There is a phenomena that highlights the immense work still left to be done to eradicate hunger, food poverty and the disparity between those who are worse off on our planet and everyone else. It’s name is geophagia, which is a slightly biological sounding term for something that most of us cannot comprehend too easily: it refers to the practice of eating earth, soil, or clay based substances. And while this is common in animals such as birds, some of whom need soil for various bodily processes and the formation of eggs, in humans the practice is less common.
There is a distinctly distressing quality to the idea of eating inorganic matter such as mud for most people, but it is in fact a practice that is has been universal across the world in primal societies and can be detected all the way back to ancient Greeks. “Certain foods they ate were actually toxic, but by eating clay, the clay absorbs the toxins from the food, so it didn’t cause them any harm,” says Barry Smith, a chemist at the British Geological Survey and one of the world’s few geophagia experts. But by and large, where geophagia is still practiced today, such as in parts of Africa and Haiti, it should be discouraged, and indeed actively considered a dire turn of events for any human, even if it can be shown to be a source of iron and magnesium, it is very bad for the stomach and intestines, and can remove nutrients and lead to malnourishment.
The practice has made the news most in the last decade in Haiti, the improvished and earthquake prone island nation in the Caribbean. Here the practice of making mud pancakes has been widely reported as a desperate measure taken by some of the world’s poorest people. It seems women receive mud and soil from the centre of the island, which is then mixed into a ‘batter’ with water, some salt, occasionally butter and salt, which is then mixed and spread into what is known as bonbons par terre or just simply terre locally and left out in the sun to dry. The resulting biscuits are grim, and offer no nutritional nourishment, but they staves off hunger and even has an economic function for those involved in its production.
One thing to consider is that while culinary relativists in Germany and Europe may dissuade us from being appalled at the practice in parts of Africa or Haiti, it is worth nothing that even if we wanted to, eating the nearest available soil to us might lead to complications due to the toxins laying in wait. Our land has been contaminated by industrial pollution for almost two hundred years and more often than not will contain low levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, uranium and nickel while more polluted soils can contain toxic organics including PCBs and dioxins – none of which would lead to a very satisfactory meal.