Vegetables: Less visible, but vital for human health

Why nutrient-dense indigenous vegetables must be on the plate for economic development, food security, and health
By: AVRDC - The World Vegetable Center
May 31, 2012 - PRLog -- Khon Kaen, THAILAND -- 31 May 2012 – Imagine expanding the world’s reliance on about 20 staple food crops to include more than 2,000 new vegetable tastes and textures—with the added benefit of improving the quality of diets, increasing the quantity of dietary nutrients, and creating new market opportunities for small-scale farmers and entrepreneurs.

That possibility is under exploration at a United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Regional Symposium on “Promotion of underutilized indigenous food resources for food security and nutrition in Asia and the Pacific” from May 31 to June 2, 2012 in Khon Kaen, Thailand.

Dr. Dyno Keatinge, Director General of AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center, encouraged symposium participants to look closer at plants such as moringa, African nightshade, bitter gourd, slippery cabbage, and others in a keynote presentation entitled “Less visible but yet vital for human health: Nutrient-dense indigenous vegetables and their need for urgent promotion in balanced diets.” Keatinge delivered his talk on Thursday, May 31 at the symposium venue, the Hotel Pullman Khon Kaen Raja Orchid.

Indigenous or traditional vegetables have long been a part of diets in local communities, but many are underutilized because their value is unknown, particularly in regions where the plants are not native. Typically hardy and often high in nutrients, these species can be consumed to balance starch-heavy diets, providing the essential micronutrients required for good health.

In many developing countries, more than 70% of diets now consist of just one staple. While rice or maize are important for food security, they do not provide much protein, vitamins, or other vital micronutrients. The emphasis on starchy staples leads to higher rates of obesity—a known risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic health problems that strain already-stretched health care systems.

“Over the last 40 years we’ve focused on overcoming hunger, but our success in increasing the production of staple crops has come at a great cost, both to agricultural diversity and community health,” said Keatinge. “Increasing vegetable consumption, especially indigenous vegetables, is the most effective, most inexpensive tool a country has to benefit the health of its citizens.”  

AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center carries out research into indigenous vegetables as part of its ongoing effort to diversify the range of vegetables available to the rural and urban poor in developing countries. The Center conserves and characterizes indigenous vegetable species, analyzes their nutrient content, selects those species with the most promise, develops appropriate production methods to encourage farmers to add the plants to their crop rotations, and distributes recipes to help consumers learn how to incorporate indigenous vegetables into meals.

There are thousands of plant species that can be consumed. These promising indigenous vegetables need research and development to enter the global vegetable value chain. Some species of interest include:

Moringa: Moringa oleifera, a tree cultivated in many tropical countries, has great potential to contribute to the nourishment of millions of people in Asia. All parts of the moringa tree—bark, fruit, leaves, nuts, seeds, tubers, roots, and flowers—are edible. The plant is high in protein and provides calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, vitamin A and vitamin C to the diet. Research into this valuable tree has been an ongoing effort at AVRDC for more than a decade.

Slippery cabbage (Abelmoschus manihot): Slippery cabbage goes by many names in Oceania. Solomon Islanders call it lettuce tree, island cabbage, bush cabbage, “slipery kabis,” reko in the Sa’a language and neka in the Roviana language. The green leafy vegetable is also known as Aibika (Papua New Guinea), Lau pele (Samoa), and bele (Fiji). Slippery cabbage is high in protein, vitamins, minerals and fiber, and people in Oceania need to eat more of it and other vegetables, too: The Pacific Islands have some of the highest levels of obesity and related non-communicable diseases in the world. Increasing vegetable consumption is critical in the region, where traditional diets based on fresh fish and local fruits and vegetables have been replaced by imported rice, sugar, flour, and canned meats.

Bitter gourd (Momordica charantia): This warty cucurbit is eaten as a vegetable and used as a folk medicine for managing type 2 diabetes in Asia and some African countries. An underutilized crop, bitter gourd has the potential to make a significant contribution to the incomes and health of the poor in developing countries, where diabetes is increasing at alarming rates. AVRDC and partners in India, Germany, Taiwan, and Tanzania are assessing germplasm diversity and production and postharvest practices to optimize the content of anti-diabetic compounds in bitter gourd and determining appropriate food processing methods and dosages to develop food-based interventions in Asia and Africa.

African nightshades (Solanum section solanum): African nightshades are some of the most widely consumed traditional leafy herbs and vegetables in Africa, where they are important sources of daily nutrition and income for small-scale farmers. The leaves contain high levels of micronutrients as well as phenolics and alkaloids, compounds that are known for their medicinal attributes. AVRDC has developed improved vegetable nightshade lines for Africa that may prove promising for Asian farmers and consumers.

Vegetable and fruit consumption in most countries, developed or developing, is well below the minimum standard of 400 grams per day recommended by the FAO and the World Health Organization.

AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center is the principal international nonprofit institute for vegetable research and development. Founded in 1971, the Center develops vegetable lines and sustainable technologies to increase the production and consumption of nutritious, health-promoting vegetables in developing countries, leading to more income opportunities and healthier diets for the poor. Primary target groups are small, disadvantaged landholders in Africa, Asia, and Oceania. Headquartered in Taiwan, AVRDC – The World Vegetable Center has regional offices in Thailand, Tanzania, India, and Dubai UAE, and staff located in many developing countries.
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