In a perfect world, everyone would have access to nutritious, affordable food.
However, as Rick Bates knows, there is no such thing as utopia when it comes to food security, as millions of people around the world have limited food resources. One of those places is Cambodia in Southeast Asia, one of the world's poorest countries, where the rural poverty rate is 24 percent, and 40 percent of children younger than 5 are chronically malnourished, making them vulnerable to significant health problems.
"Cambodian household diets are among the least diversified in Southeast Asia, characterized by an overreliance on rice," said the professor of horticulture in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences. "There is a pressing need in Cambodia to increase the diversification of farming systems to improve human nutrition and farm profitability, and this must be achieved in a sustainable manner."
Teaching Cambodian farmers — mainly women who manage small farms — ways to diversify their operations for improved nutrition and the extra income is one aspect of a multidisciplinary project led by Bates and called "Women in Agriculture Network (WAgN): Cambodia."
Joining him are colleagues Leif Jensen, distinguished professor of rural sociology and demography, Ann Tickamyer, professor of rural sociology, and Cambodia native Sovanneary Huot, a master's degree candidate in rural sociology. Together, they have conducted field research for the past year in northwest Cambodia.
Their data gathering has included farm inventories of neglected and underutilized indigenous plants, wet- and dry-season produce market and price surveys, gender-focused farmer interviews, and first-time nutritional analysis of unique perennial vegetable species.
Bates explained that the climate in Cambodia — extremely hot, dry summers followed by an intense rainy season — makes farming a challenge because it's difficult to grow a variety of typical vegetables, resulting in seasonal "food gaps." Most rural families survive on fish and the country's main crop, rain-fed paddy rice. Following the single rice harvest, much of the landscape remains idle and without vegetative cover.
Wild food plants, such as indigenous trees, shrubs, vines, and groundcovers, can remain productive during the difficult wet- and dry-season food gaps. These perennial species require little maintenance and can grow on marginal land, common to most villages and homesteads. Bates refers to this concept of sustainably intensifying underutilized borderland as "farming the messy fringe."
"Incorporating these wild food plants into existing land — fencerows, weedy patches, and open areas — maximizes the land's use, which is extremely important because most families have limited space," he said.
In this way, wild gardens can fortify home food security by combating "hidden hunger" — deficiencies of micronutrients such as vitamins and minerals — often present in rice-dominant diets. As Bates pointed out, these wild food plants are nutritious and multifunctional.
"Many of these plants are used in traditional medicines, are valued in the local marketplace, or have a practical, functional use around the homestead," she said.
One example is Acacia pennata, also referred to as Cha-om, a fast-growing shrub that can serve multiple purposes. For starters, its shoots are naturally high in beta-carotene, making it a valuable tool in preventing blindness due to vitamin A deficiency, which is a serious public health problem among women and children in Cambodia.
It also makes for a low-maintenance cash crop, with a potential selling price of $2.50 per kilogram. Finally, when the thorny branches of this tall shrub are trained to grow horizontally, it makes an excellent livestock barrier or "living fence," Bates said.
The culmination of the yearlong studies has produced a list of wild food plants with nutritional and marketplace value, food-plot designs, planting timelines, and sustainable farming practices to preserve land for future use.
Running parallel to the horticultural studies is information gathering and analysis of Cambodian women's role in agriculture, with Jensen and Tickamyer leading the investigation. Tickamyer noted that many women handle the bulk of the chores on the family farm while their husbands work on commercial rice farms or migrate to jobs in urban areas.
This dynamic has created what she described as a "feminization of agriculture without necessarily a corresponding improvement in women's status in the society, nor the means to improve their family's standard of living and access to healthy food," which is a condition that the team believes the project has the potential to improve.
To get "buy-in" from farmers, the researchers next will set up demonstration wild gardens and nurseries to collect, propagate and disseminate plants. These living classrooms will provide one-on-one and group teaching opportunities and give families the chance to see, touch and smell plants. From there, the team, working in collaboration with Cambodian university and agricultural counterparts, will offer on-site assistance to interested farmers.
"In the near future, we hope to optimize and fully leverage the potential of wild gardens as a home food-security strategy," Bates said. "We're working to better characterize the nutritional, medicinal and economic contribution of wild food plants — and the role women play in managing and maintaining this overlooked food system."
Collaborators on the project include the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, Agricultural Development Denmark Asia, World Vegetable Center, ECHO Asia Impact Center, Kasetsart University, Royal University of Agriculture, Conservation Agriculture Service Center and the University of Battambang.
The U.S. Agency for International Development and Kansas State University's Sustainable Intensification Innovation Lab have provided funding.