From neglected to future smart
Lipy Adhikari writes about how smart and secure farming practices can contribute to betterment of mountains and people in the Hindu Kush Himalaya.
If you eat, you are involved in agriculture.
With this succinct observation, American poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry reminds us of our place in the world food production system. We may not be farmers, but each of us contributes to the food trends and habits of our time and plays a part in determining global agricultural practices. As the world celebrates World Food Day, let us take a moment to reflect on food and agriculture, and how smart and secure farming practices can contribute to the betterment of mountains and people in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH).
"Minor crops", "neglected and under-utilised crop species (NUS)", and "crops for the poor" are all terms that have been used, over the years, to refer to crops traditionally grown in the mountainous HKH, a region that spans Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, China, India, Myanmar, Nepal, and Pakistan.
Crops like millet, buckwheat, barley, and sorghum, among others, fall under this category. National agricultural policies in the region do not pay much attention to these traditional crop varieties. Mostly, our policies and practices focus on the production of three major crops: rice, wheat, and maize.
Does this mean that we are narrowing down our agricultural produce, our farming practices, and our dietary habits to include only these limited varieties? Who is responsible for framing such specific crops-based policies in our countries? It seems as if farmers and policymakers in the region have been convinced that they need to focus their attention only on these three crops and their varieties.
Of the 30,000 identified edible plant species, humans have historically used more than 7,000 as food. Today, only 150 crop species are commercially cultivated. Of these, 103 provide up to 90 per cent of the calories an average individual consumes. Rice, wheat, maize, and potato alone account for 60 per cent of human energy supply.
It does not make sense for a region like ours, where many still depend on subsistence agriculture, to focus on cultivating only a few crop species, especially considering the fact that 78 per cent of the world's mountainous regions are not suitable or only marginally suitable for growing crops. It makes sense that diverse, local crop varieties are promoted to cope with marginal and heterogeneous environments.
Crops we normally identify as NUS are vital to sustainable agriculture and have been farmed by indigenous communities for centuries. Many of these crops are well adapted to coping with the negative impacts of climate change, as they can withstand the stresses of extreme environmental conditions, can grow in degraded, marginalised wastelands as well as drought-affected areas with minimum input, and are highly pest resistant.
Barley and buckwheat, which have short growing duration and are highly resistant to weeds, for instance, are cultivated in the higher altitudes of the Tibetan plateau and the Kosi Basin. Both crops are highly nutritious and vital for food security in HKH. Similarly, finger millet, which is categorised as a neglected species, is one of the richest sources of iron and calcium and has been a part of traditional mountain agriculture for millennia. Despite this, the overall production of these traditional crops is on the decline. In India alone, acreage under millet cultivation has decreased to 0.2 per cent from 0.4 per cent of the total cultivable land (142 million hectares).
In Nepal, one major reason rice is the grain of choice, even in mountainous regions where millet or buckwheat grows abundantly, is a social one. While millet and buckwheat are poor man's grains, rice, particularly white rice, is the grain associated with high societal status. Although millet and buckwheat are far more nutritious, it is hard to get people to replace rice meals with meals featuring these grains without changing their perceptions first. The idea that these grains are meant to be fed to livestock or are only to be consumed by the poor who cannot afford white rice is strongly entrenched in Nepali society.
In recent years, scientists, researchers, and institutions have diverted the focus of their attention from major cereals to minor ones. Many studies have emphasised the importance of traditionally-grown cereals in the mountains for increased agricultural production, enhanced crop diversification, and improved environmental conditions. The Food and Agriculture Organization recently renamed NUS future smart foods (FSFs) to highlight their importance and move past the negative connotations.
While this is a step in the right direction, a new name by itself will not serve any purpose. The need to create awareness among farmers as well as consumers about the high nutritional content of these cereals is urgent. We, who are aware of the nutritional benefits of FSFs and their possible contributions to healthy calorie intake, should ourselves be able to skip rice for millets or a buckwheat dinner. Consumers have to change our food habits if we are to motivate farmers to revive traditional agricultural systems. Now, is the time to broaden and diversify our palates and our farming culture with FSFs.
(The writer is research associate livelihoods,International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. Views expressed are strictly personal.)