Agricultural biodiversity - the varieties of plants, animals and microorganisms used to benefit people - is critical for improving the nutrition and health of the urban and rural poor. The lack of micronutrients, including certain vitamins, minerals and other components needed for a healthy diet, is a pervasive and growing threat throughout the world. One result of this 'hidden hunger' has been a spectacular rise in obesity, heart disease, type II diabetes and various cancers, especially in developing countries, where many people have adopted an oversimplified diet based on the cheapest refined carbohydrates and fats. So-called neglected or underused crops are often an important source of nutrition as well as being adapted to the marginal environments in which they grow. And yet, a lack of scientific research and development has limited the appreciation of their benefits. Over time, local communities have tended to replace these plants with more prestigious introduced crops that are often less nutritious and less suited to local climate and soils. For example, communities in the high Andean mountains of South America have traditionally consumed several types of Andean grains. The most popular include quinoa, cañihua, amaranth and chocho (also known as tarwi). Like most traditional species, Andean grains are extremely nutritious and hardier than many commercial crops. They are rich in protein and essential amino acids. The leaves contain high levels of protein and iron, which is easily absorbed thanks to the high level of vitamin C that is also present. Andean grains are also easily digested, making them particularly suitable for babies, children and elderly people. Nevertheless, these grains have suffered a decline in status, especially in urban areas, where they have been replaced with cheaper, less nutritious foods such as pasta and rice. Like Andean grains, the minor millets of South Asia are very nutritious and well suited to marginal lands. Yet they too suffer from low status, which makes it difficult to sell them to modern consumers.African leafy vegetables have suffered the same decline in status as these and other traditional crops. About 900 species of leafy vegetables grow in sub-Saharan Africa. These plants were once a key part of people's diets and culture. Women grew the vegetables in their gardens, providing yearround supplies of nutritious foods to supplement the family diet. Then foreign crops such as cabbage and carrots were introduced. Because of their exotic origins, these new crops acquired a special status and came to symbolize modernity. Communities gradually stopped growing traditional leafy vegetables in their gardens, and began to grow the lucrative - though less nutritious - 'modern' crops instead.
This booklet describes how reintroducing traditional leafy vegetables had an impact on the lives of people in a community near Nairobi, Kenya, thanks largely to the inspiration of one farmer.