Horticulture and the quality of life

Interaction between horticulture and society is mutually beneficial, says Geoff Dixon, reporting on last summer's international congress.

The people-plant-place concept puts plants at centre of human quality of life - image: Geoff Dixon
The people-plant-place concept puts plants at centre of human quality of life - image: Geoff Dixon

Plants for People & Places - the title of a special session of this year's International Horticulture Congress - is shorthand for horticulture in all its glorious diversity. The phrase also conveys its power to drive financial, environmental and social sustainability. Since horticulture is an ever-evolving discipline, we have arguably reached the stage where social sustainability is an adequately all-embracing objective.

Millennium goals

The congress, held in Lisbon, Portugal, this summer (23-27 August), was opened by Jorge Sampaio, previously the president of the Republic of Portugal (1996-2006) and currently UN high representative for the alliance of civilisations. Sampaio emphasised horticulture's combined roles as an economic engine and power for social good. He linked, in particular, horticulture's global activity with the achievement of the UN's millennium goals.

"Horticulture is well placed for aiding the reduction and ultimate elimination of poverty and malnutrition," said Sampaio. He delivered a robust appreciation of the roles of fruit, vegetables and ornamentals in promoting health and welfare worldwide.

"Sampaio's plaudits chimed well with the congress's emphasis of horticulture for people," said Antonio Monteiro, congress president. "In support of this concept we developed a special session targeting the concept of Plants for People & Places," he explained.

The Eden Project

Tim Smit, mastermind of Cornwall's Eden Project, drew a packed audience of more than 500 delegates. He described how the rundown Heligan Estate had been returned its Victorian glory as a horticultural masterpiece. Disregarding established gardening mantras and demanding instant progress characterised Smit's approach.

Heligan started its new life as a major new visitor attraction in the South West. This ignited Smit's passions for horticulture as a vehicle for encouraging public interest in plants and led to the far more ambitious Eden Project. A disused china clay pit was filled with greenhouses of icosahedron design and plants grown in soil created by Eden staff. These biomes became home to tropical, Mediterranean, arid zone and temperate environments.

Eden attracts more than a million visitors a year and the start-up costs exceeded £100m. Annually, Eden attracts more than £200m worth of tourist spending into the economy of the South West. The combination of plants and people is hugely beneficial to the economy of a deprived post-industrial region that rates as an EU Area 1.

Poverty and malnutrition

Dr Thomas Lumpkin is currently director-general of the International Maize & Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) in Mexico, one of several tropical research and development centres supported by international aid payments channelled through the UN.

Previously, Lumpkin directed the Asian Vegetable Research & Development Centre in Taiwan (AVRDC). Each centre provides research and consultancy services across the developing world for a specific crop or group of crops.

They have eminent reputations for delivering relevant and useable results of direct application for subsistence growers. The CIMMYT was the centre from which Norman Borlaug developed dwarf wheat cultivars in the 1950s, which set India on its road to economic development.

Lumpkin identified the continuing challenges inhibiting the supply of sufficient nutritious food. Obstacles include soil erosion, degradation and desertification, population growth and increased expectations for a protein-based diet. Climate change exacerbates each challenge because its adverse effects are becoming rapidly evident in tropical zones. Lack of water is the biggest and most immediate challenge.

The World Horticulture Initiative, in which Lumpkin is a key player, seeks solutions to some of these challenges. Horticulture is now a central feature in collaboration between the UN Food & Agriculture Organisation, International Society for Horticultural Science and the Government of France. Through this Initiative, with its headquarters in Tanzania, horticulture is responding to Sampaio's demands.

The effect of diets deficient in fruit and vegetables was described by Dr Chadha from Hyderabad, India. Unbalanced diets kill many millions of people each year. The lack of micronutrients leads to chronic and debilitating illness. Undernourishment, inadequate intake of protein and carbohydrate and deficiencies of iodine, vitamin A and iron are key factors in the morbidity and mortality of children and adults throughout India.

Per-capita consumption of vegetables is 174g a day - well below the recommended level of 300g a day. Seeking means of improving diets, the AVRDC provides home-garden packs for inhabitants of deprived areas in India. These aim at supplying year-round vegetables for families. Model demonstration gardens show how these packs will yield sufficient carotene and vitamin C for a family of four.

Human psychology

Plants are essential for human physical and mental health and psychological welfare. "There is increasing evidence that plants and especially trees are hugely beneficial to human psychological well-being and welfare," stated Virginnia Lohr of Washington State University, USA. Well planted environments reduce mental stress, improve productivity and increase creativity. These benefits parallel those of improved physical health resulting from eating fruit and vegetables.

Lohr suggested that some aspects of human appreciation of plants may be genetically inherited. Appreciation of particular colours might be built into human genetic ancestry. Selection pressure for finding and eating young nutritious shoots and leaves could make their colours psychologically appealing.

Asian scientists are showing great interest in this topic. Volunteers exposed to green or purple had lower anger, fatigue and anxiety ratings, argued Dr Li from Beijing University. They showed greater vitality, more positive attitudes and self confidence compared with volunteers exposed to red, yellow and white plant-scapes. Similarly, Dr Lee from Taiwan argued that green internal and outdoor landscaping improves the psychological well-being of people in hospitals, prisons and other confined spaces

Allotment gardening

The combined physical, mental and social benefits gained from cultivating and eating fruit and vegetables were identified by S Gu of Jefferson City, Missouri, USA. Cores of urban inner-city areas are afflicted by violence, vandalism and drug abuse with people having low purchasing power and little personal esteem. "Local grocery stores shut down and as a result these areas become food deserts," he asserted.

Missouri's Innovative Small Farmers' Outreach Program (ISFOP) addresses some of these problems. It aims at increasing interest in urban gardening. This in turn increases fresh fruit and vegetable supplies and improves the health and mental attitudes of participants.

ISFOP staff provide help with husbandry methods, encouraging residents to start gardening. As a result, nutritious fruit and vegetable are available for home consumption and sale, adding to family incomes. Participants enjoy working their plots, gain satisfaction and pleasure from eating their produce and from providing family benefits. Interacting with others in their communities leads to a more sustainable society.

"For senior citizens, allotment vegetable gardening offers psychological and physical benefits by way of exercise, building human relationships and reducing loneliness," emphasised Dr Ochoa from Spain. Schemes aiming at increasing allotment gardening in this age group have proved immensely successful. Participants took over their schemes within two seasons, even to the extent of developing Gardener of the Year competitions.

"Children's interest in plants and their place in the natural world are stimulated by using horticultural interventions," said Taina Laaksoharju from Helsinki University. Girls are initially more interested in plants than boys. They see themselves as independent from nature while girls think they are part of it. Somewhat unsurprisingly, urban children know less about plants than those from rural areas. A horticultural intervention was sowing seed and caring for the resultant plants.

Bringing it all together

"The people-plant-place concept puts plants firmly as the foundation of the quality of human life and lifestyle and the means of providing adequate nutritious food," said David Aldous from Melbourne University in Australia, summarising the colloquium's content.

Horticulture by its very nature is the intensive use of individual fruit, vegetables and ornamentals that offer physical health and well-being. But this goes much further in the manner by which mankind is bound to the plants in microand macro-landscapes.

The concept advances strong reasons for horticulturists, economists, ecologists, planners and social and health scientists working in unison. "This will achieve longer-term sustainable food production and improve biodiversity, behaviour, health and well-being for mankind," Aldous stated.

As populations become increasingly urban, it becomes imperative that they understand the requirements underpinning their fruit and vegetable and ornamental production. Involving urban dwellers in localised gardening achieves this and produces huge psychological and social benefits at the same time.

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