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Geographic data can tell a detailed story across space and time about almost any human undertaking—including the production and distribution of vegetables. In Bangkok, 18 geography students from the University of Freiburg, Germany are joining Thai students from Kasesart University to conduct a number of surveys for the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ)-funded project “Understanding urban and peri-urban vegetable production and marketing systems through GIS-based Community Food Mapping in Greater Bangkok, Thailand (vegGIS)”. On 26 March 2013, the group presented an outline of the planned survey activities to Pariyanuj Chulaka and Supot Kasem, both professors at the Department of Horticulture, Kasetsart University;  Robert Holmer, East and Southeast Asia Regional Director, and Ariya Watthanakarnkitikun, Assistant to the Regional Director. The University of Freiburg students were accompanied by Rüdiger Glaser, Head of the Physical Geography Department, Axel Drescher, leader of the Development Geography working group, and Dirk Riemann, research fellow.

The students have formed four survey groups to gather data from stakeholders, including commercial vegetable farmers, home and community gardeners, vegetable consumers (which includes street food vendors and retail stores), and vegetable markets.  The survey data, which will be geo-referenced, will contribute to the project’s objective of “making vegetables more visible”—ensuring that regional and urban planners, city administrators, policy makers, researchers and communities understand the contribution of urban and peri-urban vegetable production and marketing systems to food and nutrition security in Bangkok.

The project intends to identify barriers preventing families in selected vulnerable communities to achieve a healthy, nutritious diet; to identify geographical areas or communities having the greatest needs in terms of access to food (“food deserts”); and to create a database for planning authorities, researchers, and the general public. Comprehensive community food maps of project sites and an interactive platform for data exchange will help users obtain a clearer picture of local perspectives and views.

People in Thailand consume many indigenous vegetables the German students may not recognize.  To be sure the students won’t mistake rice paddy herb (Limnophila aromatica) for sacred basil (Ocimum sancium) during the survey, Yingyong Paisooksantivatana, professor emeritus of the Department of Horticulture, Kasetsart University, gave an overview of the different local vegetable species of Thailand, their habits, habitat, and impact on food and nutrition security. The students were particularly intrigued by Spilanthes acmella, also called “toothache plant,” and Parkia speciosa, notoriously called “stink bean.” He encouraged them to taste different indigenous vegetables during their stay in Thailand, and noted that chili, found in most Thai dishes, is not indigenous to Thailand but was introduced from South America.

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vegGIS at the University of Freiburg