Last year at the New York Produce Show and Conference, we invited students and professors from the University of Pollenzo, in Italy, to join our student exchange program. Their input was fascinating and of course, we’ve invited them back for a second bite.
This time around, Andrea Pieroni will address our audience with a presentation on “Ethnobotany: new perspectives for neglected vegetables and fruits?”â€¨â€¨
Andrea Pieroni is an associate professor of food botany, ethnobotany and Ethnobiology at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo. Heis also the academic co-ordinator of the international post-graduate Master´s program in Pollenzo. Trained in Medical Botany (Pharmacognosy) at the University of Pisa (Italy), University of Antwerp (Belgium), and at the University of Bonn (Germany), he has been Research Assistant at the University of London since 2000, and was appointed as Lecturer (and, later as Senior Lecturer) at the University of Bradford in northern England in 2003, where he remained until 2009.
Andrea has been the President of the International Society of Ethnobiology (2010) and he is since 2005 the Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine and a member of the boards of several international ethnoscientific associations and peer-reviewed publications.
To find out more and give you a preview of what you’ll hear in New York next week, I asked Andrea a few questions.
Q: Can you explain a little more about what lies behind the science of ethnobotany and its history?
A: Ethnobotany is a trans-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary science, which focuses on the links between plants and human societies. The basic idea is that we need to know more about plants and their links with human cultures.
So, our research studies how all forms of plants are used, perceived and managed by humans, in order to build an understanding of how humans have interacted with plants traditionally and how it has evolved and is evolving.
Although the term was first used by an American scientist in 1896, in order to define the study of plant uses by Aboriginal people, the discipline only really began to become popular in the 1970s in the USA – mainly due to the study of anthropological linguistics at Berkeley. It wasn’t until the 1980s that interest in ethnobotany really took hold in Europe.
It is a relatively new science therefore and that interest grew because there was a realization of the need to match plants with societal needs and how important niche and neglected products could be to achieving that. Ethnobotany came in on the same wave as Slow Food, as people were beginning to explore ‘new’ tastes and sensory experiences and recognized that an understanding of the local traditions of the past would help them to do that.
Q: What are the main methodologies that you use?
A: One of the key methods to our research is interviewing elderly humans around the world, who have a natural link back to the time when a lot of what we now see as traditional knowledge was still the base of how humans linked with the plants, nature and the environment. Much of that knowledge has been transmitted orally over the generations, but even though it is traditional, it is not static. It’s dynamic, because what’s traditional has changed and the older people in society have first-hand memory of how it used to be.
In Italy, for example, Jerusalem artichokes were one of the core ingredients of the diet in the North West for many years, but now they are consumed on a very regional basis. Younger people have significantly different eating habits now than even 40 years ago, so our research is not all about the distant past. It’s also about understanding how our attitudes to plants has changed in the recent past.
Q: You’re mapping the evolution of plant use by humans then. How do you feel a greater understanding of this process will benefit society?
A: To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, tradition is a successful innovation, i.e. what has been accepted and adopted by the community, and I don’t think we can assume that what has happened in the past is better or worse than it is now. What we try to do is to find out why things have changed, In order to build a picture of the dynamic and why, for instance, people have a different relationship with plants today than they did 50 years ago.
Plants have been central to communities for centuries; they have been part of their history and given them a sense of identity.
In the last few years, ethnobotany has been instrumental in bringing plants that have been widely used by indigenous peoples in the Amazon into the world of phytotherapy or into food niches and the nutraceutical market (e.g açaí berries). We don’t expect to find the solution that will enable humans to live for 150 years, but some of these plants play a very important part in local economies and we’ve linked them successfully to studies by nutritionists and pharmacologists and have a great influence on societies around the world for many years to come.
Q: In New York, you’ll be talking to a largely commercial fruit and vegetable industry crowd – what can your research uncover for them?
A: What we may be able to discover is how to bring some of the plants that have been neglected back and to link people with nature again in a culturally sensible way, through ‘new’ tastes or ingredients. We can also provide a great deal of insight into the manipulation and transition of food uses. Understanding the ways different cultures view plants and how this influences what they eat and how can be very interesting commercially.
The Mediterranean diet has been studied from many angles and perspectives over the last few decades, but some of the plants that were integral until the 1970s to that diet have now been neglected and forgotten my the majority of people. In areas of southern Italy, Crete and Turkey, there are still communities who routinely harvest the same wild vegetables and plants, but for some reason, these plants have never made it into the consumer marketplace. We know very little about the potential economic relevance about these plants and we’d like to know more.