According to a book, the severity of floods and storms in the past 30 years, has put the agriculture sector of many countries at the risk of growing food insecurity
Credit: Vikas Choudhary
Addressing climate change and food insecurity should go hand in hand
By Deepanwita Niyogi
The world is determined to end hunger by 2030 by sustainable food production and consumption. Currently, climate change threatens our very existence in the form of increased extreme weather events all over the world. When this is the scenario, how can we safeguard agriculture from the onslaught of frequent droughts and floods?
The severity of floods and storms has put the agriculture sector of many countries at the risk of growing food insecurity. Around 570 millions farms across the world are facing the threat of climate change at present.
“The effects of climate change on agricultural production and livelihoods are expected to intensify over time. Areas currently most affected are in tropical zones and those where we find high rates of hunger and poverty,” Rob Vos, director, agricultural development economics, Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), said.
Decline in crop quality
According to a book, Climate Change and Food Systems published last year, food production will be affected through changes in water availability.
Water-stressed regions such as north Africa, Middle East, western USA, northern China, parts of India and Australia are expected to face heightened food production constraints due to water scarcity.
Global warming will also lead to a reduction in the nutritional properties of major crops, the book says. Some studies have reported that without additional productivity improvements, climate change would reduce crop yields. A higher concentration of carbon dioxide lowers the amount of zinc, iron and protein and raises the starch and sugar content in wheat and rice.
The nutrition and health implications of this can be great. In India, where up to a third of the rural population is at risk of not meeting protein requirements, the higher protein deficit from non-legume food crops can have serious health consequences. Negative crop productivity impacts are likely to be expected in low latitude and tropical regions.
Food security compromised
We urgently need to increase food production to keep pace with the increasing global population that is expected to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. To feed the world, agriculture, along with forestry, fisheries and livestock, needs to become more resilient.
“Increasing crop productivity, if paired with direct forest protection measures, can increase both agricultural production and forest cover,” Jonah Busch, senior research fellow at the US-based non-profit Center for Global Development had said earlier.
Deforestation results in greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) from the agriculture sector. Crop production, combined with cultivation of trees as a form of sustainable farming, can help retain rain and groundwater and restore soil. This will also help diversify on-farm income and build resilience against landslides and wind.
According to Vos, addressing climate change and food insecurity will have to go hand in hand. The immediate priority is to enhance the resilience of poor and smallholder farmers so that they can adapt to the impacts of climate change.
“This can be done by making agriculture climate smart. The adoption of practices such as the use of nitrogen-efficient and heat-tolerant crop varieties, zero tillage and integrated soil fertility management would boost productivity and farmers’ incomes and help lower food prices,” the FAO expert said. Though climate-smart agriculture can go a long way to mitigate the effects of climate change, more is needed.
In most parts of the world, livestock production is another major source of GHG. Demand for meat has increased worldwide and many people now consume much more meat than they need.
“So, we should not only look at the supply side and the management of natural resources, but a lot can be achieved by influencing demand and limiting demand for such resource and emission-intensive types of food,” Vos said.
“Food is simply sunlight in a cold storage,” said John Harvey Kellogg, the famous American physician and nutritionist, who founded the Kellogg’s brand so popular today worldwide.
He was right: food is as essential as sunlight. A healthy lifestyle demands a healthy diet. But for some, climate change is complicating this relationship.
On the occasion of World Food Day, I want to offer a few thoughts on this theme regarding the changing agricultural system, traditional crops and the food habits of the people residing in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region.
The HKH region is widely spread over four million square kilometres and provides shelter to more than 40 per cent of the world’s poor. This region alone embodies 18 per cent of the world’s mountains and includes all of Nepal, Bhutan, the mountainous parts of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar, and Pakistan. Often referred to as the water tower of Asia, the HKH serves approximately 3 billion people who depend on the food and energy produced in its many river basins.
Agriculture remains the most important vocation for the people living in this region. Mountain farming in this region has been practised for millennia and still plays a significant role in agriculture and food security of South Asia.
However, like most of the world, HKH is vulnerable to the effects of climate change, particularly its agriculture. Research in HKH has noted a tremendous shift from traditional, environment-friendly, multi-cropping agricultural practices to a more concerted focus on market-oriented cash crops. People are increasingly being lured by the income potential of high value agriculture (HVA) commodities such as ginger, vegetable seeds, coffee, tea, mushroom and guava.
This shift comes with environmental implications. More often, cash crops are input-intensive. They are also susceptible to crop failure, seasonality and market laws; and therefore, constitute a risk for many poor farmers. Cash crops can lead to imbalances in local food systems and create uncertainty in terms of food and nutrition security. Beyond this, climate change increases the risk for those who move over to HVA crops.
However, it would also be incorrect to say that HVA should be completely avoided or not promoted. In many places, these products serve as an alternative livelihood option for people in the HKH region. Villages can improve their economic standing if successful in generating a strong high-value cash crop. However, the dangers of mono-cropping suggest that focusing on many crops is the safest route: diversity.
Here, I want to focus on the need to promote agro-diversity. A farmer can always play safe if he grows varieties; it spreads out his or her risks whereas a single crop failure in a mono-cropping system due to climatic changes or disease could be disastrous and create havoc in the area.
The point is not all kinds of flora are equally affected in such cases. Some may be vulnerable whereas others may be resistant to these kinds of impacts. That is why we need to acknowledge the importance of introducing varieties in our fields. While you may lose some crops, you will always have some others left in the field.
Traditionally, people in the HKH have practised the “Barah Anaj System”, where farmers grow 12 different varieties of crops in the same field at the same time. But in recent years, this practice has fallen in favor of commercialised markets.
Socially, there is an effect as well. Today, traditional varieties of crops such as millets, buckwheat and barley, are stigmatised as “poor food”.
This is a shame as these crops have great value. Not only can you diversify your fields to sustain potential impacts of climate change, but these crops also offer great nutritional value. Furthermore, these crops are climate adaptive, pest resistant, require fewer inputs and can grow in difficult terrain. In short, these are the crops best suited for mountain communities. In terms of nutrition, the replacement of traditional crops in local diets has led to various health implications. In Nepal, the incidence of anaemia has been rising in women due to lower consumption of finger millet.
In a free economic market, we must think of how we can promote traditional crops by creating more demand. Branding traditional foods in restaurants, hotels and homestays can serve as a tool to endorse these traditional varieties, and at the same time, ensure financial security to those who grow them.
Likewise, a slight modern touch in the cuisines can also urge people to try out a new range of dishes. For example, a buckwheat momo or a millet cake will definitely become an eye-catcher for people when they look through the menus in restaurants.
As I have mentioned earlier, now is the time to create the change. We need to change our perspective, we need to accept the fact that these traditional varieties are actually a rich source of nutrition. These are crops which can lower our risk in terms of climate, in terms of food insecurity and in terms of financial crisis. As climate is changing, food and agriculture must change too.
The writer is research associate,Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development
When a plant is used across cultures and geographical boundaries as ethno-medicine and food, it indicates that the people found the properties of the plant after generations of trial and error with their own local produce, seasons and natural instincts. Semal, also called kapuk or silk cotton tree (Bombyx cieba), is one such tree that flowers spectacularly in spring and becomes a bird magnet. Birds definitely know what to eat.
Many tribal communities consume semal because of its medicinal properties. Others worship and protect the tree. A clan of the Bhil tribe in Rajasthan, for instance, protects the tree because they considers it a tree totem. The Khuman clan of the Meetie community in Manipur also protects and conserves the tree and uses the tree produce. Many folk songs are dedicated to the semal tree in the tribal regions across India.
Long ago, when we moved to the earst-while Central Institute of Fuel Research in Dhanbad, we inherited a huge semal tree. We used to make soft pillows using the silk cotton from the tree. Every season I noticed that many local tribal women came to collect the fallen flower buds to my surprise. I got curious and asked what they do with it and then they told me hesitantly that they make subzi (vegetable dish) with it.
Later, I tried the subzi myself, but did not like it much. But it triggered my interest and thus began my quest to know more about semal. I learnt that the silk cotton and even the tough thorns on the bark are used to treat migraine.
In fact, various parts of semal are used to treat gastrointestinal, skin, gynecological and urogenital diseases. Many studies have proved the plant to have antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, analgesic and oxytocic properties. The roots, stem bark and seeds of semal have the ability to prevent liver damage. Alcoholic extract of the bark and thorns are used to treat acne. Being an antioxidant, semal helps reduce blood pressure and is good for the heart.
When grown as natural bunds, this tree attracts several pollinators and provides fodder for farm animals, apart from providing the occasional firewood. Semal is a fire-resistant tree and is also known for its cooling properties. If one plants semal trees around housing colonies, the environmental cost of air-conditioning can be minimised.
Semal ki subzi
250 g of tender semal buds
One potato cubed
1/2 cup onion paste
1 tbsp ginger-garlic paste
1/2 cup fresh tomato paste
1 tbsp red chilli powder
1 tbsp turmeric powder
1 tbsp garam masala powder
Salt to taste
3 tbsp mustard oil
1 tbsp methi seeds
Method You need to first separate the fleshy green sepals from the red petals forming inside. Chop the sepals (the green covering of the bud) into four parts lengthwise
Heat 2 tbsp mustard oil and add the chopped semal sepals. Fry for 3-4 minutes. Add the cubed potatoes and fry for 5 minutes more. Keep aside.
Heat the remaining 1 tbsp mustard oil and tip in the methi seeds. Wait till they turn light brown and then pour the onion paste. Fry the paste till it becomes pinkish brown. Add the ginger-garlic and tomato paste and salt. Cook till the mixture gets glossy.
Add the powdered spices and mix well. Stir and cook for a couple of minutes. Add the partly fried semal sepals and potatoes to the cooked spice mixture. Add water, mix well and cover the lid. Cook for about 15 minutes on low flame. Serve with chapatis.
The tree acts as a soil binder and provides huge amounts of fallen foliage and flowers that are an excellent medium for vermicomposting. It is considered a pioneer tree that generates a rich biomass every season, and has been used to reclaim wastelands. Its leaves and flowers are large and leathery, and return huge amount of carbon to the soil. This ecologically active tree fixes carbon and helps carbon sequestration by shedding all leaves before flowering. Many researchers believe the semal to be a bio indicator—a late flowering could mean a hot summer or a delayed monsoon.
Though widely known as a great source for fodder and fuel, semal has a culinary utility too. A few months ago, we were walking around the markets of Moradabad and a cart loaded with semal buds caught my attention. I asked the lady on the cart about how she cooks it and she told me the right way (see recipe). I asked her if the buds would survive four days in the car trunk, and she said we could peel and chop them, and also sun dry them to preserve.
Once home, I made a subzi—one with fresh semal and another with the sun dried ones. The subzi made with fresh buds is a little slippery in texture, almost like steamed okra. It tastes like any other green plant with a faint fragrance. Sun dried semals need to be rehydrated and they taste a little more intense. But here’s the sweet irony: some rural communities believe semal is inauspicious. This myth may have originated because the spiny outgrowths on the stem bark have some endophytic pathogenic bacteria, which act as a biological defence, protecting the tree from animals.
The author is a food and nutrition consultant
Drought made palatable
By Aparna Pallavi
For humans, a good or bad monsoon may constitute the difference between abundant crops and starvation, but in nature yearly rainfall differences are a way to balance out the space-sharing arrangements between different types of vegetation. The deficient rainfall this year saw forest-dependent populations miss out on many of their favourite monsoon delicacies, like mushroom. But there are compensations.
Some vegetations which disappear from view once the rains come in earnest, stayed on for longer periods this year, allowing people to enjoy them for a change.
One such vegetable is sarata bhaji (Tribulus terrestris), which grows mostly on low-lying, rocky land in drought-prone areas across Asia, America and Europe. It is nature’s way of ensuring food security as the dark green creeper grows in abundance at a time when other crops are scarce.
But in years of a good monsoon, its days are limited to early June when the showers are light and other vegetation is yet to show up. This year, in the drought-prone Yavatmal district of Maharashtra, sarata bhaji was available in ample amounts even as late as August.
“Last year the rains came so soon we could not even get a taste of this vegetable,” says Madhukar Dhas, who heads the Yavatmal-based non-profit Dilasa. His organisation works on drought-proofing, but he has also documented some 70 species of wild vegetables consumed by the rural population of Yavatmal district and worked to revive the forgotten food culture around them.
During a visit to Dhangarwadi village with Dhas and his staff to look into water-harvesting endeavours, I came across a cluster of sarata bhaji growing on a farm. We forgot all work for a full 40 minutes as we squatted on the ground and intently plucked the tender shoots. “Pahile potoba, mag vithoba, (stomach first, god later)” is Dhas’ adage. Born to farm labourers in Marathwada, he was virtually brought up on wild vegetables, and his love for them has continued.
Back at Dilasa’s field office in Choramba village, Dhas gets busy cooking. “This vegetable should not be cooked too long, or it loses all flavour,” he says as he expertly chops the young shoots and stir fries them. In barely 10 minutes, the bhaji is ready. Crisp and chewy, sarata bhaji tastes delicious with bajra bhakhar (thick chapatti made of pearl millet), kadhi and onion. That was the first time I had the bhaji and I quite liked it for its strong flavour.
Dhas’ elderly mother, Shantabai, who stays at the centre, says that in the arid Solapur district where she has lived most of her life, sarata bhaji is a regular part of meals for two to three months. “It is known to be good for debility, diabetes and chamkivaat (sudden, sharp stabs of rheumatic pain),” she adds.
Ayurveda agrees. But there is more to sarata bhaji. According to the well-known text Bhavaprakash Nighantu, gokshur, as the vegetable is known in Sanskrit, removes excess sugar from blood through urine and is excellent for diabetes. It is also good for those suffering from body ache, including joint pain and rheumatism. In addition, says the text, sarata bhaji helps prevent kidney stones and heart problems and removes chest congestion.
Chinese medicine recommends this vegetable to treat impotency and improve mood and stamina. Modern research attributes high nutritive power to this herb. An analysis by Wardha-based non-profit Dhara Mitra in 2008-09 found that sarata bhaji contains high amounts of calcium and phosphorous, which account for its pain- and debility- mitigating properties.
One of its most important functions, perhaps, is to stimulate testosterone, the male sex hormone. Its active ingredient, protodioscin, is a natural precursor of testosterone. The herb can also boost the production of the luteinising hormone, which is a testosterone stimulator.
K Gauthaman of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University Hospital, National University of Singapore, has extensively studied this quality of the herb. He found that sexual behaviour in rats improved after being administered the extract of this herb, showing that the plant has aphrodisiac qualities.
It is this attribute, perhaps, that accounts for the popularity of Tribulussupplements among sportspersons. The Western world, where it is popularly known as “puncture vine” because of the impact of its thorny fruit on bicycle tires, became aware of this herb in the early 1990s after word got out that Eastern European countries were giving supplements prepared from this herb to athletes to enhance their performance in the Olympics and improve their medal tally. Following this, sportspersons from around the world pounced on it. In later years, research found the herb to also have a hormone regulatory effect. Studies have further linked it to a boost in blood circulation and energy levels. Today, Tribulus supplements are popular among body-builders and other athletes who wish to restore their hormone levels to normal after taking testosterone boosters.
Not with standing the commercialisation of the herb, it is still best consumed fresh, says Shantabai. Active and fit at the age of 78, she stands upright and says with a proud smile, “All my life I have mostly eaten bajra and jowar (sorghum) bhakhar and fresh wild vegetables, and look at me now; I am good to run a household for another 20 years.”
R E C I P E S
Fresh tender stems and leaves of saratabhaji: Two large handfuls Garlic: six to seven cloves, roughly chopped Onion (optional): one medium-sized, chopped Salt, turmeric, chilli powder: to taste Oil: for stir fry Mustard seeds: for seasoning
Wash and clean the saratabhaji. Chop roughly; do not cut into too small pieces. In a pan, heat oil and splutter mustard seeds. Add onion and garlic and stir till soft. Add the bhaji, salt, turmeric and chilli powder and stir fry on high flame. Do not cover. Cook till the leaves and stems are just softened. Serve with jowar or wheat chapattis.
The writer is a footloose traveller, who is passionate about forest produce
'Smallholder farmers most vulnerable to climate change effects'
By Deepanwita Niyogi
On the occasion of World Food Day, Festus Akinnifesi, FAO’s deputy strategic programme leader, sustainable agriculture, talks to Down To Earth about climate change and how it threatens food systems worldwide.
Given the current stress of weather-related events on agriculture and food systems, what needs to change for achieving the 2030 zero hunger challenge and sustainability at the same time?
Today, climate change poses one of the greatest threats to agriculture and food systems. In FAO we believe that the following five inter-connected principles for sustainable food and agriculture must be an integral part of any strategy to achieve the 2030 challenge of zero hunger and sustainability.
These are improving efficiency in the use of resources, such as producing more food with less through better integration of production systems to ensure synergies and minimise trade-offs, sustainable management of natural resources; including land, water, ecosystems and biodiversity, protecting rural livelihoods, social equity and well-being, building resilience and adaptation of producers, farms and ecosystems to climate change and market volatility and (evolving) policies, governance mechanisms and investments.
Halting deforestation can mitigate climate change effects, according to experts. But will this limit crop productivity as more lands cannot be made available for agriculture? Is agriculture intensification the right solution?
Considering that agriculture is one of the major drivers of global deforestation, efforts to halt deforestation have a direct impact on mitigating climate change. Increased productivity must come from the existing farmlands without necessarily expanding into forestlands. Sustainable intensification of crops, livestock, forests and fish, when underpinned by sound ecosystems and integrated approaches to managing natural resources, can help boost productivity while limiting deforestation.
FAO’s “Save and Grow” approach provides a policy guide to sustainable intensification of crop production for smallholders. This involves maintaining soil health, crop diversification and cropping systems, using high-yielding crop varieties and quality seeds, integrated pest, diseases and weed management and efficient water management.
For a long time, the climate change debate has focused on greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) and ways to mitigate them. Adaptation has only started to receive attention, considering that agriculture both contributes to GHG emissions, and is adversely, affected by climate change through rising temperatures, erratic rainfall, droughts, floods and water scarcity that have an impact on crops and animals.
Smallholder farmers are often the most vulnerable to the effects of climate change, so it is both the productive capacity and the stability of production systems and the livelihoods of rural people that are increasingly at risk. Therefore, building resilience and adaptation to climate change is critical to transforming agriculture and food systems.
Climate-smart agriculture is an integrated approach that helps to guide actions needed to transform and reorient agricultural systems to effectively support development and ensure food security in a changing climate.
How far do you think the Blue Revolution will solve the problems of malnutrition in poor and developing countries? What about integrated fish and plant farming?
The Blue Revolution, which involves sustainable transformation of the fisheries and aquaculture sector, is vital for improved nutrition, poverty reduction and (ensuring) the livelihoods of millions of people along the value chain. Aquatic food is highly nutritious and plays a major role in balanced diet. Integrated fish-plant farming, an age-old Asian practice, creates good opportunities for nutrition-sensitive agriculture.
A notable example is the integrated rice-fish system where rice and fish or other aquatic animals such as shrimps are cultivated concurrently or alternately in the same field/pond without causing a reduction in the yield of rice.
'Saline soil and mangroves have badly impacted rice cultivation in Vietnam'
By Deepanwita Niyogi
Pham Thi Huan, a farmer from Vietnam’s Long An province, has helped women farmers in the Mekong Delta adapt to climate change. As recognition to her contribution in improving livelihoods, FAO’s regional office for Asia and the Pacific will honour Huan on September 17 by conferring on her the Model Farmer award. Huan speaks to Down To Earth about climate change in her country.
How climate change is proving to be difficult in growing rice in the Mekong Delta.
In Vietnam, climate change not only brings challenges to farmers, but also creates changes which help them adapt (to) the situation positively. Due to the effects of climate change, (there has been) saltwater intrusion in many rice-growing areas.
Saline soil and mangroves have badly impacted rice cultivation in the country. Vietnam has planted rice varieties resistant to drought and salinity that were developed by the Mekong Delta Rice Research Institute.
At present, rice cultivation and duck farming have proved encouraging for farmers in the Mekong Delta. Duck raising has proved successful in creating jobs for farmers. To get duck eggs, species adapted to salt water areas were introduced. With this, farmers, whose income from rice cultivation had dipped, were able to increase their income.
How important is the role of women in agriculture and food production? Do women farmers in Vietnam face more hardships than compared to men?
Vietnamese women are the main workforce in the family. They not only join production activities, but also take care of their families. Though programmes focusing on gender equality have been conducted across Vietnam, women still face certain obstacles. Creating jobs and increasing income for women can contribute to improving their role in the society.
How will the Model Farmer award inspire you to work towards protecting your country against the effects of climate change, especially sea-level rise?
I have spent over five decades in sticking to Vietnam’s agriculture and the poultry industry. I am extremely happy not for what I have achieved, but (for the fact) that my dedication and efforts have been recognised.
The prize means a great (thing) to me. We, Vietnamese women, are all together in creating our own ways for adapting to climate change.
According to a FAO report, fish and duck integration has received considerable attention in Vietnam. Is integration in agriculture the answer to food security?
As an agricultural country, Vietnam pays much attention to the poultry industry. Combining with rice cultivation, duck farming not only ensures food security, but also promotes the traditional farming model of “raising duck on rice fields” in Vietnam.
This helps create added values and saves natural resources, which is a treasure granted to us by nature. Further, it contributes to food security in Vietnam.
The interview, originally in Vietnamese, has been translated into English
Ensuring India’s food security in the face of climate change
By A K Ghosh
India has more than 16 per cent of the world population confined to just 2.4 per cent of global space. More than 70 per cent people in our country live in rural areas and agriculture is their main source of livelihood.
When it comes to farming, 85 per cent farmers in India are small and marginal ones. Every year, they provide food to 1.2 billion people by taking loans from money lenders at 2 per cent interest per month. Failing to pay back loans, Indian farmers commit suicide to escape the vicious cycle of debt.
Strangely, farmers also committed suicide in the year of bumper paddy harvest, as witnessed three years ago in West Bengal’s Burdwan district.
The cause behind farmers’ suicide (Farmers’ Forum, 2014 14(2): 44-46) is due to the failure of state governments to arrange camps for the Food Corporation of India (FCI) so that it can procure produce from farmers at the declared minimum support price.
The year when farmers in Burdwan committed suicide, the declared support price was Rs 1,250 per quintal for rice as against the production cost of Rs 750 per quintal. In the absence of FCI camps, farmers had to sell their produce to rice mill owners at Rs 650 per quintal and then consume poison.
Till date, there has been no crop insurance policy to protect our helpless farmers. As reported by Down To Earth, most states are also hesitant to implement the ambitious Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, citing excess financial burden.
When such is the condition, it is shocking to read when a central minister says that it has become fashionable to commit suicide.
Food security in India can only be achieved if we keep in mind the following points:
Guarantee coverage of farmlands with crop insurance (Farmers’ Forum, 2015. 15(3):58-62) which should be heavily subsidised by the Centre
Ensure procurement of produce at the right time with minimum support price (MSP) for rice and wheat
Include minor millets (Farmers’ Forum, 2012. 12(2):24-30) and promote the same through the public distribution system
Restructure the entire FCI by efficient management and enlarged storage capacity so that precious food grains are not left to rot in the open and sold as cattle feed at half the price
Encourage urban agriculture using biodegradable municipal solid waste to grow rice and vegetables near urban centres to reduce transportation cost. Produce from East Kolkata Wastelands covering 1,200 hectares provides 25-35 per cent of fish and vegetables at affordable prices
Promote salt-tolerant rice varieties in coastal regions (Farmers’ Forum, 2012. 12(3):40-45)
Promote sustainable agriculture (Farmers’ Forum, 2016. 16(1):28-31) under the National Action Plan on Climate Change through organic farming using farmers’ seeds and stop use of genetically-modified seeds
The Government of India has also initiated a project called the National Initiative on Climate Resilient Agriculture. One should agree on the importance of this special focus, but the outcome of the project must be made available in the public domain to benefit farmers and fishermen across the country. Adapting to climate change for food security should be given top priority at such a critical hour.
The writer is the founder-cum-director of the Kolkata-based Centre for Environment & Development. He writes extensively on environmental and developmental issues
As the monsoon abates and a mild winter sets in, kitchens across Odisha start cooking those leafy greens again. This is the time when the nature is bounteous, and a variety of potherbs can be found growing in kitchen gardens, by roadsides, across grazing fields, as undergrowths in forests, along water bodies, and almost everywhere.
The leaves are no longer spoiled by moisture or infested with germs and worms. And saga bhajaa (cooked green leaves) becomes a regular feature on the menu of Odias.
People in Odisha typically relish a wide variety of green leaves, both domesticated and wild. These greens, and their tender petioles and shoots, particularly play an important role in the food and nutritional security of those living in rural and tribal areas.
“Leafy vegetables are considered primary food class because they are photosynthetic tissue with high levels of vitamin K and food value in comparison to other fruits and vegetables. They provide good nutrition and at times act as medicine,” notes a study by botanists with the Berhampur University, Berhampur, who conducted ethno-botanical study in southern districts of the state.
Besides, these greens are inexpensive. Of the 106 species of leafy vegetables consumed by the tribal and rural people in southern Odisha, 78 are wild species, meaning they are not cultivated. People simply pluck their young and fresh leaves during grazing the animals, collecting fuel and fodder, tending the crop field or fetching water from a water body. Fifteen of the species are wild as well as domesticated and 13 are under cultivation, notes the study, accepted for publication in the International Journal of Agricultural and Food Science in September 2013.
These greens not only make a quick meal after a hard day’s work—the greens are prepared by simply stir-frying them and are best enjoyed with rice, especially paanta bhaat (rice soaked in water overnight)—they bring variety to the menu. While some greens are crunchy, some are smooth in texture. Then there are greens that are sour and the ones that are bitter. Most people in rural and tribal areas are aware of their therapeutic values and consume accordingly.
One such is Boerhavia diffusa, called ghoda puruni in Odia. Considered a weed, ghoda puruni can be commonly found in village wastelands and by roadsides, particularly during the monsoon and the post-monsoon period. People fry or roast its young leaves and shoots for curing asthma and cough.
Ethno-botanical studies show that Alternanthera sessilis (madaranga in Odia) increases the flow of bile in the intestine and stimulates lactation in nourishing mothers. Centella asiatica (or thalkudi) helps alleviate headache, cold and cough, and improve memory. Commelina benghalensis (kaniseera) helps alleviate rheumatic pain. Senna occidentalis (kala-chakunda) is another common weed which is used for treatment of skin diseases like ringworms, itch and scabies.
Unfortunately, high-yielding greens, such as spinach, fenugreek and some species of amaranth, are fast replacing the wild greens. This not only limits our basket of leafy vegetables, but also threatens the culinary use and traditional knowledge associated with them.
“The role of wild leafy vegetables in food security could provide important information for development of policies on sustainable utilisation of natural resources for human sustenance,” say botanists from Chandbali College in Bhadrak and S N College in Kendrapara who have documented ethno-botanical knowledge associated with leafy vegetables consumed in Bhadrak district.
Their study shows that the wild greens are also threatened by several anthropogenic and natural causes such as land-use change, habitat destruction, unscientific harvesting, over-grazing and invasive species. In the study, published in the September 20, 2015 issue of Scientia Agriculturae, the researchers say domestication of these species will not only improve the economic condition of the people but will also help in conservation of biodiversity and food security.
'Smallholder farmers are at the front line of climate change'
By Aakriti Shrivastava
After winning the Africa Food Prize 2016 for his advocacy to place smallholder farmers at the centre of agricultural agenda, Kanayo F Nwanze explains how betterment of the community is necessary for world's food security.
A large part of the world’s food is produced by smallholder farmers, but they have remained economically disadvantaged. What are the reasons for this?
It is a tragic irony that smallholders grow much of the developing world’s food but often go hungry themselves. They have long been left out of the mainstream of economic growth, development, and government policies because until the 2006 food crisis in the Horn of Africa, governments did not give priority to agriculture as the engine of economic growth. Smallholders need access to water and land, rural finance, markets and credit and information about prices. They also need an enabling policy environment, a supportive infrastructure and incentives to make business competitive.
While it is critical to end marginalisation, it is also important to realise that smallholders are not waiting for handouts. . There is no great secret about what it takes or what has held smallholders back so far. With what we know today about agricultural transformation, and the power of agriculture to drive reduction in poverty and hunger, there is simply no excuse for inaction.
What methods/policies do you suggest are best for uplifting smallholder farmers in Africa?
The key interventions needed are to improve smallholders´ access to improved seeds and other inputs, ownership of the land they farm, build their capacity to link with markets—including by strengthening infrastructure—provide them with the means and incentives to manage their land sustainably in the face of climate change, and create an enabling policy environment for all of these changes.
We know what it will take to lift up Africa´s smallholder farmers. Now it is time to put this knowledge into action—in fact it is past time. Some countries have taken steps to invest in and support the smallholder sector but the potential across the continent remains largely untapped.
How many people in Africa and worldwide have benefitted from these methods? How many can be predicted to benefit if these policies are implemented worldwide?
The number of beneficiaries from improvements in agriculture in Africa is in the millions, and billions worldwide. Because we have to count not only smallholders and their communities, but also the urban populations that depend on them for their food. Globally, the number of chronically undernourished people has declined to just under 800 million. We were able to do this in less than 15 years. With the new momentum of Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals, we have a never-before global commitment to better the livelihoods of poor rural people.
How important is the role of cooperatives in improving the economic status and scientific knowledge of smallholder farmers?
Producer organisations play an absolutely vital role in enabling rural people to seize new economic opportunities. These organisations fulfil several functions. They allow numerous small producers to aggregate their product so that they can supply modern value chains, and give them power to advocate for themselves in dealing with other players in the food system. This is why IFAD stresses the “4Ps” of public-private-producer partnerships. Producer organisations also build the capacity of rural people to advocate for themselves and for policies that are conducive to creating an enabling environment for them to grow their businesses. They can be a conduit for access to knowledge through training, cultivationof leadership, and access to finance and inputs. Especially for women and young people, organisations can open doors to opportunity that have traditionally been closed to them.
While many in the civil society as well as the administration accept that smallholder farming is the route for growth in Africa, many governments have not reached their investment targets in the sector. How can this be accelerated?
There is no doubt that Africa has made some progress at the policy level, and we can point to the Maputo Declaration of 2003, the Malabo Declaration of 2014, and the CAADP compacts of more than 20 countries to accelerate agricultural development. But what is on paper and what is happening on the ground do not always match. Progress has been made, but it is dwarfed by the potential of what could be. Therefore we need to accelerate inclusive rural transformation, working at a number of levels, from the top down and bottom up. At IFAD, we advocate for a stronger commitment to agriculture with government leadership through individual and collective dialogue. We work with our Member States to design projects that target opportunities for smallholders and other rural people.
In an open letter to African leaders in 2014, I asked them to deliver on their promise to invest more in smallholder farming. By empowering rural people and supporting local organisations, we help demonstrate concretely the enormous returns that countries stand to gain, both in terms of prosperity and food security, by boosting their investment in agriculture.
Climate change continues to threaten agriculture, with small famers being more vulnerable to it. What can be done in the future to climate-proof crop production at small scale?
The Paris Agreement on Climate Change was a watershed moment in the fight against this threat. Going forward, we must demonstrate more convincingly the positive role that smallholder farmers can play in confronting climate change impacts.
IFAD is mainstreaming climate issues throughout its portfolio. And our Adaptation for Smallholder Agriculture Programme, or ASAP, is channeling climate finance to smallholders, so that they can access the information and technologies they need to build resilience. Launched in 2012 and working in more than 30 developing countries, ASAP has become the largest global financing source dedicated to supporting climate change adaptation for smallholder farmers.
Many projects supported by IFAD focus on delivering timely climate information. They also build the capacity of farmer associations, women’s groups, and extension services to adopt and promote climate-smart technologies, such as biogas and drought- and flood-resistant crop varieties. Smallholder farmers are on the front lines of climate change but often lack the resources and resilience to cope, so building their capacity is absolutely important.
I have noticed that conservation work in tribal India is most difficult in well-forested areas. When people have good forests, from which they can procure food, construction material, medicine and ingredients for fashioning their articles of utility (baskets, mats and traps), they would want little else, especially from the state or the non-state organisations that tend to worry about them or the protection of their forests.
Much of this tribal indifference, which really is independence, to the various schemes inflicted upon them stems from the fact that they are able to find sufficient food in their forests.
One often hears a forest guard or a road contractor complain that it is very difficult to get labour in tribal areas, where villages are full of people but nobody wants to work. They usually say, “The tribals have nothing to do, but they will not come and earn some money.” When one has a guaranteed source of tasty and high-quality food, for free, why would one wish to go and break stones by the roadside and be shouted at?
One way of categorising wild foods gathered for subsistence is through their importance for people’s survival. Some are exclusively famine foods (leaves of celosia and bidens, usually regarded as weeds), some are seasonal (bamboo shoots during monsoon), some are occasional (bamboo seeds during the periodic flowering), some are collected routinely as a staple (various yams and greens) and some may be delicacies (such as the larvae of Vespid wasps). Wild foods are gathered from a variety of landscapes, including agricultural and pastoral, by a wide range of people not restricted to hunter-gatherer communities. A study by Zareen Bharucha and Jules Pretty, researchers in sustainable agriculture at the University of Essex (published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, August 2010), documented 90 to100 species in 22 countries in Africa and Asia..
Some of these foods can thrive in degraded environments. Over-exploitation does not have any obvious negative impact (such as weeds and rodent pests in an agricultural field), while some are sensitive to unregulated harvest. It is necessary to know how communities go about collecting wild foods: whether there are implicit regulations in their tradition; whether they recognise the space (degraded lands, forests, swidden fallows, rice fields, sacred groves) from which foods are gathered; whether there are any specific ways in which foods are processed or stored before consumption.
Two important factors in wild food foraging are the skills (when and how certain fish and frogs are collected) and the tools required to procure the food (traps and specific fibres for ladders).
People should also be able to identify food species correctly which is possible through a flow of knowledge between generations. Usually such circumstances exist when a community’s traditions with regard to forest use is more or less extant. Though this situation is rarely encountered in the country today, there are communities across central India much of whose food comes from the wild (see “A fiery delicacy from the tribes of central India” on p50). When traditional knowledge is not passed down from one generation to the next, or when certain raw materials become scarce, the amount of wild food a community is able to gather and consume declines. This shows immediately in a society’s health, despite the supply of foodgrains in sufficient quantity. Incidences of anaemia, piles and diabetes across rural and tribal India are on the rise, indicating high levels of starch and lack of iron and roughage in their diets.
Wild food collection is a strategy among all sections of people, whichever ecological, economic or social zone they inhabit; these foods are especially important for the poorest households. Agro-ecosystems that have been simplified by monocultures have had the greatest impact on the poor; as agricultural systems change, the pressure on wild food availability increases. In many areas across rural India, especially in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, vast tracts are now under cash crops. As corn is lumped together with other coarse grains (sorghum, millet, barley), the increase in coarse grain production is due to the corn and not because of an increase in sorghum or millet production. According to the Global Agricultural Information Network, corn has shown “a steady upward trend due to continuous expansion in area under hybrids, currently estimated to be around 60 per cent”.
The network states that millet and sorghum “are also facing competition from other crops such as cotton, soybean and pulses in several states” (see “Swamped by cash crops”). In Bolangir district in Odisha, people in villages at the foot of the Gandhamardhan Hills, famed for its forest and medicinal plants, seldom went to dig yam earlier. But in one house, they had not eaten yams in four years. There are few fish in the streams due to the run-off of pesticides used to grown cotton. A similar situation prevails in adjacent Bastar region in Chhattisgarh, where the predominant crop is corn. In some countries, the response to such change has been to domesticate some wild food species in house gardens or degraded lands near villages.
Wild foods, often found in agricultural or forest landscapes, represent a “hidden” or “free” complement to whatever crops are cultivated. These hidden foods fill in the gaps in micronutrients, especially zinc, iron and various vitamins that are often missing or found in insufficient quantities in the staple foods of people. After the Green Revolution, which increased cereal crops in quantities large enough to have surpluses, there was also a simultaneous loss in diet diversity. Cereal-based diets were lower in zinc; there were shifts to higher pH soils; phosphorous-based fertilisers decreased zinc uptake and nitrogen-based fertilisers reduced the translocation of this essential metal from leaves to seeds.
The Green Revolution has also affected biodiversity as it focussed on finding high-yield varieties of only a few crops, essentially rice and wheat. As a result, there have been no productivity-enhancing technology as far as coarse grains are concerned. The response to emergencies, such as famines, has been to cut down on agricultural and biological diversity. Much of the mainstream research on agriculture as well as forestry still concentrates on cereal crops, timber or medicine; little attention is given to the bulk of plant and animal products harvested for food from lands and forests inhabited by indigenous communities.
An important but overlooked aspect of wild foods is their documentation as “indicators”, their ability to point to changes in microclimates, in the ecosystem, of water-tables, or of the availability of honey from a particular forest. In central India, a preliminary survey by this author noted about 400 species of plants and animals used as food.
The threats to wild foods are many. There are issues like loss of forest cover, mining and the expansion of hybrid crops; there are also less obvious reasons such as migration among the rural youth, depletion of resources like bamboo, protected areas where people are denied access, the distribution of subsidised foodgrains and the uncritical popularisation of fast foods. These are all direct threats to people’s food security, none of which are even remotely hinted at in the National Food Security Act. We are told that political parties moved more than 200 amendments to the Bill. How one wishes that such diversity is reflected in the freely available wild foods rather than in politically coloured opinions about the food Bill.
Madhu Ramnath is an ethnobotanist who works in Bastar
A fiery delicacy from the tribes of central India
Red ant (kenil) belongs to the genus Crematogaster. These ants make small nests in the leaves of trees, especially on sal trees. Their eggs and larvae are fatty. The ants are found in most parts of tropical Asia. They are high in ascorbic acid and have a sour and pungent taste. They are recommended for common cold or to boost Vitamin C in the body. But you cannot get your hand at a nest of red ants without getting painful bites.
Many greens and vegetables–—jackfruit, pumpkin, drumstick, various Amaranthus—are cooked lightly and mixed with a gravy of kenil and rice paste. The gravy is usually spiced with red chillies and tamarind, and the kenil gives a unique flavour. Such a side dish to rice is known as nuka-raba in Durwa, Bastar, and as amat-sag in most other parts of the district.
Beska refers to the plant as well as the rhizome of Costus speciosus, a herb of the ginger family that grows after the first showers of the monsoon in many parts of tropical Asia. Leaves are spirally arranged on the stem and the white flowers have a bright red calyx. The rhizomes are slightly stringy and less strong than ginger—which is why it is possible to eat it raw in large quantities —and is a popular ingredient to many types of chutney. A common preparation is the beska-kenil chutney, an excellent accompaniment to rice-beer and an efficient counter to hangovers.
RECIPE: Beska-kenil chutney
INGREDIENTS (To serve 10)
A medium-sized nest of kenil
Approximately 200 gms of beska (root)
3-4 red chillies
Onion and tomato, if preferred
Two spoons of salt
Remove the larger, mature ants and the dirt common to most nests. For this, shake well in a basket. While doing this, the larger ants move away from the eggs and larvae on their own. Wash and skin the beska, and cut into small pieces. Cut chillies, onion and tomato and add to the tamarind pulp.
Mix all the ingredients and pound lightly together. The end result should not be a paste. Allow each ingredient to stand out individually. Serve in leaf cups.
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