ArticlesAgricultural Research

Food Science in Developing Countries

Science  09 May 1975:
Vol. 188, Issue 4188, pp. 589-593
DOI: 10.1126/science.188.4188.589


It is particularly important for us not to lose sight of the fact that people have been around for a long time and that they achieved remarkable technical skills long before Western science was developed. An anonymous writer from the Food and Agriculture Organization has observed: "It is a commonplace that the fundamental discoveries which made civilization possible—fire- making, tool-making, agriculture, building, calculating, writing, money—were all apparently made outside the area which has given us the marvels of modern science" (19). The writer might well have added that it is also commonly overlooked that food technology was not suddenly developed in the 20th century but has been very much a part of the lives of people everywhere ever since they began doing more to their food than gathering it and eating it raw. Lamb's "Essay on Roast Pig" may not be an accurate account of the first conjunction of fire and food, but cooking is a rather ancient practice. Fermentation is another complicated processing technology which is a traditional part of most cultures, particularly those in warm climates—beer, yogurt, cheese, the fish pastes and sauces of Asia, the palm wine of Africa, and soy sauce, are butsome examples. Native Americans, besides accomplishing marvels in plant genetics and crop development, also developed water extraction methods for treating acorns to render the flour palatable and edible, and the alkali method of processing maize. Furthermore, they developed a cure for scurvy—by making a water extraction of pine needles which are rich in ascorbic acid—long before it was first reported by Jacques Cartier in the 16th century. Similarly, calcium-deficient diets of pregnant and nursing women were traditionally successfully supplemented by calcium-rich powdered deer antlers in northern China. Among the Chinese and Greeks, goiter was cured by eating certain kinds of seaweed centuries before the disease was traced to a lack of iodine, and Kenyans learned to suck salt-rich earth to avoid salt depletion symptoms after arduous exertion in tropical heat long before "modern science" learned why (20).

The enumeration of examples could go on, but this was not meant to be an essay in folklore. The point is that all so-called primitive societies developed technologies, techniques, and a store of practical knowledge of a wide range of sophistication, by what must be admitted to be the scientific method, and neither their accomplishments and skills nor those of societies "en voie de développement" should be ignored or discounted.

We are confident that modern food science and technology has much to contribute to helping the food-deficit nations eat adequately. First, we must find a way of using the best of Western technology without losing sight of the reality of the situation in the third world and without failing to take into account, better than we have done so far, the secondary and tertiary implications of the changes suggested. Second, we must encourage the examination of local problems in terms of the use and improvement of local technologies which are often quite sophisticated and the result of centuries of development. And third, we must inject a greater component of cultural awareness in the education of students to make them more creative in their application of scientific knowledge to local problems and more adaptable to the conditions that exist in developing countries. We should not lose sight of the fact that because of the precarious nature of their food supply, very often developing countries have much more rigid rules governing the production, preparation, and consumption of food than usually is the case in food-surplus societies, and disturbing these rules is a very serious matter. The time is past when "West is best" can be taken for granted; "adapt and adopt" is surely less offensively arrogant and much more to the point.