Indigenous Food: The Not-So-Secret Ingredient For Sustainability

By Gautam BishtonApr. 22, 2022in Environment and Ecology

Sometimes, the way food gets positioned socially may have no relation to how science determines its nutritional value.

Handful of ragi – Photo credit Shutterstock

As evidence around climate change and its impact becomes more glaring, many people believe reor­gan­i­sing the global food system is one possible strategy to combat this challenge. Studies sug­gest that our current global food system (that entails various aspects of production, transportation, and consumption) results in roughly one-third of the total carbon emissions. Current food practices are affecting the health of the people and the planet in equally negative ways. One proposed suggestion, as part of the reorganisation of our food system, is the concerted effort to engage in methods such as agroecology, decentralised small-scale farming and engaging with indigenous knowledge sys­t­ems. But how do these global designs affect the everyday living in remote Indian villages? How does this relate to young indigenous people who may be attracted to individual social mobility, rather than thinking about climate change and sustainability? How do they look at their own indigenous food systems and practices?

Motilal Hansda, 21, is part of an online English writing class that our organisation ( conducts for rural youth. He belongs to the Santhal community, a historically marginalised social group categorised as a Scheduled Tribe. He lives in the Chakai block of Jamui district in Bihar. Declared as an ‘aspirational’ district by the Indian government, Jamui has some of the lowest indicators on sustainable development goals, and has the presence of left-wing extremism. Hansda is representative of the aspirational indigenous youth here. During the Covid lock­down, Hansda (re)discovered sing ara (a green vegetable foraged from the forest). In a conversation that started with his frustration over closed markets, his grandmother told him about the local foods that her generation ate, some of which are still available but not readily consumed. “She told me about a time when they did not eat rice and wheat, but mainly edi arba matkom (edi and arba are different kind of grains; matkom is a form of mahua—sacred tree for Santhals). I wonder why we have overlooked all this food present in the village and the forest,” says Han­sda. For the English class, he intends to write an article exploring the reasons for why and how the Santhal food plate transformed. There is no one absolute answer to the question Hansda poses, but one dimension of it lies in the syst­e­matic invisibility, and often devaluation of indigenous knowledge systems.

At Times, How Food Gets Positioned Socially May Have No Relation To How Science Decodes Its Nutritional Value. Millets Got So Entangled With Economic Status, It Became The ‘Poor Man’s Food’.

Since food is entangled with identity and culture, it tends to encode and reinforce social hierarchy. The complex religious affiliations of Adivasis—Christian, Sarna or Hindu orientation—also has its own unique effect on what food practices they take up and what they let go. Sometimes, the way food gets positioned socially may have no relation to how science determines its nutritional value. Take the well-known case of millets. Somewhere down the line, millets got so entangled with economic status that it infamously became the ‘poor man’s food’. Escaping from millets and transitioning to rice became a way to ‘move up’ the social (food) ladder. In the last decade, Odisha, followed by other states, backed the resurgence of millets, citing its superior nutritive value and climate adaptability over rice. Communities have even replaced multiple varieties of local rice (brown rice in Chakai) for the polished ‘high yielding’ market variety. Emulating the food choices of dominant caste and class groups is one of the reasons that you­ng Santhals have turned a blind eye to the rich local resources. A plethora of uncultivated forest foods and herbs that has been part of the Santhal life is now in a state of decadence. Therefore, I reinstate Hansda’s question: how is it that something superior in terms of its nutritional values and climate adaptability is considered a poor person’s food?

Leveraging community knowledge

Over the years, the developmental impulse to mainstream Adivasis through schools and other institutions have reinstated their status as nutritionally deficient. Through the rhetoric of development and modernity, these communities are trained, insidiously or explicitly, to look at themselves as lacking. Not to say that these communities are not facing any real challenges. In India, 45 per cent indigenous population consists of poor, ingenious women and children, among the worst affected by malnutrition, according to the NFHS-4 India Report. But sometimes in the process of defining the poor, we constitute them and their world as poor. This conflation of actual cases of economic deprivation and the subject effects of being termed ‘backward’ has implications that further deteriorate their condition. Today we have a growing body of evidence to show how the consumption of uncultivated foods in rural communities could help achieve food security and nutritionally diverse, sustainable diets. But in places like Chakai, uncultivated foods and their consumption are threatened. The first major reason is the loss and degradation of environments in which wild foods thrive, often due to deforestation and mono-cropping-based agriculture. The second major reason, and one we have been discussing in the article, is the social attitude of the others and Adivasis towards foraged food from the forest, which reinforces the image of junglee, something young educated Adivasis want to avoid. In the school curriculum, chapters on nutrition and balanced diet fail to recognise indigenous food practices. There are severe implications of this social and curricular ‘removal’ on this knowledge system. The region suffers from a high rate of malnutrition and poverty, and yet people fail to capitalise on “uncultivated” or “wild” foods, which are cultural assets.

Even today, rice and potatoes are the staple food in many Santhal hou­s­e­holds. Though easily available, local foods are not part of their meals. Another contributing factor is the labour-intensive process of procuring and preparing these local foods. Government and non-government organisations usually work on two major approaches to tackle the health problem of rural communities. The first step is to introduce the concept of kitchen gardens; the second is to ask people to produce cash crops that could enhance their income. There is an assumption that people can improve their health with more income.

Indigenous foods (1st row, from left) mushrooms; wild snails; ants; (2nd row) Santhals being trained to document their food systems; weevil larvae; and crabs

Thus, there are efforts to link people to markets and enhance their capacity to buy different kinds of food items. Though these approaches remain relevant, there is a growing need to actively complement this approach by putting local food systems at the forefront. Currently, I am associated with one such project that engages with indigenous food systems. Given the lack of knowledge and consolidated information about these food items, a major part of our project is to document and exhibit them. We did so by using methods of community participation, placing local youth at the centre of change. To encourage and attract local youth, we used creative mediums of films, theatre, and community radio. Eventually, the locals did not just produce but also exhibited many films on forest foods. The project got the youth collaborating with their community elders in exploring many sources of locally available nutrition from vegetables, fruits and meat. We also partnered with community experts like Boro Baski to create graphic stories for children. Beyond our own project in the last couple of years, there has been a rise in social media channels that share Adivasi foods. There has been an emergence of entrepreneurship models that are creating products from local items and developing restaurants to serve Adivasi delicacies.

Global health, local taste

Food systems are dynamic, and keep changing. The real questions are how they change, who decides its course and for what ends. As Hansda wonders about the evolution of the Santhal plate, he may also actively envision the future of what his plate would hold. In a turn of eve­nts, his plate may potentially hold answers to global problems, and science may be catching up with his community’s age-old wisdom.

This would need a lot of in­v­estment from key sta­ke­ho­l­d­ers, at the level of policy and practice, to incentivise the drive towards indigenous food systems and their systematic evaluation. However, all problems and their solutions are bound to be political. The trend towards homogenisation of food, tastes and identities is a strong local force likely to pose challenges to indigenous knowledge systems. The other major difficulty would be to work on material conditions that sustain this local knowledge.

Food Systems Are Dynamic, And Constantly Changing. The Real Question Is How They Change, Who Decides Its Course And For What Ends.

Transforming social attitude is just a precondition for eventually work towards regenerating forest cover and refashioning agriculture. Both steps involve substantial upheavals that will upset the currently acknowledged logic of development. Gradual reduction of forest, market dependent agriculture and eventually ‘buying what you eat’ is considered historically inevitable and developmentally desirable, to suggest and assert otherwise would not just be considered unfeasible, but also dangerous.

(This appeared in the print edition as “Scientifically Rich, Socially Poor”)

First published by Outlook on 22 Apr. 2022

Read in Spanish Alimentos locales: el ingrediente no tan secreto de la sostenibilidad

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