Saturday, 21 June 2014

Conserving Indigenous Food and Food Habit for Sustainable Food Security


Arpita Bhattacharjya
Washington DC
@greenfork on twitter
Author completed her M.Phil in Economics from Punjab University, India
Worked as consultant for The World Bank

Editorial Handling: Geetanjali Singh, Section Editor, Indian Botanists

Abstract
    Across the world, there are communities that rely on plant sources available locally in their environment for food and income. They have developed a unique knowledge base about plants that can grow on marginal lands, under difficult climate conditions, and provide a crucial part of their diets through cultivation or foraging. As globalization spreads, the pattern of life which valued and used indigenous foods is breaking up and crucial insights into these sources of nutrition are being lost. This issue assumes more important in the context of feeding a growing population in a planet where the existing food production system is under threat from climate change.
Introduction
    The term “Indigenous People” refers to a cultural group in a particular area that has developed a system of sustenance based on the ecology of their surroundings. They are the repository of knowledge of uses of plant and animal resources in their surroundings. Indigenous people, over time and repeated use, learnt how diverse plants could be used as food, how the environment and their diet interact and why these food sources are critical to their health and nutrition. Some of the plant sources considered as indigenous food may be growing “wild” which are foraged and others may be cultivated but only in that particular area. While many communities depended and continue to depend on traditional food species for food or income, these species they have fallen by the margins of agricultural research and they are ignored or undervalued.

Status of Indigenous Foods in the World
    The communities of indigenous people that use these foods and have insights into their cultivation and nutritional value are often the most vulnerable. For them, indigenous food sources are crucial because these plants are adapted to growing in marginal lands with less water and nutrients. Indigenous foods include the species that are available locally, without people having to purchase them, and that are drawn from the environment through farming or harvesting wild varieties like berries, greens etc. At one point, a large proportion of the population may have been consuming these foods. Over time, however, these goods became sidelined and their value was not recognized or developed. The focus shifted to a few staple crops like maize/corn, wheat and rice, grown on a large scale. Consider this: As reported by Bioversity International (2014), it has been estimated that 40 percent of the world’s total arable land is dedicated to the cultivation of wheat, rice and maize which accounts for 50% of the global caloric intake even though there are around 7000 plant species cultivated or harvested in the wild for consumption.

     The United Nation - Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) (2014) has identified Globally Important Agricultural Heritage Systems (GIAHS), which need to be showcased and preserved. These are food systems that have evolved over millennia in harsh landscapes with extreme climates. 200 such systems comprising about 500 million hectares have been identified as agricultural heritage systems. Over the globe that contribute to food security, natural resource management and biodiversity. These systems are at risk from increasing globalization and the FAO is making an effort to showcase them in order to preserve the knowledge they embody, enhance their value to the world, and acknowledge their contribution to human survival.

    These agriculture heritage systems range from Philippine farmers developing hillside irrigation systems that allowed them to share water between adjoining fields, to Andean farmers digging trenches around potato fields and filling them with water that warms up during the day, and the resulting steam keeps the frost away at night. In water scarce areas like Algeria, Egypt, Iran, Morocco and Tunisia, farmers developed irrigation architecture and multilayer gardens to capture the shade of date palms to grow fruits, vegetables and cereals for the population. The recognition conferred by the FAO has brought in both tourism and extra incomes that help to carry on the knowledge systems.

    Indigenous food systems impact not just the physical health of the community but are also intimately connected with their emotional and mental well being as well. So when these systems are faced with challenges from spreading modernization and globalization, they have a far-reaching impact on the community that they sustain and make them even more vulnerable to poverty and social marginalization. The FAO( 2009) study sought to document the food systems of 12 indigenous groups around the world: Ainu (Japan), Awajun (Peru), Baffin Inuit (Canada), Bhil (India), Dalit (India), Gwich’in (Canada), Igbo (Nigeria), Inganio (Colombia), Karen (Thailand), Maasai (Kenya), Nuxalk (Canada) and Pohnpei (Federated States of Micronesia). The food species available to these communities locally varied from 35 (Maasai) to 220 (Igbo) and the usage of these sources also varied widely. The adult Awajun and Igbo were using 100% of the indigenous foods as sources of dietary energy, this usage has fallen off considerably in the case of the Maasai, Dalit, Ingano, Bhil and Pohnpei groups, dwindling to less than 45% in the case of the Inuit and Gwin’ich in Canada.

    When indigenous diets change, the nutritious foods that were traditionally a part of the diet are most often replaced with cheap, processed foods with lower nutritional value and an adverse impact on health outcomes. Losing these traditional food systems means communities dependent on them become more vulnerable and we also lose the knowledge that may help create a stronger, climate ready food production system.

The Need to Rediscover Indigenous Foods
    Faced with the challenges of climate change and a growing population to feed, there is an increasing interest in these underutilized and undervalued crops. A case in point would be that of minor millets, which can be grown in poor soil unlike major cereals. The protein levels of minor millets are similar to those of wheat, and they are rich in vitamin B, calcium, iron, potassium, magnesium and zinc. Children on a millet inclusive diet show higher blood iron levels than those who had no millet in their meals. Currently, though, minor millets account for less than 1% of global food grain production. The potential for improved nutrition and food security is significant here. A biodiverse food system that includes and promotes indigenous foods will also hold the key to dealing with warmer growing conditions, scarce water and increased pests and diseases.

The Case of Quinoa
    An indigenous food that has been in the news recently is quinoa (Hamilton, 2014): it has been promoted as a “super food” in the USA and also has the reputation of being tremendously resilient under harsh climatic conditions. In fact, it does provide significant amounts of calcium, iron, fiber, and essential fatty acids and is a complete protein with stores of all the amino acids. This is unique in the plant world. It’s reputation for resilience is based on its ability to thrive in soil saturated with salt,) and tolerance for cold and drought. It is grown mainly in the salt flats of South America, the Altiplano, which stretches from Peru to Argentina, with most of the area falling in Bolivia. It is composed of ash and igneous rock and is hardened by frost roughly half the year with sparse rainfall. While quinoa thrives here, how it would flourish elsewhere remains to be seen. The excitement around quinoa is because of its health benefits and potential for combating climate change. But for quinoa to grow and thrive elsewhere researchers have to be able to draw from a wide spectrum of quinoa varieties, the most crucial being the pride of Bolivia, the “quinoa real” or Royal Quinoa.

Controversy Around the Use of Indigenous Foods
    Underlying these possibilities is a tangled web of questions: will this mean that quinoa goes the way of the potato, also native to this region, where the potato farmers were undercut by potatoes derived from their region, grown aboard, then brought back and dumped in their market? They lost their farms and livelihood and were forced to seek work in the mines. The US press has featured stories of quinoa prices being driven high by demand abroad so that local consumers could not afford it and were replacing it in their diet with processed white bread. If quinoa were to become a sought after crop at the global level, would this not threaten the community which had relied on it for centuries? Indeed, one of the reasons quinoa remained in the custody of the indigenous people was that the invading Spanish did not appropriate it like they did the potato, dismissing it as “Indian food”. The Bolivian government policy has been to guard against any such takeover of quinoa, which it views as a part of its heritage.

    Research continues in the US and elsewhere to find a strain of quinoa that could flourish elsewhere. Research based on germplasm donated by the USA has enabled Morocco, which has been suffering from drought for decades, to arrive at the stage of providing quinoa seeds to farmers this year but it remains to be seen how this quinoa will react to pests and diseases which flourish at higher temperatures than the Altiplano. If it can thrive, should it be a part of climate ready food production globally? How would this impact the people of Bolivia and Ecuador who are the primary producers of quinoa today?

Conclusion
    The urgency of feeding a growing population in a climate uncertain world has focused the discussion on the potential of indigenous foods. Either such a crop could be grown where the current food production is under threat from floods or droughts; or the genes which make quinoa so resilient could be spliced into other crops; corn, for example, to make them tolerant of aridity or salinity. Should this be a shared resource for the entire world? Bolivia, for one, believes that quinoa is a resource that belongs to them. The studies described here do offer another option: every country has indigenous communities which have unique insights into resilient and nutritious crops and this knowledge can form the basis of preparing the food system to meet the needs of the population under conditions of climate disruption. The knowledge of indigenous foods is fast disappearing as traditional ways of living break up due to the pressures of surviving in today’s world and this knowledge is no longer passed on through the generations. The challenge is to recognize and preserve it before it is lost.

References
What’s So Special About Indigenous Foods? (1991). In Traditional Plant Foods of Canadian Indigenous Peoples. Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/wairdocs/other/ai215e/AI215E04.htm

Action Plan Promotes Neglected And Underutilized Species As Strategic Assets for Food Security. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.bioversityinternational.org/news/detail/action-plan-promotes-neglected-and-underutilized-species-as-strategic-assets-for-food-security/

Agricultural Biodiversity – Scaling Up The Future Of Food Security. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.bioversityinternational.org/news/detail/agricultural-biodiversity-scaling-up-the-future-of-food-securitynbsp/

Accenting The “Culture” In Agriculture. (2014). Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/in-action/accenting-the-culture-in-agriculture/en/?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=social+media&utm_campaign=faoknowledge

Hamilton, Lisa M., The Quinoa Quarrel. (2014). Retrieved from http://harpers.org/archive/2014/05/the-quinoa-quarrel/

Why Are Indigenous Peoples’ Food Systems Important And Why Do They Need Documentation? (2009). Retrieved from http://www.fao.org/docrep/012/i0370e/i0370e00.htm

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