This past summer (winter in the Southern Hemisphere), a multidisciplinary team of two professors and one Phd student from the UVM Food Systems Program traveled to the island of Madagascar to examine the potential systems consequences of a new demand for a wild-harvested endemic pepper (allegedly sparked by elite chefs from the Global North in search of new flavors). Very little is known about this wild pepper species, referred to locally as tsiperifery, which translates to ‘that which makes wounds non-existent’. Thus, while there is a local history of harvesting the wild pepper, the practice has not been systematic nor primarily for culinary purposes. In response to the new demand (both inside and outside the country), efforts are now underway to domesticate this wild resource. However, all of the tsiperifery pepper in domestic and global markets is still 100% collected from the wild. Even if tsiperifery is successfully domesticated, there is still concern that it could continue to be collected from the wild in an unsustainable manner, presenting a real-time conservation concern.
The team from UVM consisted of Maya Moore, a current PhD student who has worked on conservation and community development in Madagascar for over a decade, Dr. Amy Trubek, with a focus on research in the culinary profession and place-based foods, and Dr. Eric Bishop-von Wettberg, an expert in plant breeding, genebank management, crop domestication, and the sequencing of plant genomes. Together, the trio -- Amy, the chef, anthropologist and food scholar; Eric, the plant geneticist; and Maya, set out to engage with “real world” actors across the food system, from farmers to NGOs, spice exporters and plant scientists, all working together to domesticate the pepper. Their initial research questions centered around the demand created from a specialized group of food aficionados, and how we might consider the “improvement” of food crops and implications for farmer livelihoods.
The team traveled across the island, from forests to farms, in search of the pepper, a vine that grows in the forest understory all along the eastern rainforest corridor of Madagascar. While in the forest, they also got to spend time with Madagascar’s iconic lemurs and listen to the hauntingly beautiful howl of the Indri.
They traveled to south central Madagascar to visit with a farmers cooperative which had recently begun trials to grow tsiperifery in their established agroforestry systems, along with vanilla and other lucrative spices grown as cash crops. They visited their farm fields and also learned that the plant was used traditionally, not only as a medicinal plant as previously thought, but also as a food additive that was opportunistically collected when locals went into the forest in search of other things. They even had the opportunity to share in a meal of porridge made of cassava, white beans and just a hint of the aromatic tsiperifery.
Back in the capital city of Antananarivo, they met with researchers working at the National Plant Research Institute to better understand their research interests and to develop potential collaborations with US-based colleagues. As this is designed to be an ‘inquiry to action’ project, it is hoped that the research will be of assistance to local organizations, researchers and farmers during the early stages of their pepper domestication work.
This preliminary research trip also demonstrated the power of bringing together researchers from across disciplines to look together at a central problem and co-develop research questions along with partners in the field.Complicated questions emerged for everyone as the team considered the consequences of meeting such a demand - for farmers who struggle to meet basic subsistence needs, for conservationists seeking to preserve rainforest in collaboration with people seeking to nourish their families, for the complex history of resource extraction in a post-colonial environment.