Thursday, January 08, 2009

Diversity: of eating and teaching

From a didactic point of view, a professor is always concerned about getting her students interested and involved in the topic/course of study. One way to do it is to call for discussion around current events in the field. In an Environmental and occupational health course I'm taking at the Graduate School of Public Health, we're blogging about and discussing recently published news articles. Here's my first post.

Crop diversity: Eat it or lose it is an article that appeared on the BBC website on Jan 6th 2009

There are many reasons for incorporating diversity into our diet: our own health, a healthier local farming community, and a healthier environment. Agricultural anthropologist, Jeff Bentley, argues that we’re also more likely to make it past a climate change crisis if we have a large crop gene pool--it’s likely that one of many possible cultivars will survive an environmental shock. All over the world, farmers are moving toward cultivating high-yielding varieties, effectively reducing our gene pool of cultivated crops. However, if demand for some of the older, traditionally consumed varieties existed, farmers may be more likely to grow them. It is up to us, then, to increase the variety of foods we consume, and to consciously make choices to buy traditional varieties of produce.

This is a ‘wicked’ environmental problem because there are multiple stakeholders with possibly different viewpoints. Farmers may be reluctant to grow traditional varieties until demand can be built up for those types of food, so farming of these cultivars may need to be subsidized even as people are educated about the virtues of consuming ‘older varieties’ of food. Seeds for traditional varieties may need to be made available in areas where these cultivars have been lost. People may have become accustomed to the ‘refined’ taste of rice or wheat, and may be unwilling to go back to eating quinoa, millets and other traditional foods. Furthermore, it may be important, in a world worried about climate change, to increase demand for traditional cultivars locally. Skyrocketing demand for purple Peruvian potatoes in Pittsburgh is less sustainable from the point of view of the climate, than increasing demand for these potatoes within Peru.

It will probably take deliberation between local governments, farmers, traders and consumers in order to build a market for traditional foods from the ground up. In Southern India, there is a group that is considering generating a recipe for millet cookies, and trying to replace the wheat-based, ubiquitously available 'Glucose biscuits' in village stores. This will take time, effort, and resources. Participatory approaches will have to be used to design policies that suit all the stakeholders.

I’m not sure if there are local, ‘traditional’ varieties of crops in the Pittsburgh area. May be older varieties of apple or squash? But we could all eat a more diverse diet sourced from local farmers, and in so doing, improve our own health as well as that of our community and our environment.

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