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Eat your greens

World Vegetable Center Director General Dyno Keatinge has a lot on his plate. Here he speaks on veggie outreach programs in Micronesia, genetic modification in the developing world and the much-maligned Brussels sprout.

Plate with broccoli, carrot and peas

Dyno Keatinge wants people to branch out when it comes to variety

How many vegetables do you eat a day? The recommended five? Well, as far as the World Vegetable Center is concerned, it's not so much the number of vegetables you should be concerned about, as the variety.

The Taiwan-based organization is dedicated to promoting vegetables' consumption - especially as a means to alleviating poverty in developing countries. The center's director general, Dyno Keating, droppped in on Deutsche Welle during a speaking tour in Europe.

Deutsche Welle: More than a billion people are malnourished in the world at the moment, how do you think vegetables can help decrease poverty and malnutrition?

There's certainly about a billion undernourished people, there's probably two billion overnourished people, and both of those need attention, and that attention can come from allowing people to grow a wider range of vegetables, to make those cheaper and more available in the market.

(Vegetables are) a principal source of vitamins, and many of the minerals and antioxidants that we require for good health. I would have said that we're probably underfunding vegetable research and development by a hundred-fold at the moment.

Why should more research should be done on vegetables?

I believe that it's necessary to do this because we don't understand well how the nutrients in vegetables are converted into human nutrition, we don't quite understand the implications of what cooking does to vegetables, and certainly we have a problem of diseases, insects and viruses that are constantly mutating and this is something that we have to have an adequate defense for in the future.

People have been harvesting vegetables for thousands of years. Are they simply not eating the right vegetables, or do they have the wrong species or the wrong farming methods?

I believe that vegetables as we see them in the supermarket today tend to have much of the nutrition bred out of them, we have lots and lots of different species which can be employed, particularly indigenous vegetables, which are much more nutritious. For example many of the green leafy African vegetables are filled with vitamin A and vitamin C, but at the moment, only the World Vegetable Center is working on their improvement. The private sector ignores these because they're not hybrids.

You mentioned indigenous vegetables, do you think that some of these indigenous vegetables that are used in some regions of the world could be introduced elsewhere, to improve people's diets?

People browse at an outdoor fruit and vegetable market in South Africa

Native vegetable varieties could prove advantageous in other locations

I'm absolutely certain of it. African eggplant for example is now one of the biggest money-earners of people in Tanzania, and I believe that it could be introduced for example into the south-Pacific islands, where they're very short of vegetable diversity, but would like that type of vegetable.

The difficulty is in getting good quality seed, and the World Vegetable Center is responsible for trying to help generate that and the industries around it. We will be trying to introduce those types of seeds into islands like Samoa, Tonga and others where vegetable diversity is a problem and they're also suffering from type 2 diabetes to a large extent as a result of obesity from bad diets.

How open are people to new species, and integrating them into their diets and into their gardens?

In general, people are not very open to new species. Gardeners like to try new species but in the kitchen it's a problem. So what we have to do is not only research on how to grow the crops, but we also have to work with people on how to cook them, and how to eat them and what to eat with them. And that's very important because if you're going to benefit from the nutrition of some of these vegetables, you might need to cook it with a small amount of oil or with a different type of approach. If you boil them for three hours you may remove all the nutrition.

The Chinese cuisine, for instance, is very rich, with a great variety of recipes. Are there cuisines where it's more difficult to make people eat something?

Yes, for example in Micronesia, in those islands people are almost exclusively eating hamburgers and rice or tinned fish and rice, and they don't like, or are not used to eating vegetables. So to introduce a new vegetable into the system is tricky, but if you can work through women's groups, through health groups, that type of thing, and to get onto the radio and make sure that people understand that this thing is an option, then it's much easier.

So it's not just rural development and vegetables, it has a lot to do with sociology as well?

Of course. We're dealing with people, and they need the sociological dimension and the anthropological dimension as much as they need the physical and biological.

Is people's approach to vegetable consumption tied to whether they live in the developing world; is the balance of diets worse in developed or developing countries?

Well, in Africa, virtually all countries have large elements of their population that don't ingest sufficient fruit and vegetables on a daily basis, particularly in the dry seasons, children can be without vitamin B and vitamin A for long periods of time.

You sometimes hear people complain that, for instance, tomatoes are not what they used to be. Around the world we're losing a lot of older varieties of garden vegetables to standardized versions that have been selected more for shelf life and travel endurance than nutrition or taste.

As far as taste is concerned, probably we have some good varieties, but as far as nutrition is concerned, it is true that modern varieties very often have poor nutrition, particularly poor vitamin A content. ... I think that people are purchasing for taste, and for life, and for appearance but they don't see the nutritional dimension therefore it's of little concern to them. But in reality they should be concerned.

A woman pushes a shopping trolley through a supermarket in Madrid, Spain

Vegetables are being bred for 'taste' and 'appearance' over nutrition

So how can this be changed?

Well I'd like to see people eat a much larger variety of vegetables, particularly green leafy vegetables. There are hundreds of different species which could be chosen, but we are only really working on a few, and I think that's a mistake - too many eggs in one basket.

The issue of genetic modification of food often comes up in the debate over how to tackle food shortages in developing countries. Where do you stand on this? Is GM a useful technology that could increase yields, or is it a risky product that's mainly going to benefit the patent-holders?

I'm in favor and not in favor at the same time. Let me give you the example of eggplant in India. This is very topical today because they're just trying to release a BT-enriched eggplant in India, but the minister for the environment has finally denied permission for it to be released, and yet eggplants are being sprayed maybe 50 to 100 times in India, the eggplants themselves are contaminated with insecticides, and the farming population that has to do the spraying suffers as a result of having to be exposed to that much insecticide. A genetically modified version would cut that spraying down dramatically. So we're trading a potential risk - if there is such a potential, and I have no information to say that there is a risk - against a known environmental problem that's going on and that's affecting people's health.

Yet you said you are also not in favor of GM...

I'm not necessarily concerned about genetic modification, I think that's something that can be fairly straightforward, but I prefer the idea of simply shifting resistance genes for disease from wild relatives into the cultivated species, rather than going for the most exotic modifications that could be considered, like for example herbicide-resistance, which is fairly extreme in my case, but seems to work.

So much of the world's arable land is set aside for the meat industry, either as pastures or for growing crops to feed cattle. Is there a competition between meat and vegetables on the planet?

Cows and a farmer in a paddock

Much of the world's arable land is devoted to feeding livestock

In terms of investment, perhaps there is. But I wouldn't see that as the competition. The competition for me is rather between staple cereals and vegetables. Because vegetables are moderately expensive in the market now, because they're not subsidized by anybody and because they receive little research attention, they tend to be more expensive than they need to be. And if that balance was addressed to some extent, then I think we might see people eating more vegetables and being more willing to buy them in the future.

And what's your favorite vegetable recipe?

My favorite vegetable is Brussels sprouts, and I like to have it with my turkey at Christmas.

Interview: Anke Rasper and Nathan Witkop (skt)
Editor: Nathan Witkop

For an unabridged version of this interview, please follow the audio link below.

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