Indigenous diets

When I find myself shouting at the radio, I should use it as a sign to post a blog. However, time and mental agility don’t always allow for that – if they did, this site would certainly be updated more than once every month or two. But yesterday I caught The Food Programme which was reporting from Turin, where the Terra Madre network held their biennial gathering of food communities, farmers, fishermen and cooks (organised by the international Slow Food movement). Sounds great. Why so shouty?

Well, apparently scientists and economists have spent the last few years studying indigenous peoples and their diets and concluded that (here it comes…) traditional indigenous diets are more nutrient packed and healthy than what most of us eat. You don’t say! Is it really such a shock that people who live in harmony with nature, eating natural foods and walking further in a day than many of us manage in a month (or a year) are healthier than us? That nomadic tribes, living in real communities, eating  a diverse range of food species grown without chemicals, breathing clean air (well, if they’re lucky) and not stuck in front of a TV/PC monitor all day are healthier than us? How can it be? I mean, we’ve got Wii now so we can jump about pretending to play sports after our McMeal and a hard day at the McOffice – we’re civilised!

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that we are finally waking up to the fact that the remaining indigenous people, who we called ‘primitive’ and either killed, enslaved or ‘changed’ to our way of thinking, are often the most enlightened people on the planet. Unlike us in so many ways, indigenous people also keep a good handle on their population, with the women using herbs to control their fertility. Indigenous knowledge of plants as medicines, as well as foods, is vast – it has to be as it’s all they have. No dashing off to A&E with a broken arm or a nasty rash for these guys. And no welfare state or ‘just-in-time’ delivery. No, these people look after themselves and truly are sustainable. So long as their environment remains intact, they know that everything will be OK because they know their environment, they know what use it can tolerate and what abuses it can’t. More importantly, they know that intolerable abuses may not make themselves apparent immediately – they know the ‘precautionary principle’ and they don’t need a team of environmental lawyers to implement it. So long as they live somewhere in which we have no commercial interests, they will live happy and fruitful lives.

What, living sustainbably isn’t fruitful? Not being involved in destroying the environment isn’t fruitful? I think we should define fruitful! Indigenous people have words for plants and insects that have not yet been identified by the world’s botanists and entomologists. The Hanunoo people of the Philippines, for example, distinguish 1,600 plant species in their forest, 400 more than scientists working in the same area. Nearly 75 percent of 121 plant-derived prescription drugs used worldwide were discovered following leads from indigenous medicine and ‘we’ can’t wait to find more treasures lurking in the rainforests, just waiting to be turned into a profitable drug, controlled by pharmaceutical companies and dispensed globally to those who can afford it. Is that fruitful?

For anyone interested in indigenous diets, among the many publications are the UN FAO’s 2009 report on indigenous peoples’ food systems and the IIED’s book out earlier this year entitled ‘Modern and mobile’, which received coverage in the Guardian. This says it all – we’re turning to indigenous knowledge to help us with our own mess yet we still can’t quite bring ourselves to admit that we’ve lost this knowledge because we chose to lose it – we ditched it because it was primitive and we tried our best to wipe out those who practiced it. We had a better way – growth and development. While advancements over the last 200 years or more have undoubtedly made life a lot better for a lot of people, it has diminished the lives of many more. And, those developments would not have happened without the vast bank of energy supplied by the fossil fuels. Worth remembering.

It is abhorrent that in the 21st century, awash with information, we still act surprised to learn that living with nature, rather than in competition with it, can make for a better life. Those ad men did a good job on us, didn’t they?

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About The Cheery Pessimist

Waiting for some sign that we will change our ways before it all comes tumbling down...still, you've got to laugh
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