Read full article By David McKenzie @Sustainable Food Trust Photo Credit: Steven Jackson
Grains – the seeds of cereal grasses and so-called ‘pseudocereals’, which aren’t grasses per se but can be treated like them – have long been central to human nutrition, from ancient Aztec amaranth to Aboriginal Australian kangaroo grass. Grains, if they are properly processed, are incredible little nutritional packages for humans. They typically provide huge amounts of energy in the form of carbohydrates, plus crucial dietary fibre and a smorgasbord of bioavailable micronutrients, phytochemicals, vitamins, minerals and other components that interact with each other in ways that we don’t even really understand scientifically, but have appreciated nutritionally for thousands of years. This long-held and widespread appreciation of grains’ nutritional value is evidenced by the discovery of 30,000-year-old milling tools at archaeological sites from Europe to Australia, as well as by historical records of grain’s importance in the economy, lifestyle and nutrition of major societies such as Ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire.
In recent years and decades, however, our relationship with many grains has changed drastically – especially regarding health problems associated with eating more processed and refined grains – and detrimentally. Luckily, there are some people setting positive examples for how we can help to give these precious grains a better future.
Millet – keep it steady
Typically resistant to drought, millet has been a staple food across semi-arid regions of Africa and Asia for thousands of years. Today, it is the world’s sixth most important cereal crop, but unlike other major cereal crops, it is not a massive commodity. It is still grown predominantly on a subsistence scale by grassroots farmers in developing countries.
Millet is resilient and highly nutritious, and it’s also gluten-free. Therefore, it’s been put on the radar of gluten-conscious eaters in wealthier countries over recent years. One minor variety of West African millet, in particular, has been gaining traction abroad as a fashionable, nutritious traditional grain: fonio.
New York chef Pierre Thiam, a champion of contemporary Senegalese cooking in the United States, has been leading the way. He has featured the distinctively nutty, earthy taste of fonio at his restaurants, highlighted its tiny, couscous-like texture in his award-winning recipe books, and co-founded Yolélé Foods, a company offering creatively packaged fonio and ready-to-cook fonio meals (such as pilaf), which are sold through Whole Foods, Amazon and other American retailers.
However, there is some concern for the dreaded ‘quinoa effect’. After all, fonio is not the only neglected native West African millet. In particular, two other traditional millets – black fonio and guinea millet – are also crucial, as are a number of other heritage crops, to local cropping patterns in challenging remote regions. Having various landrace cultivars of all these crops gives poor, small-scale farmers a level of agrobiodiversity, which allows flexibility to adapt depending on particular conditions, weather fluctuations and social needs.
Therefore, there’s a chance that a sudden price rise for one particular crop (such as fonio), driven by international interest, could have unintended consequences for growers, by encouraging them to move away from traditional, sustainable farming practices and instead dedicate more land to growing fonio for immediate financial gain. This, in turn, could lead to problems such as soil degradation, disruption of ecosystems or reliance on external inputs by concentrating on greater yields. A sudden rise in price could also attract interest from returning absentee landowners or outside buyers, which may hike up land and living costs in remote rural areas. However, economic gain for these struggling farmers is important, and Thiam is conscious of the associated dangers. Therefore, he stresses the importance of making sure that economic growth remains steady (avoiding the kind of ecstasy and agony that quinoa caused South American farmers) by working closely with NGOs based on the ground in Senegal.