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A helping hand


Here is how Tasmanian agricultural scientist Bruce French is helping the fight against world hunger, one plant at a time.


In the 70s, scientist Bruce French discovered the nutritious value of indigenous food plants in Papua New Guinea and began documenting each and every plant that he could find, from the most obscure spices in the desert to the healthiest leafy vegetables in the tropics.

Since then, he has created Food Plants International, a database of 27,450 edible plants found all over the world, which has been shared with those living in rural areas to help combat world hunger. The database is also used for educational purposes such as the Institute of Indigenous Foods in Canada, where the scientists consult Bruce’s information on a daily basis.

“Every location in the world has unique local edible plants that have been neglected and under-utilised. My passionate concern is for the 81 tropical countries where children die of malnutrition before school age,” explains Bruce.

“Many agronomists in our western world have simply bred plants for maximum yield (size), instead of thinking about the critical micronutrients contained in the plants. About a third of the world is anaemic or iron-deficient and dark green edible leaves are usually rich in this nutrient. A few herbs and spices can quickly make highly nutritious plants tasty as well.”

In 2007, Bruce launched the Food Plants Solution project with the help of Rotary, which aims to educate those in developing countries to grow the most nutritious and viable food plants in their environment.

Much of Bruce’s database was compiled from his conversations with the elderly and often illiterate people living in villages in rural tropical locations, who have served as his teachers during his project. In exchange for their invaluable knowledge of the land, Bruce promised them that he would record the information, include photographs, fact check it and then share it with their local schools.

At the moment, Bruce is sharing his work at various international conferences and plans to build a database of practical tips for making pest control and the production of food plants easier, as well as recipes that people can use.

Because of Bruce’s work, many people in developing countries such as Vanuatu and Malawi, have transformed their diets.

“In Cambodia, the village ladies were effusive and extremely grateful when I explained the far superior food values of some of their own indigenous food plants,” he says.

“They were only eating foreign and unsuitable temperate plants because they had been told they were better for them. The local plants were much preferred and as they suit local conditions, they could be produced more cheaply with less risk of crop failures.”  

Now, Bruce is hoping to spread word of his research into rural areas, hopefully through the publication of print materials in schools, for example.

“For many rural people, computers remain a luxury, so there remains a need to produce print publications [to be shared with others],” explains Bruce. “With about a seventh of the world still living on less than $1.25 a day, the information must be available free.”