The Garden of Eden revisited

The Iraqi wetlands made famous by Wilfred Thesiger as the home of the Marsh Arabs and devastated by Saddam Hussein are apparently making a comeback, thanks to a UNEP “project to restore the network of watercourses which provided inhabitants with water for drinking and farming, and supported the region’s unique ecology.” I’m intrigued by that reference to agriculture. What did (do?) the Marsh Arabs farm? Rice, wheat, barley and millet, as it turns out, although there is apparently another group which specializes in raising the buffalo. But do they still have their traditional crop varieties and livestock breeds? If not, will it be possible to recover at least some of them from genebanks around the world? I hope someone is looking into this.

Coincidentally, from half a world away, comes an example of a genebank helping to restore an indigenous community’s crop genetic resources.

Unnecessary biodiversity?

315623761_ab637a8f53_m.jpg I realise this is a somewhat heretical point of view, but I truly believe that some sorts of biological diversity just aren’t needed. So my heart fell when I read a press release from the University of Illinois that “one day soon a uniquely marbled pink poinsettia will be available to consumers who like decorating for the holidays with a flare for the unusual”. This is not just a gripe against breeding ornamentals. That would be silly. Ornamentals are important and provide lots of people with a living. It is more a gripe against breeding utterly pointless ornamentals. I mean, poinsettias are red. They don’t need to be white, or pink, or marbled. Harrumph.

Flickr photograph by tsuntsun3, used under a Creative Commons License. And kudos for labelling it flowers; the big red things are the bracts.

An insider’s view of sorghum in India

Prashant Mishra gives an Indian NGO’s perspective on sorghum and why many Indian farmers refer to it as Jowar Mata — Mother Sorghum. Even after the advances of the Green Revolution, sorghum thrives and sustains the very poorest people in marginal lands.

What did Neanderthals eat?

Recent media reports that Neanderthals were occasional cannibals and that women may have accompanied the men on their hunts got me thinking about the Neanderthal diet in general. In particular, did they eat much in the way of plant products at all? While meat was clearly the mainstay of the diet, it does seem from this interesting rebuttal of the hunting women hypothesis that:  

Vegetable foods may well have been part of Middle Paleolithic diets in Eurasia, but these were more like salads, snacks, and desserts than energy-rich staples…Large underground storage organs are common among plant taxa in arid sub-Saharan Africa, but the high-yield edible plant foods of temperate and Mediterranean Eurasia tend to be seeds and nuts that, while potentially nutritious, require more effort to collect and process and thus afford low net yields (Kuhn and Stiner 2006:957).

Wouldn’t it be great to be able to promote some underutilized nut as a Neanderthal dessert? Or perhaps that would not be such a clever idea, given that the Neanderthals died out… Anyway, although some of the information sources listed seem somewhat suspect, there is a compendium of internet resources on the “paleolithic diet” here.

Protecting TK

There seems to have been a breakthrough – procedurally at any rate – at the WIPO discussions in Geneva on protecting traditional knowledge, folklore and expressions of culture (genetic resources are also on the table). Meanwhile, in Abuja, the Nigerian president Olusegun Obasanjo has launched a committee to boost research on traditional medicine.