Editorial: Traditional plants build resilience and resistance

By , and
20 June 2016

This issue of Farming Matters looks at the growing number of initiatives worldwide that aim to harness the potential of traditional plants. Cultivating traditional plants builds resilience and nutrition, strengthens cultural practices and enhances food sovereignty. From the experiences presented here we learn that for the successful revival of traditional plants, farmers’ knowledge on agricultural biodiversity, nutrition and culture must also be valued and protected. And this works best through a holistic approach – from field to fork to politics.

Traditional plants are a central element in the agroecologicaltransition. Photo: Zimbabwe Smallholder Organic Farmers’ Forum

Underutilised, orphan, forgotten, minor, neglected, indigenous, traditional plant species. These are but a few of the names for the plant species that are ignored in mainstream policy and research. Out of 7000 plant species that have been used for human food consumption since the beginning of agriculture, just three crops (rice, maize and wheat) provide 60 % of the world͛s plant-based calories and proteins today (FAO). Going against the grain, farmers and others around the world are embarking on initiatives that revalue the nutritional, ecological and cultural values of plants which, from here on will be referred to as ͚traditional͛. This issue of Farming Matters presents a kaleidoscope of such experiences.

Why are so few plant species valued?

In colonial times, traditional plants and foods were often associated with notions of ͚primitive͛, and left to marginalised sectors of society. A second wave of undervaluation came from the 1960s onwards with the Green Revolution. A food and farming system based on intensifying the cultivation of only a few crops – rice, wheat and maize, bred for routine application of fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation – was promoted. Diversity in traditional crops, farming techniques and diets was replaced with monoculture and monotony.

Today the marginalisation of the majority of plant species in science, policy, education, development, production and consumption is evident. For instance, most research, food aid and public procurement programmes focus exclusively on the dominant crops, creating situations where farmers are convinced or coerced into cultivating them. In turn, and often via global food chains, where power is concentrated in the hands of just a few retailers who invest heavily in marketing campaigns, these are the crops that end up on the plates of consumers. And so we are witnessing the loss of the knowledge and cultural heritage associated with cultivating, processing and preparing many plant species.

Traditional plants and agroecology

So what makes people revalue traditional crops? For one, because of the great richness and diversity that can be found among the plant species that do not dominate the global food system, but do provide at least a quarter of the world’s plant-based food. And due to their many positive contributions, these plants are a central element in the agroecological transition.

Diversification is a major motivation for a return to traditional crops. The negative consequences of intensive use of (often expensive) external inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers provide an incentive for growing a variety of different species to manage pests, diseases and soil fertility. Traditional crops are a key component of such diversification strategies. In the absence of external inputs, traditional varieties often outperform improved varieties and with climate change, traditional drought-resistant crops, sometimes improved through careful farmer selection, offer resilience and stability. Moreover, this strategy supports farmers͛ autonomy as they can circumvent the industrial seed and chemical industries.

Importantly, a range of traditional crops such as millet are more nutritious than the major crops such as maize. Finally, the cultivation, preparation and consumption of traditional plants is a way of reinforcing cultural identity and is an important survival strategy amongst migrant communities (see Planting roots with non-timber forest products) and those building peace in the aftermath of war (see Youth find hope in crops of their elders).

For all these reasons farmers worldwide actively manage and maintain their diverse traditional plants and crops, and both rural and urban citizens are discovering and appreciating their uses.

Likewise, scientists are seeking alternatives to the green revolution technology package and are revaluing traditional species, while policy makers such as governments and the FAO are recognising the value of such species for food and nutrition security.

But revaluing traditional crops is not easy, as it requires vision, creativity and stamina to go against the mainstream. Moreover, traditional crops also have their disadvantages. For instance, millets take a longer time to cook than rice and post-harvest processing of lupin is water and labour intensive. The processes of production and preparation of some ͚forgotten͛ crops also have been forgotten, while ͚modern tastes͛ often favour so called ͚modern foods͛, usually containing wheat, rice or maize. And not everybody is able to make the transition. Some Indian farmers, who have been monocropping groundnuts since the 70s, are facing big problems because of climate change. Some have quit groundnut cultivation and returned to millet-based diverse systems, whereas others quit farming altogether, and others decided to quit life as they could not stand the idea of lifelong indebtedness to the bank.

Underutilised by whom?
The trend to revalue traditional crops merits a word of caution. Does the hyperdominance of a few crops mean that the rest are truly undervalued? For example, the pulse crop lupin is undergoing a worldwide revival, but for small scale farmers in the highlands of Ecuador, this crop has always been an essential part of their diets. The label ͚underutilised͛ should be regarded in its geographical, social, historical, and economic context. Recognising this and questioning the narrative of ͚underutilised plant species͛ is a way of challenging the politics of oblivion, as argued by Mariam Mayet.
Moreover, the promotion of traditional plant species might actually accelerate or create problems. A few decades ago quinoa was considered the ͚lost crop of the Incas͛. Recent campaigns that promoted its integration into global value chains have been successful in popularising the crop. But dramatic changes in quinoa producing regions raise questions about the impact of bringing traditional crops into global food systems. As Didier Bazile points out on Fair and sustainable, these changes can negatively impact crop diversity, soil conservation, community cohesion and local food and nutrition security. Similarly, the commercial promotion of traditional non-timber forest products can be dangerous when governance mechanisms, such as land tenure, are not in place to curb exploitation of the species.

Farmers’ knowledge

As the value of traditional plants gains greater recognition, so must the knowledge, culture and expertise on growing and preparing these. This knowledge can take many forms. For example, in the Gamo Highlands of Ethiopia, farmers use song, dance and food to hand over knowledge about their crops. Hence, promoting traditional plants must go hand in hand with respecting the custodians of this knowledge – the food producers themselves. Kylie Lingard points this out with the case of an expanding indigenous ͚bush foods͛ industry in Australia which does not yet fairly acknowledge the indigenous peoples.

Moreover, exchange between farmers and with others is a way to generate old and new knowledge about these foods. This is seen in India (see Making millets matter in Madhya Pradesh) where farmers participate in exchanges across the country to share their experiences with reviving minor millets. An initiative to revitalise lupin in Ecuador owes part of its success to the equal partnership between technicians and farmers (see Lupin regains ground in Central Ecuador). The protection of farmers͛ knowledge and their farming models remains a key point of attention, as learnt from the quinoa experience.

A holistic approach is needed

As neglect of traditional crops has occurred at several levels, within seed systems, on farmers͛ fields, along market chains, on people͛s plates and in research, education and policy, a holistic approach is needed to turn the tide. Initiatives that build alliances between actors at these different levels are particularly successful as they enable coordinated efforts to make fundamental changes to the whole food system. For instance, recognising the link between traditional crops and foods calls for collaborations between farmers and people who process, prepare, package, distribute and eat food. In Canada, new links between farmers and chefs have increased awareness and popularity of heritage grains. Likewise food festivals in India and Ethiopia that celebrate food cultures, garner citizen support for traditional foods in both urban and rural areas. Furthermore, as illustrated with an example from Germany (see Linking food choice with biodiversity), there are increasing numbers of citizen-led initiatives that strengthen their relationships with farmers around traditional crops.

Support for emerging initiatives to revalue traditional plants must also come from policy. For instance through national research programmes that value farmers͛ knowledge on these crops and through public procurement programmes that source traditional foods from family farmers. Changes to the Public Distribution System in India, to include minor millets next to rice, wheat and maize, are a good example of how traditional crops can be supported. Mariam Mayet argues for policy change that supports farmer-managed seed systems and likewise Didier Bazile explains that changes to international seed regulations is needed to promote farmers’ access to diverse and high quality seeds.

Resilience and resistance

This issue of Farming Matters shows that traditional plant species are part and parcel of family farming rooted in agroecology, and that there are many ways to revalue them. It is clear that this always goes together with the revival of traditional dishes, food cultures, and with greater diversity. It is imperative that markets be created specifically for traditional plants and foods that are produced in an agroecological way by family farmers. This can lead to more diverse, nutritious food and healthier people that feel more connected to their food. Traditional crops build resilience and resistance – for farmers, and for anyone who eats.

Madeleine Florin (m.florin@ileia.org), Diana Quiroz (d.quiroz@ileia.org) and Janneke Bruil (j.bruil@ileia.org) work at ILEIA (www.ileia.org).