How Protecting Biodiversity Also Protects the Rich Variety of Foods That We Love to Eat

Sunita Narain, Director of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), a New Delhi-based research and advocacy group, recently released First Food: Culture of Taste at Kochi-Muziris Biennale, Kochi, India. It is the second book in the series published by CSE after First Food: Taste of India’s Biodiversity was published in 2013. This series is an attempt at preserving and spreading awareness about the wealth of traditional food habits already existing in India.

Narain is a writer and an environmentalist with experience in water resource management, food and water safety, climate change, and advocating for local participatory democracy. In 2013, she was a member of the Committee set up by Delhi High Court, entrusted to design regulatory framework for junk food availability and distribution targeted at children in India.

The First Food series was conceptualized by Vibha Varshney, Associate Editor of CSE’s fortnightly magazine, Down to Earth. Varshney has worked in the areas of health and science for the last sixteen years, is a biologist by training, and holds a PhD in Botany.

Food Tank had the opportunity to speak with Sunita Narain and Vibha Varshney about the new book, the need for reclaiming traditional culinary knowledge, and food habits in the changing dietary landscape of India.

Food Tank (FT): What was the main intention of putting together First Food: Culture of Taste?

Sunita Narain and Vibha Varshney (SN&VV): India is eating badly and we have a high incidence of obesity and undernutrition. However, we have an opportunity to be different from developed countries in its food journey. We do not have to first eat badly and then rediscover healthy and medicinal food that is not filled with toxins.

We have a living tradition of healthy foods that are still consumed in our homes. But knowledge of this diversity is disappearing because we are losing the holders of that knowledge—our grandmothers and mothers who manage our food. It is also getting lost because we do not value their knowledge.

First Food series is an effort to value this knowledge. We feel also that promoting local and seasonal foods would help protect India’s rich biodiversity. India is one of the world’s most biodiverse regions but this wealth is under threat from industry, development projects and climate change. We would be able to protect this biodiversity only when we value it on our plate. Fox nut (Euryale ferox) grows in wetlands that have steadily been encroached upon. However, as the seed became a popular food product, even private industries are trying to protect the ponds.

FT: How is this book different from First Food: A Taste of India’s Biodiversity?

SN&VV:  One book is not enough to showcase the biodiversity in our country. We plan to continue this series. In Culture of Taste, we have tried to highlight how communities make the optimum use of the biodiversity around them by using leaves, flowers, fruits, vegetables and seeds when nature provides them. It also provides information on how communities ensure that food is available in the lean periods too by using preservation technologies. We have also highlighted the nature−nutrition−livelihood link in this book as healthy food would continue to be promoted and protected only if it provides livelihood opportunities to the people

FT: Why is it important for us to reclaim India’s traditional culinary knowledge and food habits?

SN&VV: Traditional, biodiversity-rich foods are healthy and many of these foods have medicinal value. It was a cultural norm to consume these foods at least once during the season to ensure yearlong health. We need to promote the knowledge that is the essence of food that delights our palates and nourishes our bodies. Each region of India has its own recipes; it cooks with different ingredients and, it eats differently. If biodiversity disappears we will lose the food wealth on our plates.

Promoting traditional foods is important to counter the increasing popularity of junk food in the country. We need to ensure that food does not become a sterile package designed for universal size and taste. This is what is happening today as we eat packaged food from plastic boxes.

FT: Who are your food heroes (individuals and organizations) that inspire you?

SN&VV: You need to visit remote areas and see how communities use the local ingredients to cook healthy and tasty food. These people are the real food heroes. The women in the family who still make an effort to include this rich biodiversity in the meal need to be felicitated. We also find that chefs have embraced new ingredients and are happy to experiment with them. They too are important in popularizing local foods.

FT: In your opinion, what is the biggest challenge the Indian food system is facing today?

SN&VV: The popularity of junk food is truly challenging. In the United States, home cooking was destroyed in just around a decade through marketing gimmicks used by the food industry. They used the rising feminist movements just like tobacco companies did to promote packaged foods as convenient food. Both industries capitalized by promoting “liberation” of smoking and not cooking. India has to avoid this trap at all costs and India has a variety of traditional foods that is equally convenient. For example, roasted fox nuts are as convenient as corn flakes for breakfast. Flowers of harsingar (Nyctanthes arbortristis) can be used as a healthy alternative to food colors. Mustard oil is healthier than olive oil. People need to be made aware of these choices and these products need to be made available to them.

FT: The Government of India has focused on the production of pulses; the State Government of Karnataka is working to popularize millet production—an indigenous crop; and restaurants and chefs are promoting seasonal, local, and regional food produce. How do you see these trends contributing in bringing back the food-nutrition-nature-culture connection?

SN&VV: Yes, there is an increased interest in biodiversity-rich food. We now see food festivals all year long. But so far, only a limited variety of foods are showcased in these. We need to create awareness about many more foods. We need to inform people that these are not just novelty foods but need to be part of the daily diet. Steps need to be taken to promote these foods over the junk food through campaigns that surpass the advertising by junk food companies.

FT: What more would you like to see the Government of India, state governments, and public research work towards in addressing issues related to food, agriculture, environment, nutrition, and India’s culinary tradition?

SN&VV: World over, there are efforts to mainstream biodiversity based foods. Such diet provides a variety of nutrients that are more healthful. One way to promote these foods is to strengthen nutrition labeling in the country. This would help promote the healthier traditional foods over processed foods that currently flood the market by helping people choose healthier options. Efforts should be there that local foods are part of government programs such as public distribution system, the mid-day meal scheme and also provided as food in anganwadis (day care centers) and to pregnant women.

Mainstreaming biodiversity would lead to procurement from local producers, and markets for local foods would be created. Communities should be trained to process the local food to ensure higher incomes from this produce. Markets need to be created. We also need to ensure that communities have access to the food that grows in the wild. For example, in Maharashtra, communities face restrictions when they try to collect lotus stems from water bodies. Such restrictions need to be removed.

FT: How can readers, in India and abroad, contribute to building a better food system?

SN&VV: Each one of us needs to embrace local and seasonal foods. We need to provide a market to these foods so that they do not get lost. This would also ensure that the people in rural areas, who no longer consume these foods believing them to be inferior to staples like wheat and rice, go back to healthier options that are more suited to the environment they live in.


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