From farm to mouth
Revival of Indian culinary practices and revisiting production-consumption patterns, could help diversify our food choices and minimize wastage, hence mitigating hunger
World Food Day is celebrated on 16 Oct every year. The theme of this year is "Our actions are our future — Better production, better nutrition, a better environment and a better life"
Food is vital for our survival. It is a global commodity which serves as the fuel for the body of living organisms.
The Sanskrit shloka, transcript as annam na nindyat, tad vratam, demeans the wastage of food and glorifies the importance of pure and healthy food.
Food connects people and regions, initiates conversation and is a reflection of society, culture and tradition. The widely used term 'roti, kapda aur makaan' — going by the same order —has time and again prioritized "having food" over other necessities of life. Lucky are those who get to eat three meals in a day! As per the Global Hunger Index, 2020, India ranks 94th out of 107 countries, which indicates the prevalence of serious level of hunger in the country. Around the world, more than enough food is produced to feed the global population but as many as 811 million people still go hungry. From 2019 to 2020, the number of undernourished people grew by as many as 161 million.
Studies have revealed that food affects not just our physical but also mental well-being. Jaisa Ann, vaisa Mann (As the food, so the mind). In view of this, the real question is how many of us eat right, with right mood and at right time.
The Sustainable Development Goal 2 — Zero Hunger — aims to provide access to food to all by 2030. This is crucial because we know that food access; food security and food availability are all separate issues. The interconnectedness between food and sustainability concerns can be beheld from several perspectives — from how we grow our food, where do we grow and who grows to what we grow, what we eat and how we cook and what do we do with the leftover cooked and uncooked food.
Let us start with how we grow our food in fields. There have been arguments and counter-arguments about the use of hybrid seeds and genetic engineering for modifying the varieties and increasing the agricultural production. The agricultural practices, to a great extent, influence the environmental conditions on a short- and long-term basis. Instead, we must encourage indigenous practices of cultivation, as we are already facing the adverse consequences of overusing chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Also, we need to look into the diversified innovative means to practice agriculture.
The official wording of SDG-2 is: "End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture". Similarly, what is grown in our field requires re-examination. The commercialization of agriculture has resulted in large-scale plantations that are dominated by monotonous cropping system. Out of approximately 6,000 species of food, only 150 crops are cultivated on large scale in India, and surprisingly, only three crops including wheat, rice and maize help meet most of our daily protein and calories requirements. When we lose species every year, we are depriving ourselves of the various nutrients which are essential for maintaining health and well-being.
The food, nutrition and nature form a strong connection, and studies have suggested that protection of ecosystems can help in meeting the nutritional requirements of the population. There is a strong need to expand and diversify our diets to discover other varieties that could be more nutritious and could even taste better. Today, our food baskets are shrinking with more or less common food eaten across the country, particularly among the younger generation. The disappearance of the rich food biodiversity not only reduces the availability of micro and macro nutrients but also has socio-ecological consequences. The livelihoods of the people also suffer and environmental costs are huge.
Food security and sustainability are not just related to how the food is grown in our fields, what is grown and where it is grown, how it is stored and how it is distributed but also about what we eat. India is slowly moving towards the silent pandemic in the form of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) like obesity, blood pressure, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. The power of markets and commodification of food is designing our diets and meals. We tend to eat what is packaged properly (even though the packaging is not required), what appears to be healthy (even though it is not) and what others are eating (even if it does not match with our geographical conditions and climate). Throughout the year, all fruits and vegetables appear in the market which were once available only during a particular season. The convenient food, fast foods, are neither nutritious nor make us healthy.
Sustainable food systems will emerge only when we revive our great Indian kitchen. Indian diets and culinary skills were scientific as well as sustainable. It is important to check what we eat, how we cook and who cooks, in order to remain healthy. We must know the importance of eating right and eating healthy as our diets are based on eating seasonal foods, prepared from traditional means and safe procedures. Indian culinary practices make use of each and every plant part which is edible. Our food comprises of leaves, twigs, seeds, flowers, fruits, roots and so on. This is unlike the British who named pulses as chicken pea, pigeon pea, horse gram etc., as they knew little about these pulses and used them mainly as the animal feed. The journey of the food that we get on our tables needs to be revived — from beginning till it is cooked.
With the emergence of nutrigenomics and a shift from industrial economy to lifestyle-based economy, it is possible that in times to come, there will be personalized diets identified from artificial techniques. Without the diverse food choices, our lives will become impersonal and food will be designed with universal taste, color and appearance. This is what is happening today. Emphasis on sustainable diets with heterogeneous food combinations and minimizing food wastage will help to conserve the biodiversity in the long run. We must protect our forests, ecosystems and wetlands to provide us with the best of foods possible which will ensure better health for us as well as for the planet.
Views expressed are personal