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Re: Indigenous methods of food preparation: what is their impact on food security and nutrition?

Peter Steele Independent Consultant Agricultural Engineer, Italy
Peter Steele

Value of indigenous foods preparation – nutrition & food security – the next generation is too busy looking to the future

Everyone wants to share in that development dream and, according recent UNDP reporting, the majority of people worldwide are well on their way of achieving it. In the race to develop, however, previous lifestyles and the systems upon which they were once based are being abandoned. Urbanization of human society across the globe is leading change.

Preamble – justifying those changes

The sea-change in eating preferences, foods available and food preparatory techniques and equipment that has taken place during my life-time continues apace; as a reflection of the choices available to my parents when feeding their growing family, and the choices that my wife and I make today. As people gain wealth opportunities change – that’s obvious, but they typically change for the better; better foods, improved nutrition, healthier populations and more interesting lifestyles.

This raises issues for the meaning, and understanding, of ‘indigenous’ methods of food preparation; and, further, of the value – real or supposed – for continuing to promote them into the next period. There is always this inbuilt supposition that ‘mother knew best’ when it came to food preparation and what was practiced before should continue to be promoted. Why?

We no longer live in a 19th century world; and my mother’s culinary knowledge and expertise reflected the energy resources, technologies, access to a garden and basic shops, poverty and life-styles of her time as a girl growing up in the early 20th century – and learning how to use those 19th century foods and techniques familiar to her mother. You can easily summarize the situation: basic and labour-intensive methods resulted in uninteresting but largely wholesome foods.


So what’s changed during the past 50 years; and more so during the past 20 years? In a couple of words: the ‘Middle classes’ have been discovered everywhere. Once a feature of the industrial countries, this particular group of people can now be found in all kinds of places where they were once least expected; meaning wherever stability has provided people with opportunities for investing their time, intellect and lives. Middle class people invest in their society; and this comes from the opportunities provided by a reasonable government and a buoyant economy.

Check out the report from UNDP[1] of March this year, and their projections of around half the world’s people expected to join the ‘middle classes’ by 2020, and ponder the ramifications of more than one million households worldwide with an income of >US$20,000 annually (60% of which will be in Asia). The report lists Laos, Mongolia and Bangladesh in addition to India and China. Elsewhere Turkey, Rwanda, Ghana, Mexico and others are shown – in total >30 countries currently considered within that rather out-dated descriptor ‘developing countries’ will have shifted appreciably up the socio-economic scale.

And then project forward a few more years to 2030 when estimated 80% of the world’s population of middle class people will be expected to be living in those same developing countries. And it doesn’t stop there – for the report suggests these same national governments will, collectively, hold more than twice the financial reserves of the industrial countries; in total US$6.8 trillion. Consider the impact that this will have on social development – healthcare, education, empowerment of women and more; and the juxtaposition that this will bring to global investment, decision-making and more.

Food and the middle classes

And, in the context of what those new middle classes may require, issues of indigenous foods preparation may have little relevance. The people will chose - just as my family and I now eat on the basis of a world that is more inter-connected, wealthy and able to take account of value, human health and lifestyles. My parents would have been over-whelmed with the choices available today.

The rise in middle income people can be found everywhere, and these are the people driving change – choice of foods, where they are obtained, the way they are prepared, where they are eaten and, importantly, how much is eaten. The potential impact upon nutrition and security is largely beyond this brief submission but, as with all aspects of human life, there will be winners and losers involved. Obese and overweight people can now be found in most of the low-income countries; people are susceptible to the power of commercial advertising, the lure of those international brand names and the images of those popular public figures from television, films and the Internet – just as they are everywhere.

Watch the kids come out of school in urban Lusaka, for example, and head straight to that kiosk on the street corner and, five minutes later, watch those same kids standing around joking and laughing and, importantly, sharing half-dozen packets of potato chips between them.

The woman on the pavement nearby preparing her (traditional) maize cobs over a small charcoal stove and offering them to the passing trade can still be found, but she’s rapidly losing out to the convenience, image and pleasure of potato chips.

In fact, this submission was originally intended to promote the humble potato (Solanum tuberosum) as the most significant choice crop in the fight to boost food security wherever it can be grown, but I got side-tracked at the start. I may still get back with a pro-potato submission if no one else offers one.

Innovation and technologies

People invest in their families and homes and, crucially for well-being, to the motivation and aspiration that result from the example of others. Modern communications technologies have linked communities everywhere – and there is no going back on this one. Similarly food preparation, processing, storage and handling techniques now impact upon people everywhere and, leading change of this kind, is the novel impact of the supermarket; once the domain of the industrial countries, but now found in all communities everywhere. Supermarkets drive change.

Fail to adapt, follow change, take advantage of innovation and people will remain captive to the disadvantages of earlier systems. Renewable energy, for example, may resonate as desirable but when this is typified by use of fuelwood, agro-wastes or livestock manure in the home they perpetuate existing environmental and health risks, and the degradation and poverty of countless lives lost by the girls and women responsible for feeding their families. Everyone appreciates power from the flick of an electrical switch. Electricity provides access to modern food preparation equipment in the home, shop or factory; few would voluntarily surrender use of their micro-wave ovens, toasters, grinders, mixers and similar to revert to earlier manual equipment.

Carrying the insecure forward

This, however, is not forgetting the estimated 20% of the world’s population that continues to remain food insecure and the widening gaps between the rich(er) sectors and the rest in most societies[2]. In many cases, those people are no longer the starving images of food insecurity, emaciated kids and death marches that remain within living memory for many of us, but they currently represent the better part of half the world’s people who have failed to link into the expanding middle classes. Herein is continuing need for social investment in safety nets that will help stimulate the natural drive of people to better themselves, and provide the basis with which they can do so.

Modern communications

Vulnerable people of this kind continue to impact given access to modern communications – and particularly television and the use of social networks that link and inform. And, whilst the trend with reducing global poverty is encouraging, natural calamities (and more significantly) those that result from inept socio-political decision-making can impact immediately and quickly destroy previous stable systems. Global reporting kicks in to inform everyone, but this does not always deliver the results required.


Access to information and to the means of making a difference helps place the original question into perspective - concerning indigenous methods of food preparation and the potential impact on food security and nutrition. On micro-scale there may be value with the resilience of these earlier systems – for those who fail to develop, fail to investment, remain ill-informed and/or fall outside modern trends in national socio-development. The next generation – living in that town or city, providing services or manufacturing, earning a salary and exploring those personal responsibilities with freedom from archaic systems – is far too busy looking forward to be concerned about the past.

Peter Steele


17 May 2013

[2] Gini Index. Check out the Gini Index in your country – the comparison of national income between the rich and poor. Take the Seychelles, for example, with one of the greatest divergences in the world; estimated 60% of the national population living on the handful of inner islands enjoying the highest living standards in Africa, and compare this to the abject poverty of the remaining 40% living on the more isolated outer islands.