It is time to diversify our diets and food systems

A red medicinal pineapple (above) and red bananas were some of the delights on offer in Sri Lanka...
A red medicinal pineapple (above) and red bananas were some of the delights on offer in Sri Lanka. PHOTOS: ANNA CAMPBELL
I am thoroughly enjoying a novel with the unusual title The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See.

The novel is set in the Yunnan province of China and is a story of the Akha people, a Chinese ethnic minority. Before I decided to read it, I noticed some negative reviews about the amount of "tea discussion" and thought "great this looks like a book for me" — and it is, what a gem!

Tea and tea trade have a long history in many countries including China, India, Sri Lanka and of course the United Kingdom — although why we colonials insist on butchering tea with milk is beyond me.

Prior to lockdown, I wrote one of my columns while in India, on my way to Sri Lanka. At the time, I promised to write my next column about my Sri Lankan experience, but the Covid-19 drama on return meant I put those reflections aside.

Reading about the tea plantations in China has reminded me of being up on the Sri Lanka tea plantations watching Sri Lankan women harvest tea, nimbly climbing mountainous slopes in the heat, deftly handpicking leaves into backpacks.

There are parallels of our economy with Sri Lanka’s, both being heavily land and tourism based. Like New Zealand, Sri Lanka is genuinely beautiful and has that same small country feel being so close to its big brother India.

I went to Sri Lanka to work with a UK company, Capital Agri, led by an ex Otago-ite, Hadyn Craig. They have invested significantly into a leafy green business, Lanka Salads and I was there to meet people involved in Ayurvedic medicine, with a view to adding some of the wonderful medicinal herbs grown in Sri Lanka to their leafy green salad mixes.

Anyone who knows me understands that I get ridiculously excited about seeing exotic food plants grow in their native environment. I was treated to cinnamon plantations, turmeric, nutmeg, cocoa beans and the fabulous red-medicinal pineapple.

Imagine my delight when I met (and ate) red bananas and saw multiple other varieties — in the world of big-food, we only ever experience the cavendish banana, which is a real problem in terms of genetic diversity and disease management.

I was treated to a tour of Associate Professor Marasinghe’s fabulous medicinal plant garden — he is a botanist with an encyclopedia knowledge of Ayurvedic plants and medical practices. When I showed him the herbs we were interested in for digestive health, he quickly pointed out that my photo of one herb was the right genus but wrong species. Desktop research can only get you so far, clearly Uncle Google let me down.

On a more sober note, when we were staying in a remote hotel, the proprietors asked for a photo as we were the first Westerners to have visited since the Easter Sunday bombings of 2019. We were a sign to them that much needed tourists might be coming back.

Given the Covid-19 situation, Sri Lanka’s tourism industry will be faring worse than ours, having already been decimated prior to the virus. One older man I met, who relied on the tourist dollar to live told me he had limited pension and life had been very difficult since the bombing — a reminder to be thankful for what we have.

Food businesses have been the first to recover and I am pleased to hear Lanka Salads is doing well again. As we imagine what a post-Covid-19 economy looks like, I hope too that we will take the opportunity to bring greater diversity into our diets and food systems. I hope that those food systems do more to protect and nurture the growers themselves — technology should be able to play a role in connecting us to food producers in a way we haven’t been before. This will work for New Zealand farmers as well as those growing red pineapples in Sri Lanka.

Big-food has given us efficiency, profits and processed food. How can a new economy shape a more sustainable food model?

Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agri-technology company.


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