| Food Chain No. 13 - November 1994 |
Mention the word biotechnology and shining stainless steel towers, test tubes and men in white coats might easily spring to mind. But why should it? Smoky dark kitchens, clay pots and women carrying children are also appropriate signposts of biotechnology in action These rural biotechnologists may not make ethanol from straw or manufacture antibiotics but they do something much more fundamental. Using basic foodstuffs that are perishable, unpalatable and less nutritious, they create foods that are more stable, more palatable, more nutritious and more exciting to eat.
Many of the traditional food processing activities, which belong to the undervalued body of indigenous knowledge handed down from parent to child, can be classified as biotechnologies The products of these biotechnological practices have been adapted over the generations, some products and practices no doubt fell by the wayside. Those that remain today have not only survived the test of time but are also, more importantly, appropriate to the technical, social and economic conditions of the region. The conversion of food using biotechnology imparts many benefits. In many cases the foods are preserved because the micro-organisms involved in the process produce acids. High acidity retards growth of potentially harmful food poisoning organisms. Foods often become m nutritious because the conversion process improves the digestibility and increases vitamin content. Furthermore toxic or a digestive components may be destroyed well known example being bitter cassava After fermentation the texture and appear ance can be improved and often a meat-] flavour develops. Finally, the methods used are inexpensive, the techniques are simple and well-understood and the products acceptable.
The range of food products that are available as a result of a biotechnological process incredibly diverse. All regions of the world produce traditional foods us biotechnology and nearly every basic food-stuff can be processed using traditional biotechnology. Fermented foods such beer, cheese, bread and wine have become industrialized, although their traditional counterparts are still processed in many parts of the world. There are, however, m. more fermented foods that have remained the small-scale industrial or domestic scale and just a few are touched upon in this issue.