Rotarian Action Group Helps Countries Grow Indigenous Crops

Australian Bruce French has been eating locally for 35 years– long before it became a culinary trend. Now he’s working with Rotary members to help countries struggling with food security do the same.

French founded the not-for-profit Food Plants International, which maintains a database of 25,000 edible plants that includes descriptions, lists of countries and climates where they grow, photos and drawings, and cooking methods.

“There are thousands of nutritious plants, but people don’t have any information about them,” says Buz Green, an agriculturalist and member of the Rotary Club of Devonport North in Australia. “We’re trying to bridge some of the gaps.” Green launched the Learn Grow project with French in 2007 to help people in developing countries grow local food that suits their nutritional needs.

The project receives support from the Devonport North club and Rotary District 9830. Early last year, the RI Board recognized the Food Plant Solutions Rotarian Action Group, whose 195 members are helping support Learn Grow efforts. Past RI Director John Thorne chairs the group.

“Rotarian teams in developing countries inevitably identify hunger, malnutrition, and food security as critical issues,” Green explains. “They tend to look to Western solutions to address food production issues.”

The problem, he says, is that Western crops don’t have the right nutritional profile for people in the developing world, whose diets often have little variety. Indigenous crops can allow them to eat more nutritiously and are already adapted to local pests, diseases, and climatic conditions.

“Virtually every woman in the tropical world is anemic,” French adds. “We go there with cabbages and make the situation 10 times worse.”

In 2010 Learn Grow launched a pilot project in the Solomon Islands, producing a compendium of local edible plants, field guides for growers, and a book on crops for schools and community groups. Local organizations provide support and distribute information while a qualified agriculturist serves as a technical support specialist. The project team has received inquiries from 20 developing countries; another effort is underway in North Korea where a Canadian Rotary member will serve as the specialist.

The principles of eating locally are gaining momentum in the Western world, French says. “My children and lots of other people thought I was eccentric for 35 years. Now I’ve become fairly trendy in my old age.”

By Diana Schoberg and Katie Hills

This story originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of The Rotarian.