Indigenous food systems - to cope with malnutrition

Traditional practices such as the jhum cultivation in North East India can help ensure dietary diversity and better nutritional outcomes among populations and need to be preserved.
Land cleared for Jhum cultivation (Image Source: Prashanthns via Wikimedia Commons)
Land cleared for Jhum cultivation (Image Source: Prashanthns via Wikimedia Commons)

As India struggles to tackle malnutrition among women and children in the country as the NFHS data reveals, it is increasingly becoming clear that agrobiodiversity has an important role to play in ensuring sustainable and diverse diets and enhance health and nutrition, and may help manage effects of climate change.

However the food systems in India continue to be dominated by rice and wheat which impacts dietary quality adversely. This paper titled 'Biodiversity in agricultural and food systems of jhum landscape in the West Garo Hills, North‑eastern India' published in the journal Food Security argues that protecting and leveraging agrobiodiversity can greatly help in ensuring dietary diversity and food and nutritional security among communities. Traditional and indigenous food systems are biologically and culturally diverse and can be greatly useful to improve food security and nutrition among populations.

North-eastern India, a biodiversity hotspot, which covers 17.2 million ha of forests, accounts for about 25 percent of India’s total forest area. This region is home to more than a hundred indigenous communities, who have traditionally practised shifting cultivation (locally referred to as jhum farming), for centuries.

Read more about Jhum cultivation here

Jhum cultivation involves the simultaneous cultivation of 15–20 mixed crops in the same field and includes traditional varieties of crops that are selected and preserved by farmers for many years. Many of these wild and locally cultivated edible plants and fruits are significant in the life and traditional culture of the indigenous tribes of the Northeast and provide the essential nutrients to maintain health of the communities.

Despite the importance of local foods to local people and their diets, the important role of such foods in nutritional security is seldom acknowledged in large-scale hunger eradication or nutrition promotion/livelihood improvement programmes. There is also very little information available on local food systems of indigenous communities and its impact on their diet quality, and food security, informs the paper.

The paper discusses the findings of a study that explores and documents the food diversity of the indigenous jhum agroforestry system practised in the West Garo Hills of north-eastern India in the villages of Suringre and Dondagre from Gambegre block and Ganol Songma and Rombagre from Rongram block.

Agricultural biodiversity was measured by the variety of food crops grown, animals reared for food, and food items obtained from natural habitats by hunting, gathering, and trapping by household members

The jhum farming system is an ancient system practised among the Garo communities, in which crops and livestock are the primary components. Crops are grown on some parts of the landscape, while some pockets are kept fallow for different durations, secondary forests on some fallow lands, and the original vegetation on other lands. A small patch of the forest is cleared by cutting and burning of trees, leaving out the larger trees as they provide edible fruit.

Jhum is practised on community lands, which are controlled by the village chief. Each Garo participant is given land based on the household size that cannot be sold or used for any other purpose than farming. The land is prepared during February–March, and seeds are sown in April.

The study found that:

The species diversity of the food groups was high

The foods obtained from jhum cultivation could be classified into five groups – cereals and legumes, vegetables, fruits, spices, and meat. Each of the five food groups was dominated by at least two species of crops or livestock, showing the diversity inherent in traditional farming. This helped to cope against risks and enhanced food and nutritional security by ensuring supply of food around the year.

It was found that 26 landraces (a local variety of a species of plant or animal that has distinctive characteristics arising from development and adaptation over time ) of four crop species enriched the food basket and helped mitigate environmental stress. Landraces have rich gene pool and can help in strengthening biodiversity while maintaining strong cultural ties.

Wild edible plants dominated the food basket

As high as 90 percent of the total Garo diets were from the wild, which are nutritionally rich and also culturally important. Fresh shoots of bamboo were most commonly consumed - fresh during the season (May to October) or dried, fermented, or pickled for off-season consumption. Some households also consumed wild edible fruits and vegetables, mushrooms, and medicinal plants. A range of plants were also consumed by the Garo tribes from the wild as vegetables.

Food diversity was high

The Garos consumed diverse (as many as 23) sources of food by exploiting the available biodiversity. The largest category was rice-based foods grown on jhum lands.

Three major products from glutinous rice, namely menilpita, menilrita, and chubitchi were prepared and consumed mainly during ‘wangala’, the most important festival, and also on other festive occasions such as ‘rongchugala’ (thanksgiving), ‘ dodoka’ (a traditional wedding), ‘a.galmaka’(offerings after afield is cleared for jhum), and ‘nokkingpina’(construction of new traditional home). Most products were seasonal, particularly fruits and vegetables, whereas six were consumed occasionally.

Majority of the households had average levels of dietary diversity, seven percent had very high dietary diversity while twenty three percent had low dietary diversity. Jhum cultivation greatly helped in maintaining the dietary diversity of majority of the tribal populations.

Protection of forest lands and products from them, and traditional practices such as the jhum can greatly help to ensure dietary diversity, better nutritional outcomes, sustainability and food security, and health among populations.

However, jhum cultivation is disappearing rapidly due to land use changes and its place is gradually being taken by intensive agriculture that mostly involves monoculture, which can be a growing threat to local food security, warns the paper.

The experience with the recent disruptions triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, have raised a number of challenges for food security and health, and highlighted the importance of agrobiodiversity and the role that local practices such as jhum can play to increase resilience in informal food chains and help enhance nutrition security, strengthen adaptive capacity and reduce vulnerability, argues the paper.

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