Monday, March 8, 2010

Lost African fruits would benefit from technology, says report

The application of modern horticultural techniques could revive cultivation of traditional fruits in Africa like baobab, butterfruit and tamarind, according to a new report.

People in the West are becoming increasingly familiar with fruits from abroad, many of which are venerated for their nutritional properties. Indeed, baobab and tamarind are not unknown amongst the ranks of superfruits now stocked in many supermarkets.

But, while in the past fruits native to African formed an important part of the indigenous diet, cultivation of these crops in their original homelands has dwindled considerably since they were replaced by bananas, pineapples and papaya that came with the colonialists.

The new report from the National Research Council in Washington, USA, maintains that the time is now ripe to revive the old-timers - and even not so much because of consumers overseas who are hungry for the next batch of superfruits.

Rather, the authors argue that the traditional fruits contain nutrients that would be beneficial for African populations that struggle to have sufficient intake of all that they need.

In addition, they could contribute to environmental stability and rural development.

The report says that the newcomers have thrived in Africa partly because they had already been improved upon through selective breeding before they even arrived.

In addition, their cultivation was encouraged by the new arrivals who brought them since they wanted familiar crops that could also be profitable to grow.

The result was that a drop off in cultivation of native species, accompanied by the loss of knowledge about how to grow them.

Now, the onus is on African science institutes, policy makers, non-governmental institutions and individuals to put modern horticultural knowledge into play.

The report's authors are not alone in arguing for new techniques to be taken to the developing world.

At the annual City Food Lecture in London last week, speaker Lord Christopher Haskins of Skidby argued that this approach could help solve the imbalance of food security in a world where those in the West are wasting as much as 30 per cent of the food they buy - and others are starving.

He said that the more successful farmers could benefit from agricultural technology that would significantly boost productivity. The less productive smallholders, on the other hand, should be encouraged to follow the path of economic success in the urban areas.

The National Research Council report lists the benefits of 24 fruits that are considered candidates for optimisation. These include:

* Aizen - A large Saharan shrub that grows in particularly hostile places where few other plants can survive, aizen could protect eroding slopes, stabilise dunes and create windbreaks. The fruits are good source of vitamins A and C, calcium and some minerals, and the seeds a source of protein and zinc.

* Balanites - Also capable of thriving in the desert, balanites' fruit are similar to dates and are already eaten in arid zones where food is scares. But their full potential is not being realised, particularly since their kernels are have a similar oil-protein balance to soybeans and sesame seeds (one half oil, one half protein). They could also help counter desertification.

* Boabab - A sticky pulp from the fruits can be dried and used as a nutritious powder that is high in protein, vitamins and minerals. This is drunk with milk or other beverages. The pulp is also made into thin pancakes that keep for a long time. The "almost indestructible" trees also yield a leafy vegetable.

* Butterfruit - Butterfruit is a small tree, but its fruit, high in calories and protein, are regarded as very promising to help reduce child malnutrition. It is also a cash crop, and the mahogany-like wood could show promise for plantations.

* Tamarind - The fruits are an excellent source of B vitamins and calcium, and last a long time with no refrigeration. The sweet-sour pulp can also be made into cakes. Tamarind trees also come with the promise of restoring damaged lands.


Lost Crops of Africa: Vol 3, Fruits

Available from National Academies Press

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