Science - May 14, 2012

Rice farmer forage for wild edible plants

Thai rice farmers in the outlying district of Kalasin forage for many wild edible plants to give their diet more variety and provide more food security. This is revealed in the PhD research of Gisella Cruz.

A rice field in the Thai district of Kalasin
Many rural inhabitants in the Tropics gather wild edible plants to supplement their diet, but very little attention has been paid to this aspect in research. Wild plants are either classified as botanical species or occupy a place in our food system as crops. Wild edible plants do not quite belong in this classification. And yet, they are important for both biodiversity and food security, argues Cruz, who carried out an ethnobotanical study in Thailand.
She found 87 different wild trees, herbs, water plants, climbers, shrubs and bamboo plants in and around rice fields in the Kalasin region. These have leaves or fruits which can be eaten as food. More than half of the plants are used both as food and as medicine. These plants are mostly found in rice fields, vegetable gardens and the surrounding forest.
Farmers get more out of rice cultivation than rice alone, says Cruz. Wild plants flourish in the dry season around the rice fields, making this a multifunctional ecosystem, adds the PhD student.
In a study of forty households in this area, Cruz showed that almost all these households forage for wild plants and used about fifty of these to supplement their diet, especially in times of scarcity. Villagers with low incomes gathered more wild plants than those with higher incomes. In this way, the villagers created a rural safety net against food scarcity, says Cruz. She feels that the wild plants for human consumption should be included in agro-ecological research models, so that these edible plants can be assigned a value in agricultural programmes and food policymaking.
Cruz received the Unesco-l'Oreal Fellowship for Young Women in Sciences in 2007 for her research, financed by the cosmetic company l'Oreal. Born in Peru, she is the first Dutch researcher to receive this scholarship.
Gisella Cruz Garcia will defend her PhD thesis on 16 May under Professor Paul Struik of Crop Physiology.