Devinder Sharma sends news of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of USA. One of the authors, Colin Khoury, a scientist from the Colombia-based Centre for Tropical Agriculture, told the BBC:
“Over the past 50 years, we are seeing that diets around the world are changing and they are becoming more similar — what we call the ‘globalised diet’.This diet is composed of big, major crops like wheat, rice, potato and sugar. It also includes crops that were not important 50 years ago but have become very important now, particularly oil crops like soybean.”
In a programme Crop diversity decline ‘threatens food security’, BBC environment reporter, Mark Kinver, cites the study and its finding that the decline in the crop diversity in the globalised diet has limited the ability to supplement the energy-dense part of the diet with nutrient rich foods such millets, rye, yams, sweet potatoes and cassava (left).
In his article, Devinder Sharma reminds us that India is a mega-diversity region with over 51,000 plant species existing, but with hardly a handful being cultivated:
“When Laxmi Pidikaka, a tribal woman from southern Odisha explained to me the importance and relevance of each of the 1,582 food species that were displayed at the recently concluded Adivasi Food Festival held at Munda village in Rayagada district, I was left not only amazed with the richness of food around us, but came back with a feeling that how uneducated I was when it came to mankind’s basic requirement of food. Of the 1,582 food species (and that included different kinds of fish, crabs and birds that are part of the daily diet of some tribals), as many as 972 were uncultivated. Yes, you heard it right. Uncultivated foods.
“A dozen tribes living in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra had gathered at the Adivasi Food Festival to celebrate their foods, which is basically an appreciation of the traditional food cultures linked to their age-old farming practices providing them nutritional security while protecting and conserving the nature’s bounty. Members from the Kondh, Koya, Didai, Santhal, Juanga, Baiga, Bhil, Pahari Korva, Paudi Bhuiyan and Birhor from more than 300 villages spread across the tribal heartland came to showcase their foods, and also spent the next day discussing how to protect the traditional farming system from the onslaught of the National Food Security Act that aimed at providing them with 5 kg of wheat, rice or millets.
“We don’t need your food security system,” Minati Tuika of Katlipadar village told me. “The more you open ration shops in our villages, the more you force us to abandon our own food security system built by our forefathers so painstakingly over the centuries. Please leave us alone.”
“But why was she so angry with what most policy makers and planners see as development? Don’t most educated elites think that tribals are uneducated and uncivilized, and therefore all out efforts must be made to bring them into the mainline?
“Don’t teach us what development is. We conserved and preserved our plants, our soil, our forests, and our rivers over the centuries. Now you want to take these away, and destroy them. And then you call it development.” Saying this, she hid her face. When I coaxed her to explain to me how the adivasis were living in tandem with the nature, and how the modern system was distancing them from their traditional cultures and the community control over resources, she agreed to first show me some plants that had multiple uses demonstrating the traditional skills of the community which preserved and used them without pushing them into the extinct category.
“She showed me the Siali beans. Quite a big sized dry bean whose seeds are eaten after boiling or roasting, the branches are used to make ropes, and the leaves are used to make leaf plates. Kusum Koli leaves are used for fodder, fruits are eaten raw, wood is used as firewood, and oil is extracted from the seeds. The seed oil serves as a mosquito repellent and also treats certain skin diseases. Even the better know Mahua trees have multiple uses. Leaves are used for fodder, flowers are used to make jaggery, liquor and porridge. Flowers are also consumed and often sold in the market, a kind of a curry is made from the fruits besides being used as fodder, and the seed provides cooking oil after extraction. All these are unfortunately classified as uncultivated plants in agricultural parlance, and therefore do not receive any attention.
“The Adivasi Food Festival at Munda clearly demonstrates that what India needs is not a centralized food security system but a multi-layered decentralized food security system based on the traditional practices in that particular region. Instead of providing the tribal populations with a monthly entitlement of 5 kg of wheat or rice or millets, the focus should be on strengthening the existing food system”.
For many years CHS has been collecting and recording information on India’s traditional practices and plants and their uses from fieldwork, documents, books and periodicals in order to preserve valuable traditional knowledge, particularly in India. Some of this information is readily available in Tending the Earth – a book by Winin Pereira. The Centre, now based in Nashik, has been sharing the information from its extensive database with individuals and institutions who are interested in using traditional practices. With the changes in the International Patent Laws, it is hoped that such documentation will help in IPR related issues and prevent patenting of raw materials and their ingredients which have been used for thousands of years.