Evidence suggests that a diet high in fruits and vegetables may decrease the risk of some serious illnesses such as cardiovascular disease and cancer, and that phytochemicals including phenolics, flavonoids and carotenoids from fruit and vegetables may play a key role in reducing chronic disease risk.

A major challenge engaging the world’s scientists today is responding to the threat of cancer. In developed countries the incidence of cancer is steadily increasing despite considerable investment in medical research. With developing nations that have not yet taken on the lifestyle characteristics that trigger this increased incidence, a lack of resources for effectively diagnosing and treating even the most curable cancers means that as many people die from the disease.

New Zealand sits between these extremes: while a range of diagnostic and treatment options are available to all citizens, resources are often insufficient to fund medications or medical treatments. Responding to cancer by seeking ways to destroy the disease once it is established in the body – a strategy that can be described as “parking an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff” – is becoming an increasingly difficult economic proposition for middle- and lower-income patients. At the same time, years of commercial manipulation of traditionally health-enhancing crops has reduced or eliminated naturally-occurring medicinal compounds from people’s diets.

Despite the recognition that certain lifestyle factors, including dietary, cause cancer, there is little funding for research and supporting changes in lifestyle that are needed to avoid it. If the energy mobilised to prevent lung cancer caused by cigarette smoking was also directed at improving people’s diets, they may well experience a substantial reduction in cancer without the exorbitant cost of treatment. But it is difficult to fund even basic research on this issue in the current environment, let alone to realign the food production industry and advertising framework that fosters people’s damaging lifestyles.

The Heritage Food Crops Research Trust has a commitment to researching foods with cancer-inhibiting compounds and trying to find those that will have the greatest effect. Ideally, the outcome is to prevent hereditary cancer cells from initiating a disease process or alternatively inhibiting their rate of spread. If the rate that cancer cells proliferate in the body can be reduced, they may not affect the quality of life or have an impact on lifespan.

The Trust believes that it is important to start with an understanding of the disease that you wish to prevent or treat. Research suggests that cancer is a genetically-based disease, largely activated by environmental factors. The genetic nature of the disease means that many people will have a hereditary predisposition for cancer, which in the absence of modern environmental factors would remain dormant, as it did pre-1850, as evidenced by examination of human remains from bone crypts in the UK and Europe. However environmental stimuli may trigger rampant growth of cancerous growths. These observations have led the Trust to explore potential preventative strategies using natural foods.

Each country in the world has its own special plants or trees with medicinal properties that have been able to keep its people well for thousands of years. Fortunately dedicated seed saving organisations and enthusiasts have kept heirloom varieties alive and now science has the capability to identify those that have features that can be beneficial for human health. The Trust is dedicated to actively supporting this process.

1 The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), World Health Organization, Press Release No. 223, 12 December 2013 https://www.iarc.fr/en/media-centre/pr/2013/pdfs/pr223_E.pdf