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May 27, 2008

Food crisis drives more attention towards long neglected traditional crops

Latin America's vast biological diversity has contributed little to the region's commercial agriculture, despite being the birthplace of two of the world's four most widely consumed food crops: maize and potatoes.

The current global food crisis has fuelled the debate about agricultural production and trade, including the sharp decline in the diversity of commercial crops.

Over the course of human history, people have consumed more than 7,000 species of plants. But in the last 100 years, about 75 percent of food crops have fallen by the wayside and now just three staples -- wheat, maize and rice -- make up about 70 percent of our caloric intake, according to United Nations figures.

Many ancient crops, like amaranth (Amaranthus) and quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa), both promising Latin American species, are grown by few farmers today, while rice and wheat cultivation continue to expand. As the older crops disappear, the knowledge associated with them vanishes too, weakening farming and nutrition, say experts.

Amaranth was declared "the best food of plant origin for human consumption" in 1979 by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences because of its unique proteins and amino acids and because it is relatively easy to grow, not requiring much water or especially fertile soil. Extensively cultivated by the Maya, Aztecs and Incas, it had been largely forgotten until the 1960s, and today it is only planted on 2,000 hectares.

"There is a culture that creates a preference for other products with fewer nutritional benefits," said Alberto Martínez, secretary of the Amaranth Product System, a cooperative of 250 low-income farmers who live in an area south of the Mexican capital. In 2007, they sold 300 tonnes of amaranth, whose current price of 1,000 dollars per tonne is twice the 2006 price.

Amaranth is also grown in the United States, China and India, but only on a small scale.

"In relying on no more than six crops, the population is more vulnerable to crises of stocks, supply and demand," especially the poor, according to Juan Izquierdo, senior plant production officer for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in Latin America.

That is what is happening now, with the dramatic hikes in food prices around the world, which threaten to drive up the number of people suffering hunger globally from 850 million to 950 million, according to the World Food Programme. Violent protests over food shortages and high prices have already broken out in dozens of countries.

This panorama is the result of processes that have made more than 100 countries heavily dependent on imported food, starting with food aid. Since the 1950s, food production patterns have been transferred to poor countries, says Jean Marc von der Weid, coordinator of the non-governmental Alternative Agriculture Project Consulting and Services, in Brazil.

Then, the "unequal" trade liberalisation of the past few decades allowed Europe and the United States -- girded with their protectionist policies -- "to flood the world with cheap foods," which was welcome for a time, until the crisis revealed the trap, Von der Weid told Tierramérica.

The loss of crop biodiversity is another consequence. Fonio, or finger-grass (Digitaria), is a nutritious and tasty cereal from West Africa, which ended up confined to rural areas. In Brazil, wheat replaced most of the manioc, maize and bean consumption.

The problem affects crop species and varieties, causing genetic "erosion" that makes them more vulnerable to disaster. Just two types of black beans dominate the Brazilian market, for example, said Von der Weid.


Women play contrary roles in food diversity. As consumers, and often overwhelmed with long hours of work, "they contribute to homogenisation," because they look for foods that are quick and easy to prepare, Emma Siliprandi, an agronomist and sociologist who researches the relationship between gender and food, told Tierramérica.

But in agriculture, women are "depositories of biodiversity, seeds and knowledge" about numerous foods, infusions, and household gardens, while men tend to follow the logic of the market, casting aside the "trifles", she said.

It was women who, as part of the Vía Campesina international network, launched the movement in defence of seeds as a heritage of humanity, added Siliprandi.

Meanwhile, the concerns of indigenous peoples go beyond that.

"Not only is it essential to recover the erroneously named 'old crops with high nutritional value', but also to reaffirm our conception of Mother Earth," Senator Ramiro Estacio, of the Indigenous Authorities Movement of South-western Colombia (AICO), told Tierramérica. That means "recuperating an entire system that implies reinforcing knowledge, culture, and productive and nutritional variety, and which allows the reaffirmation of millennial wisdom," he said.

Recovering diversity depends on efforts in family farming and requires agro-ecology practices and agrarian reform, said Von der Weid. Also indispensable is food education, because entrenched eating habits prevent the diversification of food, as has been seen in the failed attempts to disseminate vegetable crops in Brazil, he added.

However, a Chilean project for urban gardens, which included education about nutrition and vegetable types to be grown in different seasons, was highly successful.

Agro-ecology, which rules out the use of chemical or synthetic inputs, is "an interesting proposal," but only serves niche markets and does not replace large-scale commercial farming, said Ariovaldo Luchiari Junior, assistant director of the environment centre at the Brazilian government's agricultural research agency, EMBRAPA.

Luchiari noted the increased demand for less harmful farming products, the decreased demand for non-renewable fertilisers, and the positive results in agrosilvopastoral combinations and vegetables. The demands of today's market, he said, show preferences for products of higher quality, security, tradability and added value, ranging from shredded and packaged carrots to soybeans with higher content of isoflavone, which eases symptoms of menopause in women.

Meanwhile, commercial crops have an increasingly wide array of uses: maize provides food for people and livestock alike, and is a raw material for many products, including ethanol fuel. Sugarcane has long been produced for more than sugar. It is a fertiliser and the source for some types of plastic. Wheat is not just bread, but also crackers, pastas and sweets.

Latin America's biodiversity could generate new products of mass consumption, but it will be a long process of investment and research to respond to nutritional and environmental standards -- "not an easy road," said Luchiari.

FAO expert Izquierdo said that productivity, uniformity and processability are the necessary traits of a "useful" crop.

Enough awareness to take advantage of opportunities is another factor, he says. The United States is the world's leading producer of quinoa because in one county of the central state of Nebraska it is planted on 25,000 hectares. The harvest is destined for one of the Nestlé Corporation's foods for infants.

"The crops that have been subject to the most intense genetic improvement, like maize, rice and wheat, yield much more per surface unit," said Edmundo Acevedo, expert in agricultural production at the University of Chile, adding that without similar improvements, it would be difficult for native species like amaranth and quinoa to compete on the market.

In Mexico, despite maize shortages, corn tortillas are still the dominant staple food. "If maize prices climb higher, it will hit everyone’s pocketbook, but it is impossible to imagine that people will stop eating tortillas, because a millenniums-old culture sustains that diet," Marcelino Vela, a consulting economist to food companies, told Tierramérica.


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