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From biodiversity to dietary diversity

There was a time when what we ate was really what the forest, mountain or sea had to offer, and which would differ from week to week and from season to season. Eating was as diverse as the environments that people found themselves living in.

It is important to conserve biological diversity and agrobiodiversity. But the crucial next step is surely to incorporate this into our eating habits.

There used to be a natural balance in the world. Indigenous people have always understood how their lives were part of a ‘bigger picture’, and how dietary diversity allowed for the introduction of as many sources of nutrition as possible.

Coastal people might eat seaweed, mussels, abalone and urchins as well as fish. This was the time when what we ate was really what the forest, mountain or sea had to offer, and which would differ from week to week and from season to season. Eating was as diverse as the environments that people found themselves living in.

But so much has changed today. Horticultural know-how, supermarket convenience and even ‘food fashions’ dominate our world. These influence our choices when it comes to what we find on our plates, though the possibility of bringing back more diversity is ever present. We talk about conserving biological diversity and agrobiodiversity, but the crucial next step is surely to incorporate this into our eating habits. We need to introduce the genes of these multiple species to our own genes, and so help our bodies to adapt and evolve within our changing world. We need dietary diversity

Last year I attended a meeting in Uganda with Slow Food International that launched the 10,000 Gardens in Africa project. We attended training courses in various small villages where the great Ankhole-Watusi longhorn cattle roam. Our meals, be it breakfast, lunch or dinner, had at least seven species per plate. Sometimes double that. Each meal was also accompanied by a local and very bitter variety of eggplant that aids digestion. And on every plate there was something to satisfy every taste.

Understanding the health of the individual requires an understanding of the context of family, community and culture. How do we view health and how does nutrition fit into this? Africa is rich in heritage and full of diversity, of species, cultures, languages and recipes. These instill a sense of identity within each individual, especially important during post-colonial confusion. Yet we are now living in a time where ocean and land grabbing are huge threats, and corporate control is usurping local knowledge and giving us only ‘cut and paste’ solutions to our many current problems. Our identity should give us cultural pride and remind us what it is we are fighting for. We are fighting for diversity, reconnecting with our history, and fostering a new custodianship with our land.

Zayaan Khan

Zayaan Khan advocates for agrarian transformation with the Land NGO Surplus People project. Working through the Slow Food International network and the Slow Food Youth Network South Africa, she has experienced first hand the power of community and the infinite diversity within the food system.

Email: zayk.first@gmail.com
Facebook: Slow Food Youth Network South Africa
Twitter: @zaykay
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