Posts Tagged ‘Indigenous Vegetables’


Argan Oil: Too Much of a Good Thing?

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By Carol Dreibelbis

Most people have heard of the health benefits of using olive oil instead of butter or other saturated animal fats. The monounsaturated fats in olive oil have been shown to reduce levels of harmful cholesterol, and as a result nutrition experts have touted it and other aspects of the Mediterranean Diet as heart healthy.

Photo Credit: Jane Alexander

But olive oil isn’t the only celebrated oil from that region of the world. In Morocco, argan oil has been consumed by the Berber people for centuries. Berbers add the deep yellow, toasty-flavored oil to couscous, serve it alongside bread, or eat it on its own. Argan oil has been shown to reduce cholesterol and triglycerides in the blood, and recent research by France’s Institut Pasteur, Morocco’s Lipoproteins and Atherosclerosis Research Laboratory, and others suggests that it might contribute to the prevention of various cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and diabetes.

Beyond the health benefits of consuming argan oil, there are also important environmental benefits associated with its production. The same deep root systems that make argan trees well adapted to heat and frequent drought in southwestern Morocco also protect the land against soil erosion and desertification. Meanwhile, argan trees provide shade and protection for crops or pastureland, presenting opportunities for agroforestry.

Arguably, however, the most noteworthy impact of argan oil production is social. This rare oil has captivated a global audience, primarily because of its use in cosmetics. As a result, market prices have been on the rise (making it the most expensive edible oil in the world), and argan oil producers—largely local Moroccan women—have been reaping the benefits.

Because the process of extracting argan oil is extremely labor intensive (it can take 50 kilograms of seeds to produce just half a liter of oil), the women who produce it by hand are frequently part of production co-operatives, such as the UCFA (Union des Cooperatives des Femmes de l’Arganeraie). Founded in 1999, this innovative co-operative produces and markets argan oil and is supported by the Moroccan government as both a conservation and development strategy. Today, the UCFA unites 22 smaller women’s co-operatives. The women who make up these groups gain status, a steady income, and, in some cases, an education through their work.

Yet the argan oil boom has been a double-edged sword. Argan trees and the area in which they grow are threatened by overuse and deforestation. A study by the University of California, Davis finds that “the boom has predictably made households vigilant guardians of fruit on the tree, but it has not incited investments in longer term tree and forest health.” While the development of a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Morocco is a step in the right direction, it will be both economically and environmentally critical for the same non-governmental groups, development agencies, and government offices that supported argan oil production in the first place to keep sustainability in mind.

Carol Dreibelbis is a research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Nourishing the Planet Project.



Sea Buckthorn: A Shrub That’s Good for People and the Environment

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By Carol Dreibelbis

Sea buckthorn, also known as Siberian pineapple, sea berry, sandthorn, or swallowthorn, is a deciduous shrub that grows natively across northern Eurasia. As its name suggests, sea buckthorn’s branches are dense, stiff, and thorny, but its berries can provide nutrition for both people and wildlife.

Sea buckthorn berries offer benefits to both human and environmental health. (Photo credit:

Sea buckthorn is valued in parts of Europe and Asia for its nutritional and medicinal properties. Its bright orange berries are high in carotenoids, flavonoids, and vitamins A, C, E, and K; in fact, the concentration of vitamin C in sea buckthorn is higher than in strawberries, kiwis, oranges, tomatoes, and carrots. The berries have a fruity yet sour flavor and are often used in juices, jams, sauces, and liqueurs. The silver-gray leaves yield a tea rich in antioxidants, and the plants are even high in essential fatty acids.

While sea buckthorn is currently used medicinally in Russia and China, it has only recently attracted the attention of researchers across the world. Sea buckthorn oil, which can be extracted from seeds, is said to be anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and adaptogenic (helping the body develop resistance to stressors). It is used as a treatment for mucositis, ulcers, radiation damage, burns, and scalds, as well as to relieve pain and promote tissue regeneration. While clinical studies are still needed to fully understand its medicinal benefits, a study by Hamdard University in India shows that sea buckthorn may help protect against diabetes.

Beyond its human health benefits, sea buckthorn also boosts the health of the environment in which it grows. Because its extensive root system can bind together even sandy soils, sea buckthorn prevents water and wind erosion on slopes and in open areas. It is fairly drought and frost resistant, tolerates soil salinity and low temperatures, and can withstand a range of soil pH levels. Sea buckthorn also adds nitrogen to the soil through nitrogen fixation, so it can grow in marginal soils and help restore them.

Sea buckthorn provides food and shelter for a variety of animals. In the Loess Plateau of northern China, 51 species of birds are entirely dependent on the shrub for food.

Despite the relative ease of cultivation, sea buckthorn is difficult to harvest, and machines to efficiently collect the fresh berries are still being developed. Harvesting berries by hand is time consuming (some estimate 600 person-hours per acre, compared to the 120 person-hours per acre required for tomatoes). Until harvesting machines become readily available, large-scale cultivation of sea buckthorn may not be viable.

Given the many potential benefits offered by sea buckthorn, groups such as the European Commission’s EAN-Seabuck network have prioritized the development of economical and sustainable production methods for this plant. In the meantime, sea buckthorn retains its ability to improve environmental and human health on a smaller scale.

Have you ever tried sea buckthorn berries or a product made with them? Let us know in the comments section below.

Carol Dreibelbis is a former research intern with the Worldwatch Institute’s Food and Agriculture Program.


Supporting Climate-Friendly Food Production

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By Laura Reynolds

This summer, record temperatures and limited rainfall parched vast areas of U.S. cropland, and with Earth’s surface air temperature projected to rise 0.69 degrees Celsius by 2030, global food production will be even more unpredictable. Although agriculture is a major driver of human-caused climate change, contributing an estimated 25 to 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, when done sustainably it can be an important key to mitigating climate change.

Agroforestry is one practice that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions while adapting to the effects of climate change. (Photo credit: Christensen Fund)

Because of its reliance on healthy soil, adequate water, and a delicate balance of gases such as carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere, farming is the human endeavor most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. But agriculture’s strong interrelationships with both climatic and environmental variables also make it a significant player in reducing climate-altering emissions as well as helping the world adapt to the realities of a warming planet.

The good news is that agriculture can hold an important key to mitigating climate change. Practices such as using animal manure rather than artificial fertilizer, planting trees on farms to reduce soil erosion and sequester carbon, and growing food in cities all hold huge potential for reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint.

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the global agricultural sector could potentially reduce and remove 80 to 88 percent of the carbon dioxide that it currently emits. By adopting more-sustainable approaches, small-scale agriculture in developing countries has the potential to contribute 70 percent of agriculture’s global mitigation of climate change. And many of these innovations have the potential to be replicated, adapted, and scaled up for application on larger farms, helping to improve water availability, increase diversity, and improve soil quality, as well as mitigate climate change. (more…)


Taihu Pig: A Fertile and Tasty Breed of Swine

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By Caitlin Aylward

Pork plays a prominent role in Chinese cuisine, particularly in the lower reaches of the Yangtze River Valley. As a result, swine, like the Taihu pig breed, are important components of native agriculture and livestock production in the region.

The Taihu pig is a Chinese heritage breed known for its tasty meat (Photo Credit: Robin Loznak)

The Taihu is a domestic breed of pig from the Taihu Lake region in the lower Yangtze River valley of China. In general, the Taihu is a relatively large breed of pig, characterized by its thick skin, black color, large floppy ears, and distinctly wrinkled face. However there are several different varieties of Taihu, including the Meishan, Fengjing, Jiaxing Black, and Erhualian varieties, all of which are differentiated by the variability in character and the region they inhabit.

The Taihu pig is one of the most prolific pig breeds in the world, and is particularly well known for its high fertility rates. The Taihu sows are capable of producing multiple litters throughout their lifetime, often averaging around 14 piglets each; however litters can range in size from anywhere between 12 to 20 piglets. The Taihu also matures sexually at an early age, making it a popular swine among breeders.

Taihu pigs are typically raised in densely populated townships and cities. Consequently, the Taihu are often kept in enclosures year round. The diet of the Taihu is mostly comprised of barley and rice brain, but also includes radish, pumpkin, grass, and certain aquatic plants. The Taihu’s rich diet contributes to its highly desirable tasty and juicy meat. The swine’s exceptional resistance to disease is yet another advantageous characteristic that distinguishes the Taihu pig from other breeds.



Durian: King of Fruits or Smelly Feet?

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By Eun Jae Park

Native to tropical Southeast Asia, the durian fruit has been described by some as having an odor and taste ranging from fresh custard to a week-old corpse. Known commonly as the “King of Fruits,” this spiky, egg-shaped fruit has been a vital part of the Southeast Asian diet for centuries. Most commonly consumed raw, durian can also be boiled, fried, fermented, or roasted. Of the 300 native species, only several fruit-bearing varieties of the Durio genus are in common production in Thailand, Malaysia, India, Philippines, Burma, and Vietnam.

The durian fruit is infamous for its odor. (Photo credit: The Houston Museum of Natural Science)

Those who have encountered the durian have described their experience with the fruit as a lifelong love or hate relationship due to its unique smell and flavor. In many Southeast Asian countries, the fruit has been banned from subways and public buildings for its disagreeable odor. Early 20th-century plant explorer Otis W. Barrett described the fruit’s overpowering aroma as having strong notes of “garlic, Limburger cheese, and some spicy sort of resin.”

But Alfred Russel Wallace, a renowned anthropologist from the mid- 19th century, fell in love with the durian and characterized it as “a rich custard highly flavored with almonds… but there are occasional wafts of flavour that call to mind cream cheese, onion-sauce, sherry wine, and other incongruous dishes.”

The durian industry has expanded beyond Southeast Asia, and durian can now be found throughout the world. From small street vendor stalls in Chinatown, New York to supermarkets in Tokyo, Japan, frozen or fresh durian is now available internationally. According the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, Thailand accounts for approximately half of the world’s annual durian production at 781,000 tons. China alone imported over 138,000 tons of durian from Thailand in 2010, and international demand has only grown since.

Durian lovers worldwide can now enjoy the controversial fruit without having to travel to Southeast Asia. Although durian may not be for everyone, it has certainly earned a special place in the hearts of those who appreciate its unparalleled smell and taste.



Alpaca: Packing Fiber

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By Joseph Zaleski

Alpaca are a species of South American camelid, a two-toed herbivore similar to the guanaco, vicuña, and llama. There are two types of alpaca: the Huacaya and the Suri. The former is more common, but the Suri distinguishes itself with long, dangling fleece. Alpaca are docile and able to endure harsh environments, such as high altitudes and dramatic temperature changes. They can also be gathered in large herds to graze on pasture grass and sedge. These traits make them an ideal farm animal; but while other camelids are often bred as beasts of burden, the alpaca is known for producing one of the most highly sought-after natural fibers in the world.

Alpaca are native to the Andean highlands of South America. (Photo credit: Sofia Varela / National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest 2011)

Alpaca have been domesticated for many centuries in the high Andean Plateau of western South America. The powerful Incan empire reserved a special place in their culture for the animal, regularly using hand-spun alpaca garments to trade, clothe royalty, and bury their dead. And while post-Columbian arrivals in the New World introduced new breeds of livestock and decimated native populations, alpaca retained their place in Andean culture and play an important economic role in modern Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Chile.

Peru still claims the most vibrant alpaca industry in the world, with numbers around 3.5 million head, or 85 percent of alpaca worldwide, as estimated by the country’s ministry of agriculture. In 2006, Peru exported over three tons of alpaca fiber, worth over USD$20 million. Most of the alpaca-rearing in the country is done by small-scale herders, or alpaqueros. These alpaqueros generally keep herds of less than 50 animals, which provide income for an estimated 120,000 families.



Okra: Southern Charm and Resilient on the Farm

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By Kate Rosenberg

Okra, also known as lady’s fingers or gumbo, is among the most popular indigenous vegetables grown in Africa and Asia. This uniquely-shaped pod vegetable is believed to have originated in Southeast Asia, with the most common of the okra species, Abelmoschus esculentus, particularly popular in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, and Brazil, and another species, Abelmoschus caillei, popular in West Africa. The pods can be cooked and eaten, or dried or pickled for preservation, while the leaves can be eaten like spinach. Okra is not only nutritious – its seeds contain protein – but it also adds taste and variety to staple foods around the world, including sorghum, rice, and maize. While some find its slimy texture unpleasant, it works as a natural thickener in soups and stews.

Okra pods. (Photo credit: Bill Tarpenning, USDA)

Okra was introduced to the United States in the eighteenth century and became a staple of southern food, eaten not only in gumbo, but fried in cornmeal and cooked in a variety of other ways. In West Africa, okra pods are picked and eaten while small and tender, while in India, okra is harvested when pods are more mature. Around the world, okra can be found in India’s sambar, thick stews in the Mediterranean, canh chua in Vietnam, and callaloo in the Caribbean. It is also a master of disguise: when coffee was in short supply during the Civil War, many people resorted to a coffee substitute made from okra seeds.

In addition to being delicious, okra has a number of truly surprising uses. Okra mucilage has been used as a plasma replacement and blood volume expander. Okra bark fiber can be spun into rope and used to manufacture paper. And a 2009 report in Applied Energy found okra seed oil to be a suitable feedstock for biodiesel.



African rock fig: A fruit with historical significance and potential for the future

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By Lacey Cochart

Figs have been a food staple for centuries in the Middle East and Africa. For the ancient Egyptians, the fig was such an important food that as a defense, Egyptian armies would cut down the figs and vines of their enemies. Today, figs of the species Ficus carica are of global importance.

African Rock Fig branch, ripe with figs. (Photo Credit: Fig Web)

Although never commercially cultivated, a less well-known wild fig, the African rock fig (Ficus glumosa) grows throughout much of tropical Africa where the fruit is consumed in rural areas. The African rock fig is a small tree, which can grow 5 to 10 meters tall in rocky or clay soil. If the tree’s roots reach fertile soil or a water source, its height can reach 24 meters.

The trees produce a fruit that is small, 10-14 mm in diameter, and often grow in pairs, clustered at the ends of branches among the leaves. Figs start off green and as they ripen turn to red, indicating that they are ready to pick. Figs ripen during the months of January to June and are at their sweetest when ripe. In Senegal, the African rock fig is said to be the most flavorful of the wild figs.

Beyond its delicious, sweet fruit, the African rock fig provides a variety of other resources. The bark provides tannin for tanning hides and a red dye used for clothing. The bark also contains sticky white latex that has multiple uses—in Ghana it is used to trap crickets, in Uganda as chewing gum, and in the Republic of The Gambia, in West Africa, the Tenda people use the latex to affix arrowheads to shafts. The wood is can be used for firewood and charcoal. The young leaves of the fig tree are also edible and are often used as an ingredient for soups in Ghana.



Every Thorn has its Rose: Kei Apple is both food and fence!

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By Philip Newell

The Kei Apple or Umkokola (Dovyalis caffra or Aberia caffra) is a short and hardy tree species native to southern Africa. While useful as a fruit-bearing shrub it is more often applied as a natural fence due to the spiny nature of its branches.  As the name implies, the fruit is similar to apples (but slightly smaller at about 60 mm, or the size of a plum). It’s most frequently compared to citrus fruits due to its extremely high Vitamin C content. It is traditionally eaten as a ‘famine fruit,’ or something people resort to when other crops have failed.

The Kei Apple’s small fruit progresses from green to yellow once they ripen. (Photo credit: Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilized Species)

The fruit is also perfect for jams and jellies because the natural acidity balances the required sugar added for long-term preservation.  Some, however, find the acidity to be wonderfully refreshing and eat the fruit plain. In addition to its Vitamin C and its high concentration of amino acids, recent research has shown Kei Apples to have a very significant antioxidant capacity—giving them a potential for widespread demand among health-conscious consumers. Traditionally, cultures in the Lowveld region have used the roots and thorns for their medicinal value in treating amenorrhea and chest pain, as well as rheumatism.



False Yam: A Famine Prevention Trifecta

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By Matt Styslinger

False yam (Icacina oliviformis) is a savannah shrub indigenous to West and Central Africa. The wild plant simultaneously produces three types of food: a fruit that is enjoyed as a snack, a seed that is utilized as a staple, and a tuberous root that is eaten as emergency food when other crops have failed and communities are threatened with famine.

The “false yam” shrub produces an edible fruit, seed, and root, and is especially important for famine prevention.(Photo credit: West African plants - A Photo Guide)

The bright red fruits of the false yam shrub are particularly sweet with a plum-like flavor, and a favorite of children. They are 2-3 centimeters in diameter and are covered with short hairs on the outside with a thin white pulp on the inside. They are generally eaten fresh, but are sometimes dried. Not much is known about the nutritional quality of the fruit pulp itself. Each wild shrub yields large numbers of fruits. The fruit ripens at the end of the dry season when other food-producing wild plants have generally run out of produce. This makes it an especially important food store for the hungry who otherwise have very little food options during this time.

Inside each fruit is a single seed. Dried seeds are incredibly hard, which helps protect them from rodents. And they store very well, making them an important back up staple. The seeds are soaked in water and then ground into a flour high in carbohydrates and containing 8 percent protein. The flour has a nutty flavor and can be a substitute for cassava flour.