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Michael Victor

We are what we eat: Rebuilding the connections

Compelling discussion, commentary, stories on agriculture within thriving ecosystems.

When I first came to Lao more than 15 years ago, I was amazed at the incredible ecological knowledge that seemed intuitive to almost everyone in the country. From the Minister to my colleagues at the forest department, everyone planted, collected, raised and gathered an incredible array of wild vegetables, mushrooms, medicinal plants, chickens, pigs, fish and crabs. Lao people were intrinsically linked to the food they ate.

As the country has modernized, this special connection has withered. Most of the young, urban class have never killed a chicken, planted rice, or even know where their food comes from. Likewise, industrial agriculture has quickly replaced traditional farming systems which nurtured an incredible diversity of plant and animal species.

Lao is not alone. Urbanization and Industrial agriculture throughout the world is feeding growing populations, but destroying our intrinsic linkage to the food we eat. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivores Dilemma reflects, “food is our most profound engagement to the natural world. Food links us not only to the people we feed but those who feed us. The farm workers and people in slaughter house who cut our meat, we have a relationship with them.”

The consequences of this disconnect are numerous. There is a tendency to forget about the impacts of modern farming for both farmers and consumers. Likewise, an accelerating loss of biodiversity robs us of life-sustaining services, such as pollination. For instance, forest honey is quickly becoming a high-value, niche market product. Unfortunately, the value forest bees (apis cerena) play in providing pollination services is not known and the impacts of industrial maize production on the bees remains critical.

A frightening example of the effects this can have on both consumers and farmers is the rampant use of pesticides for cheap maize, banana and cassava production. Faced with limited options and perverse incentives provided by modern industrial practices, farmers often choose pesticides to ensure their farms produce both robust crops and a reasonable livelihood. Beyond heath consequences for the farmers, a study by the Lao Upland Rural Advisory Service found that consumers appear to have higher levels of exposure to pesticides than the farmers themselves.

This is a serious issue, especially for women and children. Contamination of fresh fruit and vegetables is likely widespread. Collectively over half (52.4%) of the samples screened in the last two years tested positive for residues of organophosphate and carbamate, common classes of insecticide linked to nervous system and neuro- developmental disorders in children.

How can we reestablish our connection to food?

These connections between food and consumer need to be reestablished in Laos before they are completely lost. The Phakhao Lao platform is an attempt to do just that. It is built upon the incredibly rich biodiversity of Laos and the pride Lao people have in their unique and rich natural heritage.

The Pha Khao is a traditional low standing table used for eating meals in Lao and a poignant symbol of Lao people’s connection to agrobiodiversity. The table is usually made of rattan or bamboo and made locally. Family and friends gather around the table and share meals.
Michael Victor

Laos is considered one the most mega-biodiverse countries in the world, with agricultural biodiversity crucial to day-to-day livelihoods of both rural and urban people. It is one of nature’s services, considered a crucial resource for food security, income and adequate nutrition. This wealth represents Laos’ great natural and social heritage as most Lao food, folklore and cultural traditions are closely linked to agrobiodiversity.

Using modern tools to re-forge traditional links, Phakhao Lao is the first on-line attempt to bring together the wealth of information on Lao agrobiodiversity in a way that builds connections between farmers, businesses and consumers, and between the young and old. It is an attempt to re-link the wealth of knowledge about local ecosystems to the growing urban class. It is a way to link the choices about the food we make to our own health and of our children and communities.

Linking agriculture production to behavior change

We need to change how people view and perceive agriculture by providing practical resources and opportunities to bring together farmers, traders and consumers.

To achieve this, the site is a digital repository of native plant and trees species from Laos. It brings together a wealth of knowledge on Lao biodiversity in the forest and the fields (see infographic). Each profile includes a snapshot of key information such as production, marketing, policy and expertise. As of launch, it includes almost 200 commercially important plant and tree species.

This scientific knowledge base is complemented by inspiring stories about how Lao people are engaging with this diversity as well as reshaping the food system. These include stories of local knowledge, start-up tips, recipes and stories of people making their food system healthy and resilient – all meant to inspire and guide people to reconnect with their food.

Finally, there is an emerging conversation on food systems and an exchange space for researchers, students, young entrepreneurs and others to share new product info or market their products and services.

What is happening in Laos is no different than what is happening around the world. A focus on local food systems allows us to “vote” for the food we want by demanding more from the industrial producers, policy-makers and investors. Do we want to support cheap, processed, nutrient-poor food? Or will we support healthy, locally produced food which supports smallholders or local green business? Choosing the latter supports farmers and builds strong local enterprises.

Online portals like Phakhao Lao can provide a space people for to reconnect with – and have pride in – their rich natural heritage. And most importantly it provides the information necessary to take action to conserve, manage and profit from this natural wealth.

We’ve got the technology to share information like never before. And local people have the knowledge and history to rebuild their connections with food and agrobiodiversity.

Use it – don't lose it!

Phakhao is coordinated by the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute of the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry and supported by the Agrobiodiversity Initiative.