Speaking of medicinal plants, a remarkable study in Peru traces the traditional use of plants for all kinds of curative purposes from colonial times to the present. There’s an article on the work on SciDev.Net here but it is in Spanish. Although many plants used in colonial times have disappeared from the area of the study, traditional healers have replaced them with other species and have thus maintained their pharmacopeia. This is very much a living, evolvingÂ tradition.
A fascinating reflection by Dr S. Allen Coulter, professor of neurology and neurophysiology at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, asks a question that perplexes many people: how did people acquire their detailed knowledge of the effects of plants on the body? Coulter’s musings are prompted by “scientific” studies on Caesalpinia pulcherrima, which reveal active ingredients that match the effects he was told by a wise person some years ago. I feel the same way about complicated food processing methods; how on earth did people learn how to render toxic and inedible things safe and delicious? Like Coulter, I fear we will never really know.
Flickr photograph by Esther17 used under a Creative Commons License.
Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) “is a coalition of seven of the most prominent non-profit food, agriculture, conservation, and educational organizations dedicated to rescuing Americaâ€™s diverse foods and food traditions.” You can download hereÂ their great book explaining what these traditions are. There’s also aÂ map of North America’s “totem foods.”
Same topic, different region: Dr Lois Englberger of the Island Food Community of Pohnpei (right, with some of her NGO’s information products) has made Pacific Magazine’s list of “293 Pacific Leaders You Need To Know” because of her efforts to promote local island foods, food cropsÂ and food traditions. Congratulations, Lois, and keep up the good work!
Will the disappearance of the traditional Chinese tea-house lead to a decline in tea diversity? I’m not sure to what extent the diversity of teas we see in supermarkets and specialty shops is due to differences in provenance and processing as opposed to genetic differences among cultivars. No doubt a bit of both.
Flickr photograph by emily_mason_boyd used under a Creative Commons License.
A meeting of Nigerian academics interested in traditional knowledge was told to be a bit more humble in the face of the “uneducated” people in whom such knowledge resides. Many of the papers at the meeting seem to have been concerned with putting traditional knowledge to work, for example to reduce imports of pharmaceuticals by replacing them with traditional medicinal plants. One wonders, though, about the knowledge levels — traditional or otherwise — of the speaker who apparently said:
“conventional drugs are chemicals and therefore toxic. They are costly, but natural products are environmentally friendly. Unlike chemicals, natural products promote biodiversity and conservation.”
Seems to me that a little more depth of understanding is needed on all sides. Sure, traditional knowledge can be useful. But it needs to be tempered with a bit of rational investigation.