Indigenous food systems - in peril!

Indigenous food systems, in peril! (Image Source: Usha Dewani)
Indigenous food systems, in peril! (Image Source: Usha Dewani)
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While food systems globally are struggling to meet the nutritional needs of the growing populations, these have put a strain on land, water, soil, resources leading to a renewed interest in sustainable food systems. These, derived from sustainable cultures and ecosystems are often known to be accessible, affordable, safe,  healthy and promote environmental stability. Indigenous foods (IFs), consumed by indigenous people throughout the world, are known to be derived from natural ecosystems, and  perceived to be sustainable and of high nutritional quality.

However, indigenous people, guardians of 80 percent of global species diversity, are often marginalised, nutritionally vulnerable and experience significant disparities in health outcomes, informs this paper titled 'Traditional food environment and factors affecting indigenous food consumption in Munda Tribal Community of Jharkhand, India' published in the journal Frontiers in Nutrition. This is because the potential of traditional food systems in providing sustainable solutions to the existing nutrition insecurity within the population continues to be unrecognised.

Jharkhand, a central eastern Indian state known for its rich biodiverse agroforestry is home to several indigenous tribal communities that constitute 26 percent of the state’s population. Mundas, the third most populous tribal community of Jharkhand, are the inhabitants of Chota Nagpur region in the state. This community lives in geographical locations that
are surrounded by natural resources and have largely retained their traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) of gathering and preparing foods from the natural sources in traditional ways.

Despite access to a rich agroforestry, studies show that malnutrition among women and children is very high. This paper discusses the findings of a study that explores the range of traditional foods that the Mundas consume, the nutritional value and the factors that influenece their consumption. The study was conducted in Khunti district of Jharkhand, India in Murhu and Torpa blocks of the district.

The study findings

The Mundas consume a two to three main meals a day, which consist of rice along with sautéed or curried green leafy vegetables (GLVs) or roots and tubers or sometimes pulses and flesh foods (meat, poultry, egg, or fish). Both indigenous as well as non-indigenous varieties of foods are consumed, which comprise of different varieties of rice, pulses, fruits, GLVs, roots and tubers, vegetables, and flesh foods. Milk and milk products are rarely consumed by the community.

The community accesses foods from cultivated agricultural lands, backyard gardens and raising livestock, from the wild such as surrounding forests, pastures, roadsides, wastelands and local water bodies, and built food environments such as local informal markets and food entitlements under government’s food security programmes. The agroforestry and livestock produce is mainly utilised for household consumption, while the surplus is sold in local markets for income generation.

Farm food consumed by the Mundas

The Munda community mainly practices settled agriculture at three levels, Loyong (low level land with the highest water requirement for crops), Badi (middle level lands with relatively low water requirement for crops), and Godha (dry plain lands with least water requirement).

The crops that are commonly cultivated include both indigenous as well as hybrid varieties of rice, millets, and pulses. However, the proportion of land use for cultivation of hybrid varieties is now getting larger than indigenous varieties. Vegetables, roots and tubers are also grown in the backyard kitchen gardens and livestock such as goat, pig, and poultry are raised to produce meat and eggs.

Wild food products collected form the forests

The Mundas depend on forests, water bodies and fields and pastures for gathering foods as well as firewood. Different varieties of indigenous leafy vegetables, fruits, roots and tubers, and mushrooms are collected for household consumption and sale in local markets and firewood is used as fuel for household cooking. Men in the village gather once in a year and collectively hunt wild animals for consumption. Local rivers, lakes and ponds are used during monsoons, to catch fish, crabs, and snails. Weeds grown in the fields, pastures and wastelands are collected for consumption.

The people also visit weekly local informal markets to get cooking oil, spices, packaged foods, and freshly prepared sweets and savouries. Apart from this, the local markets also provide the community with indigenous as well as non-indigenous varieties of pulses, fruits, vegetables, and roots and tubers, meat and fish.

Households also receive subsidised rice, sugar, salt etc under the Public Distribution System (PDS). Children under 5 years, receive supplementary nutrition in the form of hot cooked meals and take home ration from Anganwadi centers under Integrated Child Development Service (ICDS), while school children receive cooked meals under the Mid-Day Meal (MDM) program.

The diverse foods traditionally consumed by the Mundas

The traditional diets of the Mundas include a diverse list of 194 indigenous foods (IFs) ranging from 34 cereals (17.5 percent), 7 pulses (3.6 percent), 57 green leafy vegetables (29.2 percent), 11 other vegetables (5.7 percent), 9 roots and tubers (4.7 percent), 15 fruits (7.8 percent), 23 mushrooms (12 percent), 37 flesh foods (19 percent), and honey. Out of 194 IFs listed, 87 (45 percent) were identified as commonly consumed and 107 IFs (55 percent) as little used or historically consumed.

Many of the indigenous foods are found to be highly nutritious, but their consumption is now declining. The commonly consumed foods include rice, maize, finger millet, pearl millet, sorghum and Little millet. About 29 varieties of indigenous rice exist, but only 14 are routinely consumed. Millets are seldom consumed nowadays, only half of the known green leafy vegetables are now consumed. While twenty three varieties of mushrooms are known to the Mundas, only 12 varieties are routinely consumed. Similarly, only about 50 percent of roots and tubers and fruits are routinely consumed at present. Only a third of the reported 37 animal foods are included in the routine diets.

Indigenous foods continue to be consumed because of their desirable taste, perceived nutritional benefits,  adaptability and resilience to climatic variability resulting in improved productivity and availability,  the traditional practices of preservation and conservation which promote their incorporation in daily diets, and the cultural importance associated with the foods which facilitates their use on special occasions.

Barriers leading to decrease in production and consumption of traditional foods

However, a number of barriers were found to lead to decreasing production and use of traditional foods by the Mundas these include:

Local climate variability leading to erratic rainfall patterns and short rainy season followed by long periods of dry season:. Agriculture in the region is rain-fed. Due to low rainfall, water scarcity has become a major crisis in the region, leading to acute water shortage for crop irrigation. This has negatively affected both farm and kitchen garden produce

Easy access to non-indigenous foods from markets and food security schemes: As farm and forest produce is declining due to climate impacts, the Mundas have started exploring alternative sources of livelihoods such as daily wage labour, working in factories, shops, hotels etc. The income generated is used for purchasing non indigenous foods from local markets, such as green gram and lentils, vegetables like brinjal, cabbage, cauliflower, tomato, onion, GLVs like spinach and bathua leaves and roots and tubers like potato.

The Mundas also have access to food distributed under PDS, which supplies them with non-indigenous rice and wheat, sugar and salt at highly subsidised rates. This has led in reduction in inclusion of IFs in the daily food basket.

Increasing Exposure to Hybrid Crop Varieties: The low crop yields associated with indigenous seeds and increased emphasis over modern farming methods that use high yielding seeds and chemical fertilisers by the local agricultural organisations has led to changes in the traditional farming practices of Munda community.

Presently, rice is predominantly cultivated and consumed as a staple in the villages inhabited by Mundas. A similar trend is growing across other tribal communities of Jharkhand as well as India. Loss of coarse cereals like millets from the habitual Indian diet have led to reduced iron intake in the populations- one of the important indicators of malnutrition in the country.

Reinforcement of traditional ecological knowledge and informal food literacy, along with promotion of climate resilient attributes of IFs, needs to be encouraged and can greatly contribute to sustainable foods and better nutritional outcomes among the Munda community as well as other indigenous populations in India, argues the paper.

The paper can be accessed here