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Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

The incredible variety of the planet’s plant life is disappearing. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that approximately 75 percent of the Earth’s plant genetic resources are now extinct. Another third of plant biodiversity is expected to disappear by 2050. Unfortunately, most investment in agriculture is for crops such as wheat, rice, and maize, rather than more nutritious foods. But many indigenous crops can be environmentally sustainable, improve food security, help prevent malnutrition, and increase incomes.

There are thousands of other indigenous crops you may not know exist. Here, courtesy of Food Tank, are 15 indigenous vegetables that are nutritious, delicious and contribute to the livelihoods of people around the globe.

Amaranth. Photo credit: 
Shutterstock

1. Amaranth: This versatile plant, which grows quickly in the humid lowlands of Africa, is a leafy vegetable typically consumed in Togo, Liberia, Guinea, Benin and Sierra Leone. The plant thrives in hot weather and is an excellent source of protein, vitamins, and essential minerals, including calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium and zinc.

2. Bunya nut: Bunya nuts have long been a prominent food in the culture of Australian Aboriginals - so much so that, prior to European settlement, Aboriginal tribes would travel long distances to attend festivals celebrating the Bunya season. The Bunya nut is similar to the chestnut, both in appearance and taste. The nuts grow on enormous Bunya pines in the few rainforest regions on the continent.

3. Cowpea: Originating in Central Africa, this legume is one of the region’s oldest crops. It is also drought resistant and can thrive in poor soil conditions. In addition to the peas, the leaves of the plant are also consumed.

4. Enset: Also known as the false banana, enset is native to tropical regions of Africa. The plant’s outward appearance resembles that of a banana tree, but the two actually are very different. Fruit of the enset tree is inedible, so the plant is primarily grown for the meat inside its trunk and roots. The pulp inside the tree is similar in both taste and appearance to a potato. Enset has been a staple crop in Ethiopia for thousands of years.

5. Filder pointed cabbage: The cruciferous vegetable provides a rich source of beta-carotene, vitamins C and K and fiber, and it serves as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Cabbage can be stored cold for months at a time and is eaten in the dead of winter when other vegetables are dormant.

6. Formby asparagus: Formby asparagus is notable for its coloration: white base, green stem and purple-tinged tip. The vegetable is rich in protein, fiber, vitamin B6, calcium, magnesium and zinc. It aids in protein synthesis, reduces calcium loss and has antioxidant properties.

7. Hinkelhatz pepper: The Hinkelhatz pepper has been cultivated by the Pennsylvania Dutch since the 1880s. The plant produces small, heart-shaped peppers with a red or yellow color. Hinkelhatz peppers have a stocky, spicy flavor, so they are frequently pickled or pureed into a pepper vinegar used as a food topping. The pepper is important because it is cold-tolerant, pest and disease-resistant and a prolific producer.

8. Kumara: Also known as the sweet potato, kumara is cultivated in many Pacific Islands and was a staple crop for hundreds of years. The vegetable is a great source of protein, vitamins A and C, iron, calcium and fiber.

9. Lifou Island yam: This starchy tuber plays an important role in both nutrition and food security in many Pacific Island nations. The vegetable is also very versatile--it can be roasted, fried, grilled, boiled, smoked, or grated. Yams are important because they can be stored for long period of time and the vegetable has a social and cultural significance on many islands.

10. Målselvnepe turnip: This hardy, root vegetable variety has been improved over the years through selective cultivation in Norway. It has a strong and distinct taste compared to other turnip varieties. It can be eaten raw, roasted, baked and boiled and is frequently used to enhance the flavor of soups, salads and side dishes. The turnip is an excellent source of vitamin C and potassium.

11. Mungbean: The mungbean is important in Asian diets and valuable for its easily digestible protein. High levels of iron in the vegetable can help improve the diets of the most vulnerable women and children and mungbean production offers an opportunity for increased income for small-scale farmers. In addition, the vegetable can fix nitrogen in the soil, making it valuable for crop rotations.

12. Okra: The edible green seed pods of this plant are a common ingredient in soups and sauces and popular in Indian and Pakistani cuisine. Okra is also an important export crop in The Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. The vegetable is a rich source of vitamins and minerals and the seeds provide quality oil and protein.

13. Papalo: This popular herb, known for its strong skunk-like smell, is used in the American Southwest, Mexico and South America. Papalo, typically eaten as a garnish, is valued for its medicinal properties, including regulating blood pressure, relieving stomach disorders and addressing liver problems. This unique herb has a hardiness to heat, allowing it flourish in hot climates.

14. Perinaldo artichokes: This popular thistle vegetable, valued for its tasty center, is native to the Mediterranean region and originally cultivated in ancient Greece. The edible flower bud is a good source of fiber, vitamin C, folic acid and various minerals. This variety of artichoke is drought resistant and very hardy.

15. Rourou (taro leaves): In a number of Pacific Island countries, including Fiji, taro leaves are eaten and used in various cooking techniques. The leaves provide an excellent source of vitamins A and C. The leaves also have a social importance in ceremonial feasts and are a good local cash crop. In addition, the corms of the giant swamp taro plant have the potential to help feed a large number of Pacific Island countries.

Here is a video by Food Tank that explains more:

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Environmental Working Group

By Alex Formuzis

The Alliance for Food and Farming (AFF), which is run out of a P.O. box in Watsonville, CA, claims to extol the health benefits of consuming both conventional and organic produce and maintains that its members include both conventional and organic farmers.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

However, the AFF’s own website is nothing short of an online shrine to man-made pesticides and foods that delivers those toxic residues directly to the consumer, making clear that it’s an agribusiness front group and hardly an outfit that most organic farmers would knowingly associate with.

In fact, the website makes some rather bold assertions that couldn’t help but anger any “organic farmers” in its membership, including these:

I took a deep dive into the AFF’s website and couldn’t find a single bit of content highlighting the difference between conventional and organic agriculture—even though there are many. There’s not a word of praise for “members” who choose to grow crops without synthetic pesticides. And there isn’t a single statement about the potential health and environmental benefits of selecting organic produce—which, of course, is the primary message of organic farmers and their vendors.

And that’s not too surprising when you take a look at the Alliance’s 2012 California tax return. It shows that the biggest contributors to the AFF were a "who's who" of chemical agribusiness groups:

  • California Grape & Tree Fruit:  $15,950
  • California Pear Advisory Board:  $5,000
  • California Strawberry Commission:  $15,000
  • California Carrot Advisory Board:  $10,000
  • Produce Marketing Association:  $11,500
  • River Ranch Fresh Foods, LLC:  $6,000
  • Western Growers:  $12,000
  • Taylor Farms:  $12,000
  • California Tomato Farmers:  $10,000
  • U.S. Apple Association:  $10,000
  • U.S. Highbush Blueberry Council:  $15,000
  • Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association:  $5,000
  • United Fresh Produce Association:  $5,000
  • California Raisin Marketing Board:  $8,000

All this made me wonder. Just how much time and money is the AFF spending to promote the wares and values of its supporters in organic cultivation?

A review of the AFF’s federal 2011 Form 990, which all non-profits are required to file, shows that the group paid $178,554 to The Communications Department, Inc., a mysterious firm claiming to specialize in “public relations, issues management and marketing,” according to its one-page website. It turns out that the firm not only shares the same address and phone number as the AFF, but the executive director of the AFF, Marilyn Dolan, is also a shareholder in Communications Department, Inc., according to the AFF’s federal tax forms.

Ms. Dolan and the AFF have focused not on promoting organic agriculture, but rather on encouraging consumers to eat their pesticides right along with their fruits and vegetables. And at the same time they’ve spent a considerable amount of time (and, likely, resources) attacking Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce. In 2010, in fact, the AFF applied for and won a $180,000, taxpayer-funded grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture specifically to fuel its assault on EWG’s Shopper’s Guide.

Dolan recently told an industry publication, The Packer, that she and the AFF are planning a similar campaign against efforts to require labeling of genetically engineered foods. That’s yet another affront to its “members” from organic agriculture.

Compare that with the Organic Trade Association (OTA) an organization that actually represents organic farmers, organic food and companies that deliver products free of toxic pesticides.

From OTA’s website:

The Organic Trade Association (OTA) is the membership-based business association for the organic industry in North America. OTA’s mission is to promote and protect organic trade to benefit the environment, farmers, the public and the economy. OTA envisions organic products becoming a significant part of everyday life, enhancing people's lives and the environment. OTA is committed to increasing the amount of agricultural land under organic management for the good of the planet and its inhabitants. A healthy supply chain is integral to the continued growth of the organic industry and to consumer choice in the marketplace.

Now we’re getting somewhere.  Of course, OTA takes a much different view than the AFF when it comes to the differences between chemical and organic agriculture. Here are a few facts, courtesy of OTA’s website:

  • Is organic agriculture better for the environment?
  • Organic agricultural production benefits the environment by using earth-friendly agricultural methods and practices.
  • Does organic farming help protect our water supply?

Researchers studying water quality in 20 of the largest and most important U.S. river basins found 83 pesticides and breakdown products in water and 32 pesticides in fish or stream bed sediment. More than half the streams sampled had concentrations of at least one pesticide that exceeded guidelines for protecting aquatic life.

The OTA’s website also lays out in great detail how pesticide pollution from conventional agribusiness has degraded the quality of much of the nation’s water

  • Is organic better for the health of the planet and those who live on it?

Organic agriculture protects the health of people and the planet by reducing the overall exposure to toxic chemicals from synthetic pesticides that can end up in the ground, air, water and food supply, and that are associated with health consequences, from asthma to cancer. Because organic agriculture doesn’t use toxic and persistent pesticides, choosing organic products is an easy way to help protect yourself.

The OTA provides additional information about the risks pesticides can pose to especially vulnerable populations, including pregnant women and young children.

If that’s not enough to convince you that the OTA—not the AFF—is the group looking out for the interests of organic agriculture, the consumers who buy and eat organic food and the overall health of people and environment, the OTA has a response. Any remnants of doubt about which organization truly supports and advocates for organic food will wash away—unlike those pesky pesticide residues that come with crops produced by the conventional agriculture operations that the AFF is really representing.

Visit EcoWatch’s FOOD page for more related news on this topic.

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Xsandra / Getty Images

Looking for ways to cut down on single-use plastic while grocery shopping? You may already have eco-friendly shopping bags, but bringing your own reusable produce bags is another easy swap.

According to the UN Environment Program, up to 5 trillion single-use plastic bags are used globally each year, and because of the material they're made from, most municipal recycling centers don't accept them (more on this below).

The most sustainable option is to skip the bag altogether. You can also make your own reusable produce bags out of old T-shirts. But if you'd rather purchase them new, here are our recommendations for the best reusable produce bags on the market today.

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