Countries like India, which claim to have reduced poverty yet have had no reductions in hunger and malnutrition, present quite a paradox that must be addressed. The food sovereignty framework, introduced by the Sustainable Development Goals debate, is promising because it addresses the fact that hunger and malnutrition are not just a supply problem, but one about the control of the resources that affect the poorest. Even within this discourse, however, the role of forests as food-producing habitats and their importance in food security for forest-dependent communities has not been emphasized enough and must be examined.
Odisha’s forests a living food bank
A recent study, done by authors in Odisha, India, sought to assess the nature and extent of dependence of Adivasi (indigenous) communities on forests for the communities’ food security. The study, which was commissioned by Living Farms, a community based non-profit organization in Odisha, was conducted in three villages, each from the two districts of Rayagada and Sundargarh. A large part of the study focused on the weights of uncultivated foods gathered and uncultivated foods that went into cooked meals. We found that uncultivated foods form a very important part of Adivasi diets and that community members rely heavily upon the forest systems for food security.
Our findings showed 121 different kinds of uncultivated foods being harvested between the last week of July 2013 and December 2013 by the sample households. On average, 4.56 kg of such foods were harvested per household during each collection foray. The highest diversity was in mushrooms during the study period, while the largest quantities harvested were that of various tubers. Similarly, 98 different kinds of uncultivated foods went into the cooked foods consumed by a sub-set of the sample households. Here, greens exhibited the greatest diversity followed by wild vegetables, shoots, fruits etc., closely followed by mushrooms and tubers. Wild animals also formed a part of the diversity of consumption. Across villages, uncultivated foods ranged from 12% to 24.4% of total cooked foods and there was variability across months.
Safe, reliable, and nutritious
Our study found that in times of stress, it is the uncultivated foods which form a critical source of food and nutrition. This could be seen through historical accounts as well as anecdotal evidence that people shared. The criticality of these foods is also evident in terms of their nutritional composition. If the forest is being maintained well and accessibility is good, then there is a year-long supply of uncultivated foods. This is especially so with tubers, greens and various fruits. Technical analysis of these foods shows that most of these foods are highly nutritious. The diversity of these foods is also an important factor to note.
At a time when income inequities are showing up starkly with rural communities getting impoverished, this is a food source that is not just affordable, but completely free, and equitably accessible. If the resource is managed sustainably, it is also a source of income for the communities.
Furthermore, food safety is a major emerging concern when it comes to cultivated food, especially when considering fruits, vegetables and greens. However, uncultivated foods are a source of food where no chemicals or additives come in at the time of growing, or post-production. This food is safer, also in the context where it is well-established that toxins, like pesticides, have a greater adverse impact on already malnourished people.
Wild species, locally adapted and naturally diverse are generally more resilient, as a whole, in this age of climate change, compared to cultivated species. Meanwhile, the periods of food stress for communities are likely to increase in frequency and duration due to climate change, especially if they are dependent only on cultivated foods. Uncultivated foods provide an important fallback mechanism in this context.
These foods, which do not require a household to incur costs, borrow money, depend on a government dole-out scheme or even seek the permission of others before accessing, lend communities, as well as individual households, a sense of self-dependence, and therefore, dignity and pride which are quite dear to Adivasi communities.
Locals know where, when, why and how
It is important to note that there is an enormous wealth of knowledge associated with these foods among members of the community, including children. Whether it is about where a particular species is grown, seasonality, characteristics, identification and appearance, or its nutritive and medicinal properties, properties related to processing or storing, cooking methods and quality, veterinary and livestock uses, etc. are all valuable knowledge that community members possess. Several uncultivated foods hold great cultural significance for the communities dependent on them. This is also often an under-studied and unacknowledged area.
However, there are numerous factors that are impacting the relationship between communities and forests and it is reported that consumption of uncultivated foods is on a steady decline.
A mainstream food security model, which assumes that supplying rice and wheat through a public distribution system (PDS) will address hunger issues of communities, is weaning communities away from their local food systems. Meanwhile forestry approaches measure forest cover, based on canopy irrespective of actual diversity, which is increasing areas of commercial plantations and camouflaging the real deterioration in forest quality as required in the context of food security. India has no land-use policies in place and there is a large scale diversion of land from the commons to non-agricultural uses. At another level, the ‘mainstream society,’ including through socialization obtained through ‘mainstream education,’ assigns values to different food systems, and looks at consumption of uncultivated foraged foods as primitive and backward. This is reflected constantly in the language mass media uses to describe the food consumption patterns of adivasis, especially during adverse seasons. “Development” and cash incomes also displaced uncultivated foods but not always with safe or nutritious foods.
Forest foods must be part of a strong food security policy
It is urgent and critical that we bring back a focus on forest foods as an integral part of the policy approach to address food and nutrition security. In this context, it is important to note that when there is a loss of habitat, it leads to a loss of availability of such foods. When there is lack of availability, it leads to the loss of knowledge. It also leads to a decline in value accorded to a resource. All of these factors contribute to a lack of consumption of uncultivated foods. This further leads to an erosion of cultures. There is a vicious cycle set off in the process of each feeding into the other.
Forests have rarely been looked at as food-producing habitats in our policy discourse or implementation of any development efforts related to food security; this is the fundamental shift required, that this study points to.Dr. Debal Deb is an ecologist and folk rice conservationist, and founder-chair of Centre for Inter-Disciplinary Studies. Kavitha Kuruganti is the convenor of the Alliance for Sustainable & Holistic Agriculture (ASHA). Dr. Rukmini Rao is a social worker and women’s rights activist with the Gramya Resource Centre for Women. Salome Yesudas is a nutrition scientist.