Thursday, 30 January 2014

Edible Landscapes and Trees that Feed

There are thousands of species of edible fruit trees in the world yet too many people are still food insecure. So, why don’t we do our landscaping with edible fruit trees? I know two people that did exactly that! Mary and Mike McLaughlin, the founders of Trees that Feed, decided to tackle food insecurity by landscaping Caribbean islands with fruit producing trees, such as breadfruit. In the process, Mary and Mike have worked to provide people with the means to sell the fruits from these trees to a growing local market. 

Mike shared some alarming food security statistics: 

In Jamaica they are spending something of the order of four billion dollars a year. That’s a huge amount of money to spend on imported food when Jamaica has a natural climate, warm weather, a year round growing season, and good rainfall.

Breadfruit Tree
Trees that Feed is a project designed to cut down peoples’ need to import food on two levels. First, Mike and Mary have dedicated time to promoting cuisine made from locally available fruit trees. In this sense, they are promoting a local market for these fruits. Second, this couple works with famers to help them get more trees and to increase local production to provide fruits for local markets. 

In the long run the benefits of this process are invaluable because, as we all know, the costs of importing foods are on the rise. And, imported food is rarely of the same nutritional as food produced locally, and imported food does not have the same cultural value.

So, why did Mary and Mike choose to start planting breadfruit or other cultural trees, such as Akee, in the Caribbean?  

Mary answered, “both of us are from Jamaica and these are foods from trees that we are used to and we see the value of them”. But these are not just any trees, Mike added, they are culturally appropriate species that farmers want to have on their land.” 

And Mike further explained, “It is very important to us that these foods are culturally accepted; it takes a very long time for cultural acceptance of a new food.” 

Mike told me that breadfruit is not actually native to the West Indies, it was actually introduced there 200 years ago. That means that although Jamaican breadfruit has become a traditional food, it is a relative newcomer to the region. He also explained that it took a generation for people to start using it and to accept it. Mike and Mary explained they don’t want to wait 25 years before their efforts begin to increase food security. So, instead of supplying or importing new foods for people, they are planting foods that are already well-known.  

Mike and Mary’s efforts to increase food security are unique because trees are different than cash crops.  Cash crops require fertilizers, they can deplete the soil, and they can be hard to harvest. On the other hand, fruit trees do not require fertilizer and they only need a little care.

And, trees can be planted in urban areas. Mary explained that growing fruit-producing trees in urban areas is important because much of the food in cities is imported from rural areas. 

In addition to their potential in supporting the food insecure, fruit trees can have large benefits for the ecosystem. Fruit trees provide shade, habitat for wildlife, they purify the air, and sequester carbon. In Haiti, breadfruit trees prevent erosion and as a result these trees keep the streams and rivers clear. What’s good for the streams and rivers is good for the fish. So, the fishing industry in Haiti has started planting breadfruit too!

There is no doubt in my mind Trees that Feed is a great initiative, but will this idea catch on in the long term? 

Mike and Mary think so and they have planned to make this project last. They have encouraged the local people to start small and build up their capabilities, their resources, and local markets. They have encouraged people to sell locally because it is easier for farmers to make more profit when they avoid paying duty and other external taxes. 

But, farmers that work with Mary and Mike still face challenges. Mary and Mike have an initiative that helps farmers make gluten-free flour from their breadfruit. However, Mary told me that, “…in Haiti where local artisans are making breadfruit flour they can’t compete against heavily subsidized North American wheat they just don’t make it you know a farmer can’t compete against free”. 

I saw this same trend in Costa Rica where indigenous farmers do not stand a chance selling their local organic corn when the United States is flooding the market with extremely cheap, low quality corn. 

Despite the real obstacles farmers experience in our
industrial food era, Trees that Feed gives people options. 

So, here you have it, a new idea on how to make landscapes edible, using culturally-appropriate foods. But, Mary and Mike have much more than food in mind. They have increased the number of jobs, improved livelihoods, and restored degraded lands in the process.  

For more info check out Trees that Feed or follow them @TreesThatFeed

All photographs in this blog are courtesy of Mary and Mike McLaughlin.

Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Farms Forests Foods In 2013: A Thank You To My Readers

When not blogging, I try to stay connected to my food.
Here I am stone grinding corn using Bribri techniques
in Costa Rica. 

Today's post is a thank you to my readers for tuning into Farms Forests Foods in 2013. I extend a special thanks to those readers that contributed to and have commented on the blog. 

Blogging can become a very lonesome feat; your questions and feedback on the blog remind me someone else has benefitted from my writing. Most importantly, your comments and discussions on the blog help to create an interactive community of food enthusiasts, a community united by goals of just and sustainable eating for healthy lands and people.

Here are 5 things our Farms Forests Foods community has achieved:

1) Over 71,000 Blog Views! 

I started this blog in 2011 to share my research and knowledge about food sustainability and food justice; your visits to my blog have helped me achieve this goal. 

When you click on the blog, I get a notification that someone passed by the blog. With that notification, I assume something I wrote was at least remotely interesting. If you want to help me improve this blog, please comment directly on the blog posts you read. Your comments help me understand what you've liked, disliked, or what questions you still have after a post is written. So, even if it is a short commment, such as "Interesting", or a short question,  such as "Where was that picture taken?", I learn more about what caught your attention in a post.

2) A Space for Group Discussion and Learning: 

Your comments on the blog are not only important for my growth as a writer, they are critical for other readers. Take your questions, for instance. Posting your questions on the blog allow me (or another contributor) to answer them where everyone can see them and learn from them. So, instead of emailing me your questions, post them directly on the blog where the answers can be read and appreciated by all. 

And, as readers of the blog, don't be shy to answer other readers' questions. I'm not an expert in all themes that come up in our discussions, so I could use your help. And, the more teachers we have commenting, the more we all learn.

3) A Space for Food Sustainability and Food Justice on Twitter

Your interest in my blog motivated me to join twitter in June 2013. I was reluctant to join at first because I thought twitter was just an extension of facebook. I was pleasantly suprised with twitter because it helped me connect with people dedicated to sharing information about food sustainability and food justice (something I was not able to find on facebook). 

Follow me @farmsforests if you are interested in connecting to food discussions! 

4) A Space for Guest Contributors

Your interest in this blog has motivated others to contribute to this blog. In the 2.5 years this blog has been running we've had 12 guest contributions from six countries. Of those 12 contributions, 11 have been from males writers. I am conscious of this gender bias and would like to encourage more females to contribute their knowledge to my blog. So, for 2014, I encourage females to share their research and everyday food harvesting experiences here

5) Outreach Beyond the Blog

My blog posts have been used in school and university classrooms as case studies. My most rewarding experience in 2013 was connecting with a grade 8 Global Studies class in Minnesota through my blog. Their teacher contacted me because she was interested in using my blog post on the Coca leaf as a case study on globalization and food justice. The students read the blog and then I talked with them via Skype. Their questions were thoughtful and their interest in food justice was inspiring. This experience was proof that we'll soon be hearing from a motivated new generation of food justice supporters.

Thank you again readers and I look forward to another year of blogging with you in 2014!