Friday, February 8, 2008

Traditional Foods are the Healthiest

The diverse foods of the world's regions also serve another purpose—besides offering us biodiversity and wonderful flavors, researchers now believe that a diet based on traditional, indigenous foods is often healthier for us. For instance, East Africa's Masai people are cattle herding pastoralists, with a diet that's primarily based on milk and meat, meaning 66 percent of their calories typically come from fat, primarily saturated fats. To put that into context, most North American dietitians recommend no more than 30 percent of our daily calories come from fats. Timothy Johns, a Canadian ethnobotanist at McGill University, studied the Masai diet and lifestyle and discovered they also ate a vatiety of wild, indigenous plants that are high in antioxidants and other properties that tend to reduce cholesterol levels. His research concluded that balancing the diet with indigenous plant foods is one of the main reasons the Masai people typically have no health problems related to the consumption of so much saturated fat.

Diet Start

The people of the Tohono O'odham tribe of southern Arizona are trying to bring back their traditional wild foods to help address their soaring heath problems. Prior to 1960 diabetes was unknown on the Tohono O'odham reservation. Since then, the tribe began to adopt the typical North American diet with an emphasis on saturated animal fats, processed foods, and a lot of sugar. By 2004 the tribe had one of the highest rates of adult-onset Type II diabetes in the world, with 50 percent of all tribal adults diagnosed, and even some children being diagnosed with diet-related diabetes.

Researchers eventually concluded that the tribe's traditional, indigenous diet of wild foods—such as tepary beans, mesquite beans, cholla (cactus) buds, and chia seeds— helps regulate blood sugar and can actually reduce the incidence and impact of diabetes. So with the help of a USDA food security grant, the Tohono O'odham Community Association began sponsoring outings in the Sonoran Desert to collect the tribe's wild foods. They also distributed more than 1,000 packets of traditional seeds. Now gardeners on the reservation are restoring the traditional foods as well as the wild ones. Ultimately, it is hoped that the tribe will dedicate more of its 10,000 acres of cultivated land to traditional food crops, reducing the amount of land that is now used for cash crops such as cotton and hay.

When the tribe moved away from its indigenous diet, it wasn't just the people's health that suffered. They also experienced a decline in those cultural practices that were associated with traditional foods. With this renewed commitment to eating wild foods, the youth are once again learning the customs surrounding harvest. The tribe even brought back the rain dance ceremony, which had not been performed for thirty-five years. Now when the tribal mem

bers dance beside the new crops of traditional foods, asking or rain to sustain them, there is renewed hope for their harvest as well as their tribe.

Wendell Berry, the well-known Kentucky-based author who often writes about the ethic of contemporary agriculture landscape, laments the loss of so much agrarian knowledge—wisdom that took generations of family farmers to acquire. Imagine the fate of the Tohono O'odham people if the knowledge of traditional foods and customs had died off with the tribal elders?

Slow Food Picks up the Pace

The Slow Food movement recently found momentum at a conference, Terra Madre, held in Italy early in 2005. There 5,000 farmers from 130 countries met to discuss the future of food and how the individual farmer—and the local delicacies they produce—can survive amid the commercialization that is so dishonestly promoted by governments and multinational agribusiness.

This gathering was in part a response to meetings of the WTO, the World Trade Organization, and other organizations that seek to determine how foods are produced and traded. It was attended by a diverse cross section of international food producers, including rice farmers from Benin, beekeepers from Azerbaijan, Maori potato producers from New Zealand, and Vermont cheese makers from the U.S. It served as a powerful reminder that determined farmers can survive amid the globalization of today's marketplace. And by banding together, these small Slow Food producers are succeeding in raising the profile of the movement and strengthening their markets. Most importantly, they are finding a collective voice, having realized that individual voices are all too often silenced by the power of international corporations and the political parties they support.

But there is strength in numbers. As one conference attendee said, "It's so good to know we're not alone."

... andjoyohoxing