In between the roasted watermelon seeds, the sprouting galangal and a batch of rungia, a leafy green from Papua New Guinea, you can often find humble plant-enthusiast Bruce French.
French has dedicated the best part of his life — an over-50-year career — to identifying edible plants in almost every country in the world.
In that time, the agricultural scientist has created a database of over 31,000 plants, with information on their origin, growing methods, cooking methods and even drawings of the plants.
This includes more than 500 types of seaweed, 320+ edible ferns, and over 250 edible bamboo species.
And it all started while teaching agriculture in Papua New Guinea, when students wanted to hear about native plants instead of western produce.
“I knew nothing about those, so I had to learn them,” French told ABC Australia. “And I just kept going. What about the next country, and the next country?”
Bruce French with plants. Photo on Food Plants Solutions.
Bruce French and edible plants
What began as an academic exercise soon became a lifelong passion, shared with his wife, Deborah. The detailed information about the plants included a focus on five nutrients that are often missing in people’s diets: zinc, Vitamins A and C, protein and iron.
The couple quickly realised that this information would be like gold dust in malnourished communities around the world. Approximately 5 children under the age of 5 die from malnutrition every day, and a lack of proper early years nutrition can have a devastating effect on a child’s development — causing intellectual disabilities and blindness in extreme cases.
So the Frenchs used their database as the foundation for a project which could spread information about nutrient-rich plants that were easy to grow and maintain in communities in need.
It now partners with aid programmes in countries including Angola, North Korea, Ecuador, Nigeria, China, and Tasmania, spread across four continents. The plant database is translated into local languages and accompanying information is distributed via CD.
“Our ability to provide sustainable solutions that empower local people to make informed choices about what plants to grow and eat, that will nutritiously feed their family, is due to Bruce,” the food plants solutions website reads.
And for Bruce, the plant database continues to be an incredibly fulfilling project.
“The feedback I get, the anecdotal evidence, is how I know it’s a success,” he told Weekly Times. “I was in Indonesia last year and a little girl came up to me and said she’d based her school project on my work. Things like that.”
He’s also very clear about the values behind the project. “Commercial organisations try to make money and say, ‘keep going down the same road … using chemicals and monoculture crops’,” he added to Weekly Times.
“Non-commercial organisations say, ‘no, we have to go in a different direction, holistic, integrated, sustainable food production’.”
He continued: “It’s these individuals and groups who are fired up and passionate and love the planet and plants who make me feel very optimistic about the future of the world.”