“Let the wisdom of the desert guide us on our journey to newly find ‘old’ ways of feeding ourselves that heal rather than harm the very earth that nourishes us.” - Dr. Gary Nabhan
On a January evening, nearly 300 people crowded into the historic Rio Grande Theater in Las Cruces, New Mexico. The masses gathered for one of New Mexico State University’s Climate Change Education Series. First on the line-up this year: Dr. Gary Nabhan. Esteemed ethnobotanist, science communicator, and thought leader, Nabhan shared his visions for redesigning desert food systems to accommodate a changing climate.
Nabhan traveled from just a desert over. In Patagonia, Arizona, he serves as the Kellogg Endowed Chair in Southwestern Borderlands Food and Water Security, through the Southwest Center at the University of Arizona. Nabhan spans boundaries as a scientist, immersing himself in local communities, activism, and writing. Nabhan founded the Center for Regional Food Studies and co-founded Native Seeds/ SEARCH. His research and advocacy catalyzed the designation of the Iron Forest National Monument as well as Tucson as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy - the first of its kind in the US. Authoring thirty books, Nabhan details in whimsical script the unassuming kindness of the Mesquite tree, the uniting power of healthy foods, and how our ancestry interacts with what we eat.
Nabhan’s rich experience leverages a deep understanding of desert food systems, human health, and fortifying communities against adverse climate impacts. In his seminar, he detailed how desert plants are experts in rough and arid climates, and thus valuable players as desert lands become hotter and drier. Many of these players are succulents - our juicy-leaved, sometimes spikey, plants. As CAM (Crassulacean acid metabolism) photosynthesizers, succulents operate at night to collect their carbon dioxide, reducing the amount of water they lose to the air. Prickly pear cactus, organ pipe cactus, and agave, as crops, would require fewer resources, like water and fertilizers, to thrive.
By reorienting our desert food systems around these native crops, we not only secure food variety and abundance but also increase availability to disease-controlling foods. This facet is important as food scarcity and rising food prices resulting from climate change exacerbate health conditions like obesity, diabetes, and hunger. Moreover, crops like prickly pear cactus offer potential anticancer benefits.
Nabhan’s vision is not just a movement of agricultural reimagining, but of social justice. His food system design would generate environmentally-friendly jobs for local communities. Many of these communities are rural, lack access to affordable, healthy food, and are burdened with employment inequality. Connecting local people with their land, empowering them to grow and cook healthy food, will lead to self-sufficient communities. Many nonprofit organizations are already hard at work generating fair and sustainable food systems, such as La Semilla Food Center serving New Mexico and Texas, which offer opportunities to get involved.