I’ve served as the Program and Operations Officer of the Global Child Nutrition Foundation (GCNF) since 2014. At GCNF we work to increase the number children who have access to nutritious food at school all over the world. This position has opened my eyes to the remarkable work being done to address hunger and malnutrition but also the enormous challenges that lie ahead. Despite the progress made over the past few decades, food insecurity remains persistent on a global scale: some 800 million people don’t have enough food to eat on a daily basis. However, hunger and a deficit of calories is only part of the problem- an issue known as the double burden of malnutrition is on the rise. Not only do people not have enough calories and nutrients, in some instances they have too many calories and still no access to important nutrients. A child may not receive the proper nutrition in the critical first 1,000 days of their life and may not grow to their full potential (i.e. stunting or wasting); as an adult they may receive a surfeit of calories leading them to be overweight on a stunted frame, a dark irony for the 21st century.
These problems are complex and the work to address them will need to involve multiple actors across different sectors of both the public and private spheres. Unfortunately, during the past few years I’ve learned that the people who know what is best for human nutrition don’t always communicate with the people who make investments in the future of agriculture, and vice versa. I’ve also observed that a lot of the conversation around food security has to do with increasing yields and eliminating waste. While these are important goals, to be sure, most of these approaches don’t account for the nutrition side of the equation. Some 75% of the world’s food is generated from 12 plants and 5 animal species. Eating so much of the same thing almost guarantees that people aren’t having access to the diverse set of nutrients necessary for human growth, development, and the maintenance of a healthy lifestyle. The most common answer I’ve heard to address the lack of nutrient diversity is fortification: adding nutrients to foods or even bio-fortification, genetically engineering crops to produce certain nutrients. During the course of my work I’ve also been privileged to travel to countries affected by the double burden of malnutrition. In these countries I’ve also noticed a remarkable diversity of plant and animal life but that, when it comes to food, the same staple crops and animals are relied upon for the majority of consumption. In Namibia, I learned that there are several plants that are indigenous or even endemic to the country that also have high nutritional value (!nara, marula fruit, marama bean) but they aren’t consumed on a large scale and there are no plans to invest in developing their value chains.
Which brings me to what I want to explore in this blog: in a time where it is critical that we learn to feed a growing population, why aren’t we looking to the many neglected and underutilized species of plants that already grow in many of the countries that have persistent food insecurity and malnutrition problems? What has led us to the point where the some 7.5 billion people on the planet depend on a dozen plant species when we know that there are literally hundreds of thousands of plants that are edible? I still have yet to see many answers to these questions, but a recent trip to Hawai’i helped to illuminate some of the reasons why.
I recently had the good fortune to visit the island of Kaua’i to celebrate my mother’s birthday. Geologically the oldest of the Hawaiian islands (that you can visit) Kaua’i is remarkable for many things but, as it’s nickname denotes, the gardens of Kaua’i are particularly enchanting. I visited two of the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s locations: Limahuli and the Allerton Garden. Limahuli could be (and probably will be) the subject of a separate post; but an experience I had during the tour of the Allerton Garden stuck with me.
The Allerton Garden is situated at the mouth of the Lawa’i River on Kaua’i’s south shore. Our competent and gregarious tour guide, Bob, regaled us of the garden’s storied history: passing from Hawaiian royalty to a Scottish family, then an American captain of industry and finally into federal stewardship under the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s care. The garden is stunning with varied collections of tropical plants, contemplative pools and streams, and different areas that held special importance for Queen Emma or the Allertons. One such area was described as an outdoor ‘living room’ where the Allertons would entertain. After having introduced us to many different economically important plants (pomelo, annatto, banana, coconut, culinary ginger, kukui), Bob paused at a large tree at the end of the ‘living room’ whose roots were littered with decaying fruit. Bob picked one up and asked us to identify the fruit or plant- no one was correct. It was a Wi apple, the tree a fine specimen of Spondias dulcis or ambarella. It was introduced to Hawai’i post-contact, that is it probably wasn’t one of the canoe crops that Hawaii’s original settlers brought with them, and was probably introduced post-James Cook. According to Bob, Wi apples were once widely consumed by Hawaiians throughout the islands- they’re slightly sweet and taste vaguely of mango and pineapple. However, when the actual mango was introduced it was considered so superior to the Wi apple that Wi apples were soon forgotten, relegated to ornamental gardens where their fruit rots unheeded.
While the Wi apple is definitely not in danger of extinction or of being neglected on a global scale (it sounds like they are still widely consumed throughout their native Melanesia/Polynesia, Southeast Asia and Latin America and the Caribbean) what happened in Hawai’i serves as an interesting insight and comment on the decline in diet diversity and the corresponding decline in agro-biodiversity. According to the UN FAO, a century ago farmers cultivated 75% more species; today, we depend on a select few to supply the vast majority of calories consumed globally. While the answers to how and why this happened are many and complex a general outline would include the consequences of the Green Revolution, the globalization of food systems and marketing, and the incumbent replacement of native species by exotic or genetically-modified ones. The parable of the Wi apple and the Mango helps to clarify along these lines: mangoes taste better! They are sweeter, more colorful, and bigger. The Wi apple, a (supposedly) once cherished fruit, was cast off in favor of a tastier species.
In a world where approximately 800 million people go without enough to eat every day and where the population is expected to increase by another 2 billion over the next 30 years it is imperative to learn from this microcosm of the loss of dietary diversity. How can we preserve more plant species for future generations? How can we make local food systems and their inherent biodiversity more resilient in the face of globalization? While the Wi apple is not a nutritional powerhouse and its loss from a Hawaiian’s plate may not be the most critical issue facing the islands, the parable can help us begin to understand how species are lost from our diet; and perhaps also plant a seed for more innovative ways to reach more people with better nutrition while also protecting biodiversity.
Disclaimer: the view’s expressed in this post are mine and mine alone and do not reflect the position of the Global Child Nutrition Foundation, its Board of Directors, Staff or Supporters.