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.

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