biodiversity and provides valued income to farmers. With this system, trees are owned by farmers and seen as beneficial and it is one of the few sustainable and expanding agroforestry systems in the Sahel.

More than a decade of research, as part of MIDP's approach, has also involved the testing and domestication of edible Australian acacias, including Acacia colei, A. torulosa, A. tumida and A. elachantha. These perennial species grow rapidly, are well adapted to infertile soils and produce seeds that can be easily harvested and processed into nutritious human food.

As a result, a significant number of communities in the area are known to be regularly consuming acacia-based foods, particularly derived from A. colei. However, more sustainable adoption of acacias proved rather slow at first until MIDP alone, and then in collaboration with World Vision Niger, launched a more concerted approach to promoting the multiple benefits of acacias.

In continuing to explore the potential of Australian acacia species, MIDP staff have since developed the Farmer Managed Agroforesty Farming System (FMAFS), which is an alley cropping, agro-pastoral forestry system that incorporates FMNR of trees along with high seed and wood-producing acacias (particularly improved A. colei and A. torulosa). Whilst the FMAFS is introduced as a model, the approach is flexible to ensure that farmers can adapt it to meet their needs and local conditions.

The added attraction of acacias

Whilst very few A. colei trees were recorded to have been planted in the Maradi region during 1999-2003, a small market created by an Australian company, Kalkardi Pty Ltd., together with promotion by MIDP, led to a renewed interest in the species. During 2006-7, over 350 FMAFS were established in 33 villages, which has led to increased production of acacia seed. In 2004 Kalkardi purchased 1,640kg of seed which, by 2007, had risen to over 4,550kg. The price offered for seed (US$ 0.40 per kg) has stimulated interest in acacia planting and subsequent consumption of the seed.

From an informal survey conducted in 12 villages in three districts of the Maradi region in September 2007, it has been discovered that the demand for Acacia trees in MIDP and World Vision intervention villages exceeds supply, and that farmers were experimenting and innovating to find new uses for acacias not promoted by MIDP. These included using the seed pods as fertiliser side dressings, using water from soaking acacia bark to increase the strength of mud-plaster, and the medicinal use of acacia leaf juice to treat fever and stomach upsets.

Acacia foods, such as local dishes made with acacia flour, have become widely and enthusiastically accepted in the villages where A. colei is grown. The food is valued for its taste and, since acacia-based foods are more filling, consumption of staple grains is reduced, so that more is available for use at a later date or for sale.

MIDP's work is ongoing and trials to evaluate different types of A.torulosa, A. tumida and A.elachantha continue. The lessons learnt in Niger should enable multi-purpose acacias and adapted FMAFS to be adopted in regions with similar conditions and needs to Niger, particularly if markets for acacia seed and food products are developed.

The pressing case for moringa

When Raphael Mjoba started his love affair with the moringa tree (Moringa oliefera), he was barely into his teens. Growing up in Taita Taveta in the Coast province of Kenya, his parents would send him to pluck the salty moringa leaves, which would be taken to Nairobi's Ngara market for sale as vegetables for the Asian community.

Now married and with children, moringa trees are still an important part of Mjoba's life. In 2007 he started making regular trips to Nairobi with moringa seeds destined not for the dining table but to be processed and exported to Europe, the United States and China, for use in the manufacture of cosmetics.
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The qualities of moringa

Moringa oil is extracted from moringa seeds by cold pressing. The oil is pale yellow-green in colour, odourless, and has a mild nutty flavour. It contains antioxidants, is an effective emollient, and can be used in the manufacture of some hair and skincare products.

Before Earthoil set up a processing factory in Kenya, farmers in Taita Taveta used to export moringa seeds to neighbouring Tanzania. But overproduction there meant Kenyan farmers had to find a new market. The United States development agency, USAID has worked with the KHDP to offer extension and market information services to moringa farmers in the country. The programme is now working with farmers all over Kenya, including the Coast, Western, Nyanza and Rift Valley provinces, helping them increase moringa production and find new markets for the seeds.

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Changing fortunes

In the late 1980s, moringa leaves sold in Nairobi for KSh1/kg although they are now worth around KSh10/kg. Twenty years ago, the family did not mind the low price, because moringa was a wild tree. "It was like plucking weeds off your land and making money out of it," says Mjoba. Only later did his community come to realise that elsewhere the tree is highly prized for its seeds, which can be processed into oil for use in cosmetics products. Little did they suspect how the moringa might transform the living standards of small farmers.

Earthoil Kenya is the main buyer of moringa seeds in the country. "By 2003, we were importing 90 per cent of our seeds from Uganda and Tanzania," says managing director Wayne Bharat. "Now, due to our partnership with Kenyan farmers, we have started to see local supplies increasing." Bharat believes that local farmers have much to gain from the export market for processed moringa seeds and the company currently processes a total of 50 metric tonnes each month - about 30 per cent of requirements. "We are going for a gradual increase now that local farmers are keen to grow moringa," he adds.

Branching out

In December 2007, the farm gate price for moringa seeds was KSh30/kg and KSh40/kg when delivered to the Earthoil factory in Athi River, where, according to Mjoba, about 200 farmers from his locality delivered 2.2 tonnes of seed. "We grow individually but we have now formed a farmers' group to help us exchange ideas and take care of our welfare," he says. "I now have 236 trees but have planted 250 more because of the increasing demand. My parents have 1120 trees. One acre can take about 400 trees. Moringa farming has helped me to build a house, get married, educate my child and support my relatives," he concludes.

The farming of moringa for commercial purposes is also taking root in Nyanza province. George Okungu, agronomist for the Kenya Horticultural Development Centre (KHDP) in Nyanza, says the tree was first introduced along the shores of Lake Victoria in 2003 by people from Uganda, who spoke of its medicinal value. "The people in Nyanza liked it because of its aforestation value and farmers started growing 10, 50 and 100 trees mainly along fences." He continues, "Today, there are 71 farmers' groups, each with an average of 25 farmers growing around 100 trees. The trees are harvested twice a year and each tree can produce about 100kg every year."

"Farmers sell between 20-50kg of seed every month and, at KSh30/kg, this income is enough to take them through the month," says Okungu.

The future

Growing moringa is now seen as one way of helping subsistence farmers make better use of their land and improve their living standards. Since the trees can grow in arid and semi-arid areas, and are able to withstand temperatures up to 40ºC , they can offer new income-generating opportunities for Kenyans living in areas regarded as agriculturally unproductive. The trees can be grown individually or incorporated into agroforestry projects because they help control soil erosion and create only limited shade so that adjacent crops are unaffected.

With demand for moringa seed in Kenya estimated at around 600 tonnes per year, much of which is met by imports, increasing moringa production in the country shows great potential for improving the livelihoods of smallscale farmers.

Nature's choice: utilising wild plants in the Philippines

In the northern Philippines, the Cordillera region is home to the world-renowned Banaue Rice Terraces, which were carved into the mountains of Ifugao between 2,000-6,000 years ago by ancestors of the indigenous Batad people. Home to many tribal groups, the Cordillera region is also known for its rich diversity of indigenous plant species. Many are harvested from the wild and are valued as food plants and for their medicinal properties.

But degradation of the forests and watershed in the Cordillera region is leading to valuable biodiversity being lost. And, as the diet of the population begins to change and communities are growing more exotic vegetables, this rich genetic diversity of indigenous vegetables is at risk. Recognising the value of many of these species, researchers are working on ways to conserve and multiply these plants.

Food for free

At the Semi-Temperate Vegetable Research and Development Centre, part of Benguet State University, a recent study revealed that whilst the local people of the Cordillera depend on many edible wild species for human consumption, other wild species with potential nutritional value are frequently ignored and used only as grazing for livestock.

Over 49 wild species have been recorded in the 11 municipalities of Cordillera and the young shoots, tops, stalks, flowers, leaves, bulbs and fruit reported to be eaten as vegetables. Many of these belong to the Asteraceae (Compostitae), Solanaceae, Amaranthaceae and Brassicaceae families.

Gagattang is the local name for several thistle-like species - including Sonchus oleraceus L (common sow thistle) and S. arvensis (perennial sow thistle) - which, although rather bitter, are consumed by local communities. The plants are high in flavenoids and are also used to treat indigestion, fever and asthma. Puriket (Bidens pilosa), another popular wild plant, is rich in iodine and is reported to prevent goitre (enlarged thyroid). The young roots are also used to cure rheumatism and treat wounds and, in some areas, puriket is used in the preparation of sake (rice wine).

A rice alternative

Although not valued by all communities, plants such as gagattang and puriket may become even more important to poorer households who are struggling to feed themselves, given the rising price of rice, the main staple. Many households are selling livestock to buy sufficient rice; particularly hard hit are those who work as hired labour.

"And yet," says Professor Lorenza Gonzales-Lirio of Benguet State University, "why should people go hungry or be forced to pay high medical bills when they have food and herbal treatments within their vicinities?" She reports that there are now 11 indigenous wild species commonly available in the local markets of the Cordillera region.

Increased attention to these plants could, of course, put them further under threat. To counter this, Lirio and her colleagues are working with local women to identify and document the range of wild species used as vegetables and medicinals. They aim to better understand the nutritional value of the wild species, raise awareness of them with the local people and identify the best approach for using and conserving the plants.

"The women are taking the message of how nutritious these vegetables are. This has worked to their advantage. With selling them, they are now getting some cash for their upkeep," enthuses Lirio. She adds that the women themselves acknowledge that if the plants were better promoted, food security in the region could be much improved.

Bringing the benefits home

Home gardening of some species is also an option and is already being carried out by families in Sagada, Mountain Province. Lirio and her group are also working with 47 women from the region in establishing a nursery of kalunay (Amaranthus gracilis) and papait (Solanum spp.) and other plants from the wild, to be used as food and medicines.

Part of the researchers' work has been to document the species in a book, titled 'Indigenous Semi-temperate Vegetables of Cordillera'. Copies have already been disseminated to the municipalities of Mankayan, Sagada and Kabayan, including some farmers, but Lirio and her group are particularly keen that the book be incorporated into the local school syllabus. "If children grow up knowing how useful these indigenous vegetables are, it could change the way the current young generation view them as only a poor man's food," says Lirio.

The Cordillera is a region rich in cultural history but much of the Banaue Rice Terraces are at risk from neglect. It is unfortunate that the indigenous wild plants of the area could also be lost unless the work in raising awareness of these species is taken up and their nutritional and medicinal benefits once more truly valued, not just by isolated communities but across the northern Philippines.

With contributions from Lorenza Gonzales-Lirio

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