Why should our diets focus on underutilized fruits and vegetables?
Our food systems today depend heavily on very few crops while the types and varieties of nutritious local crops can diversify our diets and patterns.
Our food systems are not doing well. While more than 820 million people are still starving on our planet today, the obesity epidemic is spreading across the world. Access to healthy food, in terms of availability and cost, is a major factor in both scenarios. The limited number of foods we produce, the ways in which we grow and transport them, and the means by which we take to distribute them are all areas that hold great potential for improvement. Changes in these systems could mean conserving natural resources, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and reaching greater quantities of food to consumers, especially the most vulnerable.
There are many solutions available to us. At present, time-tested traditional methods of food harvesting and production are being re-examined. Cultures and respect for the value of food are being revitalized. Fruits and vegetables that have been overlooked at the global level are gaining new attention. There is a large selection of foods, including dates in particular, that match this description.
Here are 5 reasons why dates should be made an integral part of our food future:
1- Dates are nutritious
Dates are rich in iron, potassium, calcium and magnesium, and are a good source of fiber. It is also rich in calories, which makes it an important source of energy. Dates, thanks to their sweet taste, are a good alternative to refined sugars. And unlike highly processed foods, dates are a natural and nutritious food like fruits, which makes them a factor that helps to reverse the path of obesity. More than two billion (2) people in the world suffer from excess weight. Our diets today make it easy for people to choose cheaper and faster foods that often contain greater amounts of fats, salts, sugars and calories. Increasing the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables can help people make healthier choices. Foods like dried dates, which can be kept for several months, are an example of a nutritious quick alternative. Also, its long shelf life helps to minimize food losses.
2- Dates have untapped potential
Our food systems today are highly dependent on very few crops. Throughout human history, nearly 6,000 plant species have been cultivated for food production. Today, only 8 of them provide more than 50 percent of the calories we consume daily. With climate change making our food production more precarious, we cannot rely on a few crops to feed an ever-expanding population. There are a large number of traditional crops that are very nutritious and adapt to local conditions and have the ability to withstand the fluctuations of the climate. These crops are increasingly important for diversifying our food systems and providing the variety of nutrients we need to lead a healthy life. While dates are a fairly well-known commodity in many parts of the world, only certain types of dates are traded in international trade.
The date palm has been cultivated for more than 5,000 years. Thanks to the nutrients and calories they provided, these fruits meant the food security of people living in deserts. Up: © West Siwa Development Project; Down: © Axel Alvarez / shutterstock.com
3- Dates are part of a long-standing culture and heritage
The date palm has been cultivated in the Middle East and North Africa region for more than 5,000 years. Thanks to the nutrients and calories they provided, these fruits meant food and nutritional security for people living in deserts and other arid regions.
Food and agriculture around the world are an important part of cultures and identities. In an effort to celebrate and preserve these riches, the organization established a global agricultural heritage systems program to reward sites around the world that are characterized by preserving traditions of planting and harvesting unique foods that are well adapted to local climatic conditions and landscapes. Siwa Oasis in Egypt, as one of these systems, accurately demonstrates the creativity of farmers in adapting agriculture to the prevailing difficult conditions. Here, the date palm is cultivated by intercropping it with fruits, vegetables, forage crops and sometimes with grains in a three-story structure that the date palm occupies the highest level. This multi-layered system creates a small zone climate that allows other crops to grow under the palm trees, which results in preserving invaluable water resources.
4- Date palm is able to withstand difficult environmental conditions
In 2018, Egypt was the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Iran , Algeria and the four largest producers of dates at the level of the world, all of whom suffer from water scarcity . The date palm can grow in hot and arid climates, and it tolerates salt water. These properties allow it to grow and provide a food source even under difficult environmental conditions, such as deserts.
5- Dates are important to livelihood
Date production constitutes an important sector not only for the food and nutritional security of people living in rural areas but also for their livelihoods. However, over the past 30 years, these livelihoods are under threat from the RPW. It is the most destructive pest of palm trees in various parts of the world. The origin of this weevil is in Southeast Asia and has spread quickly to be transmitted to other regions. And since the red palm weevil infects trees from the inside, it is difficult to detect these infestations during the early stages. To help farmers around the world gather data when examining palm trees and treating them for this pest, the organization is developing an app using mobile phones, SusaHamra. The organization is also working to combine remote sensing with artificial intelligence to identify palm trees and monitor the spread of this pest to help preserve livelihoods throughout the Near East and North Africa region.
As another important initiative, FAO and the International Plant Protection Convention are helping to raise awareness of the importance of protecting plant resources from pests and diseases and encouraging safe international trade by celebrating the International Year of Plant Health in 2020. This celebration is crucial not only for raising awareness of food security. And nutritional status, but also the conservation of biological diversity and the restoration of healthy ecosystems, especially in very dry areas.
In June 2019, the organization hosted an event organized by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to promote the benefits of date production in terms of economic, environmental and social development . Talks are ongoing with a view to reviewing how local and traditional crops can influence the achievement of SDG 2.
It is time to revisit our food systems, focus on underutilized crops globally, revive indigenous practices, and focus on nutrition rather than food. Our planet and our bodies need this. With everyone’s participation, we can achieve the #Zero Hunger Goal and the Sustainable Development Goals.