UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — 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 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.