At the Second International Agrobiodiversity Congress, The Lexicon hosted an event to help raise awareness of the importance of agrobiodiversity in the food system.
Globally, only three staple crops account for over half of the world’s plant-based calories, according to the World Economic Forum. The food systems’ impact on human and planetary health has been detrimental, as producers and food manufacturers favor cheap commodity crops such as corn, wheat, and rice over diverse, and nutrient-rich plants.
“We have a food system that has focused on three core crops to feed the world, and often at the expense of traditional crops, and with it the traditional foods that we’ve grown around the world. And we’re all the poorer for it,” says Douglas Gayeton, co-founder of The Lexicon.
The Lexicon’s Reawakened Foods Initiative focuses on 25 traditional crops that promote agrobiodiversity, food, and nutrition security, and empower local communities. With the support of several storytellers, the initiative highlights stories of farmers working to promote local crops around the world.
Some of these stories look at the role of fermentation in promoting agrobiodiversity in Japan and changing the narratives surrounding uncultivated greens in local Indian communities. They also focus on empowering women in their role in conserving diverse seeds and cultivating babassu nuts in Brazil.
“We didn’t want to create 25 new superfoods,” says Alberto Miti, Co-director of the Reawakened Foods Initiative. For Miti, the idea behind these stories was to promote agrobiodiversity and examine the interactions between the different crops, as well as the stories that connected communities to those crops.
The event also featured two initiatives that work to support the production of specific crops in local communities, including millets in India and breadfruit in Costa Rica. Despite their nutritional value, and cultural significance, the production and consumption of these crops declined significantly in recent years.
Panelists explain that farmers’ lack of access to markets and supply chains, the prioritization of staple crops, and expensive technologies have all played a role in this decline. “If we want to make sure that [these diverse crops] are more central in the future of agricultural development, we need to make sure that they become a part of the economic picture,” says Carlo Fadda, Director of Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture at the Alliance of Biodiversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).
Farmers, and their crops, require a connection to the food supply chain, which Miti says is a key issue that the Initiative is working on with several communities.
Projects like the Jungle Project in Costa Rica, and Farafena, a Vancouver-based company working with farmers in Mali, help develop local markets, and provide a connection to the international market. They each purchase 80 percent of the produced food to export and aim to sell the remaining 20 percent locally. And the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in India supports access to markets by providing appropriate food processing technology and training for farmers.
The panelists also tackle stigmas surrounding these once widely used crops. Shruti Tharayil, an India-based storyteller, explains that the agricultural system sees some plants as unwanted weeds, causing farmers and consumers to lose interest in their conservation and production. “There’s a lot of food if you really start to look. That perspective change really needs to happen,” says Tharayil.
Paul Zink, CEO of Jungle Project, points out that some abundant crops, such as breadfruit, are often considered poor man’s food, “because when there is nothing else, there is always breadfruit.” By bringing monetary and cultural values back to these crops, they are promoting their conservation, production, and consumption at the local and international level.
“It’s very finite the amount that we can do at The Lexicon. By bringing in expert storytellers and experts in food systems from around the world, we can create a collective of storytellers to give greater visibility to the richness of culture that food provides, and the livelihoods that food provides,” says Gayeton.
All 25 stories will be available on The Reawakened Foods Initiative’s platform from December, 2021.