Eating Weeds and Insects

The Mali Empire at its height under Mansa Musa.

Mali empire at its height.  Wikipedia

Last week one of the Facebook Gang put up a link to an article on poor folk in Mali having to eat weeds and insects.  Apologies, I can’t remember who put up the link!  Anyway, it was an interesting piece in that, without intending to, it zeroed in on the abhorrence of most Westerners to eating such Awful Stuff, thus obscuring the role of insects and ‘weeds’ in both everyday cuisine as well as in the survival strategies of folk throughout Africa.

Now, I’m not at all claiming that there are not serious problems in Mali, due to recent droughts.  However, I do want to emphasize the underlying importance of certain culinary items to local diets that most of us would unthinkingly resign to the dust bin.  Also, the considerable indigenous knowledge that most agricultural communities have regarding wild plants that are good all of the time, such as certain fruits, and those that are good during periods of food shortage.

The latter are generally associated with considerable processing to render them eatable, are not generally very tasty, and – if eaten in abundance – may cause stomach upsets.  However, the important feature is that – while we may regard them as worthless weeds – those using them consider such plants to be a godsend during very sparse times.

There are now several organizations that are systematically looking into indigenous plants – what they are, where they grow, seasons they can be harvested or collected, when they are used, who harvests them, who cooks them, and who eats them.

The documents published by the National Academy of Sciences under the general title of Forgotten and Underutilized Crops provide an excellent grounding in these traditional – and oftentimes famine foods.  The documents are available in PDF, which can be read on the web, or – if your lucky enough to live in Burundi and other ‘less advantaged’ countries – are free to download 🙂

See also the following blog entry, for an important West African tree species, that is not ‘cropped’, but whose fruits are very important to local folks:  Wild Mango Relish from West Africa, 1873.

Finally, it is interesting that eatable bugs are given far less attention than plants.  Here is a jaraada – or locust – commonly eaten across the Sahel:

Jiraada – locust, in southern Morocco. c. 1800. Source: Jackson. NYPL

Here are a few international organizations that deal with famine and lesser known crops – and trees. In another blog, I will discuss some that exist here in Burundi.

AVRDC – Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center:

Healthy diversity through indigenous vegetables – Indigenous vegetables hold promise for farmers and consumers in the Developing World

They are hardy, nutritious, and a storehouse of desirable traits, and now indigenous vegetables are finally getting some of the attention they deserve.

Apart from its ongoing work improving vegetables and vegetable production technologies, AVRDC is looking seriously at the potential of underutilized, locally grown vegetables to increase incomes and improve nutrition in the developing world.

So-called indigenous vegetables, mostly leafy greens, are often easier to grow, more resistant to pests and diseases, and acceptable to local tastes. They help diversify production systems, income, and diets for year-round nutrition.

Indigenous vegetables are, however, at risk in many countries-they are being replaced by a few high-yielding commercial varieties. And once an indigenous variety is lost, it is lost forever.AVRDC is working to stem the loss of valuable indigenous vegetables.

But utilization is the key, so AVRDC is screening indigenous vegetables for nutritional value and their ability to fit in year-round production systems-especially peri-urban systems to supply fast-growing cities in the developing world.

Global Facilitation Unit for Underutilised Species (GFU):

What are neglected and underutilized species?
Underutilized and neglected species fall within the broad basket of ‘minor crops’. But what does ‘minor’ mean? Does it mean minor in terms of production? Does it mean minor in terms of the area of cultivation? Minor to whom?

The use of the two terms, neglected and underutilized, has the advantage of pinpointing two crucial aspects of these species. They highlight the degree of attention paid by users and the level of research and conservation efforts spent on them.

Neglected crops are those grown primarily in their centres of origin or centres of diversity by traditional farmers, where they are still important for the subsistence of local communities. Some species may be globally distributed, but tend to occupy special niches in the local ecology and in production and consumption systems. While these crops continue to be maintained by cultural preferences and traditional practices, they remain inadequately characterized, and neglected by research and conservation.

Underutilized crops were once more widely grown but are falling into disuse for a number of reasons. Farmers and consumers are using these crops less because they are in some way not competitive with other crop species in the same agricultural environment. The decline of these crops may erode the genetic base and preventing the use of distinctive useful traits in crop adaptation and improvement.

The International Centre for Underutilised crops:

What are underutilised crops?

We define underutilised crops as plant species that are used traditionally for their food, fibre, fodder, oil or medicinal properties. They have an under-exploited potential to contribute to food security, nutrition, health, income generation and environmental services.

At present, only 150 plant species are used and commercialised on a significant global scale; over 50% of the world’s requirement for protein and calories are met by only three: rice, wheat and maize.

Yet, there are an estimated 7,000 species that play a crucial role in poor people’s livelihood strategies and may have a significant potential for commercialisation.

Alongside their commercial potential, many of the underutilised plant species also provide important environmental services, as they are adapted to marginal soil and climate conditions.

PROTA – Plant Resources of Tropical Africa

PROTA’s mission: PROTA is an international, not-for-profit foundation. It intends to synthesize the dispersed information on the approximately 7,000 useful plants of Tropical Africa and to provide wide access to the information through Webdatabases, Books, CD-Roms and Special Products.

The objectives are to bring the published information, now accessible to the resourceful happy few, into the public domain.
This will contribute to greater awareness and sustained use of the ‘world heritage of African useful plants’, with due respect for traditional knowledge and intellectual property rights.


About dianabuja

With a group of BaTwa (pygmy) women potters, with whom we've worked to enhance production and sales of their wonderful pots - fantastic for cooking and serving. To see the 2 blogs on this work enter 'batwa pots' into the search engine located just above this picture. Blog entries throughout this site are about Africa, as well as about the Middle East and life in general - reflecting over 35 years of work and research in Africa and the Middle East – Come and join me!
This entry was posted in Africa-General, Food, Indigenous crops & medicinal plants, Research & Development, Third World. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Eating Weeds and Insects

  1. Pingback: A Relish of Caviar-type Worms in The Sahara 1819 « Dianabuja's Blog

  2. Pingback: Medicinal & Indigenous Plants « Dianabuja's Blog

  3. Pingback: More on Eating Weeds, Insects, and Creepy-Crawlies « Dianabuja's Blog

  4. maria says:

    twas me actually (that put up the link)
    i’m glad you have taken this subject further – i posted the link because it reminded me ever so clearly of what my mother-in-law told me about WW2: when the nazis confiscated their food supplies in crete, all they had was ‘weeds’ (our delicious wild horta) and insects (in our case, snails – they are the only ‘insects’ we eat, and are still regarded as a cretan delicacy by most greeks)

    and yes, they were a godsend in hard times – without them, the cretans would have starved

    these days, we are very fortunate to cultivate our wild food, which allows us to continue to eat healthfully


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