While the world’s food systems have lost 75 percent of their biodiversity in the past 100 years, scientists are now starting to recognize the vast treasure trove of genetic diversity present in traditional and wild plant varieties. Biodiversity can lead to more nutritious diets, and is also a key asset for mitigating the risks presented by climate change, according to the FAO.
Here in the U.S., a recent report found that traditional plant foods eaten by Native American tribes of the Northern Plains are extraordinarily nutritious. The report suggested that wild superfoods like lambs-quarter’s and chokecherries could vastly improve nutrition and help prevent disease.
The revival of pre-colonial foods is part of a growing food sovereignty movement led by Native American groups likeTraditional Native American Farmers Association and Tewa Women United. Similarly in Peru, indigenous tribes are also championing heritage foods, particularly a stunning variety of native potato strains.
In Indonesia, Maria Loretha, a social entrepreneur and Ashoka Fellow, is advocating for a return to growing and eating traditional crops like sorghum, millet, barley, and red and black rice. Loretha works primarily in Eastern Indonesia, where high rates of malnutrition have been called a “hunger paradox” by the UN, since food is readily available in the area. The problem, it turns out, stems from a lack of diversity in the local diet—which for poorer residents consists mostly of rice, a national staple.
Image credit: CGIAR Climate
According to Loretha, the eradication of diverse, more nutritious foods began in the 1970s, during the Suharto’s regime’s national rice program. “[S]ince the late 1970s, the government has been campaigning that people should eat rice,” Loretha said in an interview with Oxfam.
“It’s why people automatically don’t eat corn, sorghum, or millet. When the government campaigned about rice, they gave not only the seeds but also the fertilizer, pesticides. That’s why finally rice could be accepted by all people as the main staple. And that meant other foods were abandoned.”
Local foods like sorghum (called milo in the U.S.), however, are far more nutritious than rice, are better adapted to local land conditions, and exhibit strong resilience to fluctuations in climate. Loretha believes that reviving the diversity of local diets will help island communities rely less on outside inputs (like fertilizers and pesticides) and become resilient against inconsistent food supplies from outside regions.
Maria Loretha, center, discussing traditional seed varieties.
In her search for heritage seeds, Loretha has traveled from island to island and to remote communities, gathering seeds and speaking with locals about their uses. “Elders in the village who are older than 40 know sorghum, but people below 40 don’t know sorghum exists,” she said. “It is not only ordinary people who don’t know about it: even people in agricultural production don’t know.”
To validate the benefits of growing traditional foods, Loretha created a demonstration site. She cut down the cash crops—cashew and coconut trees—on her land and faced much skepticism from local farmers. But in 2010, when unseasonably wet weather hit the region, all the cashews were lost, while Loretha’s crop yielded a season’s worth of food. Then she began distributing seeds for free and teaching small farmers how to cultivate them.
Loretha, left, planting local seeds alongside local farmers
Loretha is now working with over 1,000 farmers in her farmers’ group Cinta Alam Pertanian (Love for Nature’s Farming) to spread the seeds and knowledge that she has gathered. She is also working with the government to breathe new energy into Indonesia’s Go Local movement, which had petered out due to a lack of grassroots support. According to Loretha, changing national policies that are aligned with transgenic seed companies and chemical manufacturers remains a significant challenge.
With the work of social entrepreneurs like Loretha, there are reasons to be optimistic for the future of traditional foods and the communities they benefit. In the U.S., drought and heat from climate change is also reviving the exploration of heartier “ancient grains” like sorghum. And the urban foraging trend is spotlighting the benefits of wild varietals and introducing more diversity into community diets.
In the words of Maria Loretha, “Opportunities are always out there. You just have to get your hands dirty.”