The ark of food

Wattleseed pods on tree

WORDS Linda Moon

Adding his latest finding, an iodine-rich Tasmanian seaweed, to his database of 29,270 plants, 72-year-old Bruce French is close to cataloguing every possible edible plant on our planet. Harvesting information from village elders, herbariums, libraries, plant institutes, local markets, regional databases and old manuals, it’s a quest that has sent French to 40 countries across the world.

The list includes the obscure, those no longer in use and indigenous foods. ‘I have a library of 1,000 books and a digital library of 50,000 articles,’ French adds. ‘I now search everywhere and anywhere. The core of it all is to make sure there’s one source in the world. Often there’s a plant in Africa, then a related plant grows in Asia, and then in South America. You might as well find out what someone’s done on a similar plant in a different place. In the past there’s been no way to compare them.’ Uniquely, French’s database incorporates botanical, agricultural and nutritional information in one place.

Feeding the earth
The Tasmanian-based former agriculturist and Baptist pastor started compiling his Noah’s ark of food plants after a visit to a malnutrition ward in Papua New Guinea over fifty years ago. One issue is that farmers in the developing world are encouraged to grow plants that don’t suit the conditions. ‘My main focus has been to encourage greater use of locally well-adapted plants to give more secure and stable production,’ French says. It’s an approach described by the United Nations as agro-ecology. ‘This is an attempt to grow the right plant in the right place and use the right methods. I had an inquiry from a Malawian teaching permaculture in schools. He was trained overseas and knew his temperate plants but was no longer familiar with his traditional and local Malawian plants.’ Providing the nutrient values of plants to local communities is an important element. ‘They don’t know why they’re going blind, or why kids are short.’

French distributes information freely via his non-profit organisation, Food Plants International. ‘28 countries in the world have been getting stuff off our website. It’s empowering people with information.’ He’s critical of capitalist approaches to world malnutrition—such as the Bill Gates funded AGRA (Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa)—that foster dependence upon pesticide and agribusiness multinationals for GM seed and pesticides.

Australia’s Indigenous food
While Australians aren’t dying of hunger, we could benefit from greater crop diversity including indigenous and nutrient dense foods, French says. ‘Australia, being a country extending from temperate to tropical, has a rich diversity of edible plants. Many of our indigenous plants have not yet been given the scientific study that they deserve. Over 100 food plants have proven anticancer properties. Some of these are Australian indigenous species such as Ear pod wattle [Acacia auriculiformis]. Others are attractive exotics such as soursop [Annona muricata].’ No doubt, many more are yet to be discovered.

French has collated 6,820 edible plant species growing in Australia. At least 535 of these are indigenous. However, a huge knowledge gap impedes our understanding of how to produce and use them. ‘We’re a long long way behind the A-ball,’ French says. ‘Kakadu Plum [Terminalia ferdinandiana] is catching on very fast. It’s 100 times higher in vitamin C than citrus.’ The Kakadu plum, Davidson’s plum and quandong are starting to be grown commercially, he says. ‘Tasmanian pepper is now being marketed internationally.’

However, French is no food snob. ‘Ultimately I am not primarily concerned with when the plant arrived in Australia but whether it is well adapted and has useful food value and reliable productivity.’ Rather than wheat, he suggests we grow more quinoa. One of over 400 cereals across the world, the nutritional South American plant is better adapted to arid zones and lacks the issues many experience with gluten.

Nutrient dense food production
Pre-occupation with ‘yield’, or bulk, has meant that many of our current food plants are lacking in nutrients, French warns. ‘Many traditional edible plants have 10 and 20 times the levels of common essential nutrients. If it’s not big and commercial they say it’s not important but half the time these things are packed full of nutrients.’

‘A significant bonus with diversifying our diets are what are now being called “functional foods” or foods with other functions than simply providing nutrients. There’s lots of other chemicals that are important to the body—flavonoids, alkaloids, antioxidants and all sorts of other things.’

Ecological farming
With water a limited resource in Australia, French suggests we explore more of our indigenous foods adapted to arid lands, like the Kakadu Plum. ‘There used to be a time in agriculture when food production was a solar energy activity. We used plants to capture the energy from the sun to produce richly diverse nutritious edible plants. Now our agriculture uses more energy to produce the crop than the crop could return as energy.’

Cultivating plants suited to the environment not only saves on water but other inputs, including pesticides. ‘You don’t have to be an Einstein to realise that local plants suit local conditions and already have multi-gene resistance to the pests and diseases or they would have already died out. Roundup is virtually established as a cause of cancer. Every year you’ve got to spray more Roundup because lots of weeds have become resistant. Same with the insects. It’s not solving the problem, just helping the chemical companies. The time is fast approaching when we need to seriously review our whole approach to agriculture. Ours is a non-viable, non-healthy situation.’

To read the full story, grab a copy of Sprout Magazine Spring 2017 issue at your local stockists or online, posted directly to your door.


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