“Just Close Your Eyes and Chew!”: Spirulina, Modernization, and the “Lost” Crops of the Past

On February 20, 2017, the young nation of South Sudan declared that it was suffering famine in several regions of the country.1 It was the first of several nations, including Yemen, Nigeria, and Somalia, that have begun to suffer severe food scarcity this year, resulting in what is arguably the largest humanitarian crisis in decades. Unfortunately, the story of famine in these regions is nothing new, and humanitarian aid has a long history of addressing famine around the world in the twentieth century. Beginning in the 1960s and 70s, for instance, scientists began to “rediscover” native plants and animals as part of a push to modernize underdeveloped nations and provide food sources for impoverished nations during times of famine. 2 Looking back at the history of these attempts and the contemporary fruits of the research surrounding them is topical, especially considering the increasingly disastrous famines that are now brewing in North Africa and the Middle East.

Much of the research into new methods of agricultural production in the 1960s to the present day has been undertaken by government agencies. The Board on Science and Technology for International Development (BOSTID) was a USAID affiliated agency created for just these efforts. Formed in 1969, at the height of the Green Revolution, BOSTID was intended to pursue the cutting edge of modernization efforts with Third World nations, and throughout its nearly thirty-year span of existence, BOSTID was responsible for conducting a wide variety of research projects on development around the world. One of their most frequent lines of study was the resurrection of these “lost” crops, of which there were quite a few.3

Take, for example, spirulina. It might be recognizable nowadays as that “thing” you saw at a health food store, as a strangely named ingredient on the back of popular vegetable smoothies, or one of those odd vitamin supplements that doctors recommend at annual physicals.4 But spirulina has a long, tangled history that belies its modern, health conscious appearance — so what, exactly, is it?

Spirulina is a microalgae, a tiny, one-celled organism. The first recorded evidence of humanity using spirulina was during the Aztec Empire. Spanish conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo recounts that during the Spanish siege of Tenochtitlán, Hernan Cortés’ men noted that the natives were collecting “a sort of ooze” from the nearby Lake Texcoco, one that they then dried and consumed. Castillo himself tried it and wrote that it, peculiarly, had the “flavor of cheese.”5

Picture of green spirulina plant under water
Spirulina. (Tovi/Flickr)

The natives reportedly dried and sold the “ooze” as a staple food, in the Tenochtitlán market. Castillo’s account is reinforced by several others. Franciscan friars exploring the region and acting as pseudo-naturalists wrote about the dried “slime,” which the locals called tecuitlatl (the “excrement of stones”), and detailed its sale and consumption around the area.6 Cortés himself mentions the gathering and drying methods of the tecuitlatl and said that the cheesy-flavored substance, which was neither “plant nor earth, but a sort of mud,” was apparently rather delicious.7

Several hundred years later, and around the world, tecuitlatl was discovered again by enterprising scientists. In 1940 and then 1966, French botanists reported on dihe, a strange, blue-green bread-like substance that was harvested and consumed by locals near Lake Chad.8 It was spirulina. From 1966 onward, research efforts into spirulina took off, resulting in an increasing popularity that peaked in the 1980s as it became a health food fad. Newspaper articles implored people to “Just Close Your Eyes and Chew” the nutrient-rich algae.9

Yet spirulina was not alone. There were a multitude of similarly “rediscovered” foods that have become popularized in modern culture, and many superfoods, crops or food breakthroughs that seemed to herald a new age of plenty for the increasingly hungry world.10 Many of the popular health foods of the present day have their roots in the research of groups like BOSTID. Amaranth, for example, was “rediscovered” and promoted by BOSTID, and eventually, the wider agricultural community. The winged bean, another BOSTID find, quickly became a popular crop in over seventy countries worldwide. Spirulina, too, was a BOSTID investigated crop.11

Boiled winged bean roots served as a snack in Burma. (Wagaung/Wikimedia Commons)

The efforts of BOSTID and other such groups have resulted in a surge of new crops over the past forty years, which were then combined with new harvesting and planting methods, pesticides, and genetic modifications to produce even more bountiful crop yields. These efforts have continued to be promoted by individual national-level governments, but the international community at large has increasingly become involved, which is an important step forward for the viability of these new crops in the long term.

The United Nations, as an example, has an affiliated intergovernmental observer group named the Intergovernmental Institution for the use of Micro-algae Spirulina Against Malnutrition (IIMSAM), which is part of the broader Food and Agriculture Organizations (FAO) of the U.N., and it explicitly researches and promotes spirulina production efforts in developing countries.12 The efforts on the part of groups like IIMSAM help form an important vanguard in the fight against global hunger and malnutrition.

Indeed, going forward, the tasks of NGOs and governments alike are aligning together against the increasingly tenuous nature of food safety around the world. The shock that people around the globe have expressed toward the famine situations in North Africa and the Middle East demonstrate not only the complacent nature that the wider world has taken toward food scarcity, but also the ability of the international community to tackle such problems. Increasingly, the nations that have historically been chronic sufferers of food scarcity have begun to take proactive and more effective measures against it.13 The efforts of groups like IIMSAM, and the “rediscovered” crops that they promote, are a key part of this movement.

Notes

  1. United Nations News Service, “Famine Declared in Region of South Sudan,” UN News Centre, February 20, 2017. Return to text.
  2. See Geneviève Clément, “An Alga of High Protein Content.” Science, Progres, Decouverte 3423 (1970): 39-46; Clement, “Une Nouvelle Algue Alimentaire-la Spirulina,” Revue De L’Institut Pasteur De Lyon 4, no. 2 (1970): 103-14; Clement, and H. VanLandeghem, “Spirulina: ein gunstiges Objekt fur die Massenkultur von Mikroalgen,” Berichte der Deutschen Botanischen Gesellschaft 83, no. 11 (1970): 559-65. Return to text.
  3. Board on Science and Technology for International Development, Commission on International Relations, “Underexploited Tropical Plants with Promising Economic Value: Report of an Ad Hoc Panel of the Advisory Committee on Technology Innovation,” National Research Council (U.S.), Panel on Underexploited Tropical Plants with Promising Economic Value (National Academies, 1975); see BOSTID’s other publications, such as “Making Aquatic Weeds Useful: Some Perspectives for Developing Countries”; and “Tropical Legumes: Resources for the Future.” Return to text.
  4. Spirulina is an ingredient in products such as the well known Naked brand’s “Green Machine” smoothie. Return to text.
  5. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, Memoirs, of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo written by himself containing a true and full account of the discovery and conquest of Mexico and New Spain (1844), 237. Return to text.
  6. Several Spanish friars and naturalists mention tecuitlatl, or things that may have been tecuitlatl, in their writings. See Toribio de Motolinia, Memoriales, Documentos Historicos de Mejico (Mexico, 1877), 327; Bernardino de Sahagun, Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva Espana, Lord Kingsboroguh Antiquities of Mexico (London, 1831), 351; and A.J. Barreiros, Los trabajos ineditos del Dr. F. Hernandez sobre la gea y la faunta mejicanos (Madrid, 1929). A more detailed, but still concise, summary of the Spanish findings on tecuitlatl can be found in W.V. Farrar, “Tecuitlatl: A Glimpse of Aztec Food Technology,” Nature, no. 5047, (July 23, 1966), 341. See also Sánchez, M., Castillo, B.J., Rozo, C. & Rodríguez, I. (2003); “Spirulina (Arthrospira): An Edible Microorganism. A Review,” Universitas Scientiarum, 8, no.1, 1. Return to text.
  7. Franciso Lopez de Gomara, Conquista de Mejico, 848. See also Don Fernando Cortés, Carta Segunda, Biblioteca deautores espanoles, (Madrid, 1877), 22. Return to text.
  8. J. Leonard, “The 1964-65 Belgian Trans-Saharan Expedition,” Nature 209, (1966), 126-128; W.V. Farrar, “Tecuitlatl: A Glimpse of Aztec Food Technology,” Nature, no. 5047 (July 23, 1966), 341. For a longer history of spirulina’s rise to popularity, see “Asian Pacific Phycology in the 21st Century: Prospects and Challenges: Proceeding of The Second Asian Pacific Phycological Forum,” held in Hong Kong, China, June 21–25 1999, 39; and Centre du Formation Personelle (CFPPA)-HYERES, Spirulina Training Program Proposals: “Spirulina for Reducing Malnutrition: As Food for Emergency, Food Shortages, Humanitarian Urgencies,” Spirulina World Program, CFPPA. Return to text.
  9. Eric Perlman, “Just Close Your Eyes and Chew,” San Francisco Examiner, 1977. Return to text.
  10. Jane E. Brody, “Ancient, Forgotten Plant Now ‘Grain of the Future,” New York Times, October 16, 1984. Return to text.
  11. See BOSTID’s publications, such as “Making Aquatic Weeds Useful: Some Perspectives for Developing Countries”; and “Tropical Legumes: Resources for the Future.” The National Academies of Science provides a running list of digitized BOSTID reports. Return to text.
  12. See IIMSAM for more information, including a updating list of countries that IIMSAM is active in. Return to text.
  13. A good example of this is Ethiopia, which, despite being one of the most infamous famine sufferers, has taken substantive steps toward curtailing food scarcity. Return to text.

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