Wild Food Plants (WFPs) – Local Solutions to Global Issues of Climate Change and Nutrition Security

By Ravi Shankar Behera and Dr. Ranjit K. Sahu

Wild food Plants (WFPs) are hardy species and survive even during extreme weather variabilities like droughts and floods. However, with the increasing climate variabilities, the availability of WFPs shows a decreasing trend during the last two decades. This has a ripple effect on the incomes and employment opportunities for most forest communities. Indigenous communities (Tribals) consume Wild Food Plants (WFPs) as part of their daily diets. They collect these from the forest and grow sometimes grow these WFPs in their farmlands. Wild Food Plants (WFPs) including food grains, greens, tubers, vegetables, flowers, fruits and berries have been used traditionally by indigenous communities in their daily diets and play an important role in ensuring the health, household level food and nutrition security, especially of women and children. Forest communities are increasingly finding it difficult to gather wild foods to supplement their diet.

As per a participatory field study by Regional Centre for Development Co-operation (RCDC), 2001, using historical transects, resource mapping, crop calendars, trends in production and consumption of crops facilitated with local communities in western Odisha, it was found that the consumption of diverse varieties of wild food plants like yams, greens, lentils, minor millets and tubers has reduced considerably over the last two decades. The 22-25 varieties of wild foods, including minor millets, greens, lentils, mushrooms, wild fish, vegetables, fruits and berries, present on the plates of rural communities a few decades ago has now been reduced to only 5-7 quintessential types. Rural communities have now shifted to consuming rice, a few lentils and vegetables, a growing trend that apes the food habits of the middle class and urban communities and largely dependent on external procurement rather than local production.

The major factors contributing towards this scenario include rapid loss of forests and biodiversity in the garb of development such as infrastructure development, mining, construction of dams and other development projects. The other factors include Climate variabilities like increased frequency of droughts, deforestation, accelerated soil erosion and the invasion of monoculture of crops and commercial plantations at individual levels for paper pulp and other export-oriented commodities, based purely on profit.

Indigenous communities sometimes panic in distress and this leads to panic harvesting of WFPs which may result in complete loss of the species from an area. The problem is amplified with the migration of men folk in search of jobs during lean seasons when the family is forced to survive on basic rations from government sources. In spite of all these issues facing the forest communities, the Government still does not have a policy to declare drought if the NTFPs/WFP production decreases even below 50% of a normal year.

WFPs like Bamboo shoots, Bahunia variegata, Sesbania sesban, Roselle (Gongura), Sweet Potato, Fiddle head ferns, Colocasia, Elephant Yam, East Indian arrowroot (Curcuma augustifolia) and greens like Amaranthus, Basella rubra, Drumstick (Moringa oleifera), Ber, Date Palm etc., that were consumed by local communities have been replaced with monocrops like Rice, potatoes, a few vegetables, sugarcane and other commercial crops like cotton, which are now procured from far off localities. Environmentally the practice of procurement also leads to increased food mile.

Addressing issues of endemic anaemia, under nourishment and malnourishment, continues to be a challenge in most drought-prone and forested pockets, which more often than not fall under the hunger pockets in India. The rate of anaemia is as high as 50% of women in India with child under nutrition and malnutrition levels being high. World Bank data indicates that India has one of the world’s highest demographics of children suffering from malnutrition.

India’s Global Hunger Index ranking of 67 among the 80 nations with the worst hunger situation places it even below North Korea or Sudan. India needs a lot more to be done to tackle the menace of malnutrition and WFPs are a possible interventions to address the issues of chronic hunger and malnourishment, especially of women and children in tribal areas and hunger pockets. For example, Mahua (Madhuca indica) is consumed by tribal children as breakfast in most tribal areas. This is a rich source of carbohydrates and iron and addresses most of the nutritional requirements of children and women. Fruits like mangoes, gooseberries, Wood apple, Ber, Jamun, Custard apple and wild berries like Mulberry are important sources of food and nutrition being rich sources of micro and macro nutrients like Iron, Calcium, magnesium, zinc, manganese and molybdenum. Their exclusion from the food platter is a factor affecting the nutrition status of women and children. Tubers like Yams and fruits like Jackfruits and mangoes are available in plenty in tribal areas. These have high minerals, vitamins and anti-oxidant content that is vital for regions grappling with malnutrition and anaemia.

Women play a very important role in collection, conservation of local seeds and planting materials, production, propagation and management of agriculture and allied activities in the rural areas. Women are key to ensure household level food and nutrition security. There are examples of many tribal women and their associations, who have played the role of saviors of local biodiversity and practice sustainable agricultural systems and practices, suitable to the local agro-ecology. Some of the tribal women (Ms. Kamala Pujari) have now been awarded the Padmashri award for their efforts in conservation of land varieties.

 

As per a recent study on the Soliga tribes in Kerala, ATREE, 2019, the diversity of WFPs consumed by the Soligas evolved over generations as a survival strategy. They relate the usage of WFPs to seasonal plant availability and the status of resources and can even predict the availability of WEPs with respect to micro-climatic changes, indicating a long-term intimate knowledge of their surroundings. Tribal women cannot imagine life without the forest that ensures their food and nutritional security. The average daily intake of uncultivated forest food ranges between 20 per cent and 34.4 per cent of the total cooked foods consumed. These WFPs collected from the forest and farm lands also provide a crucial source of nutrition in the diets of many tribal communities. Inclusion of wild foods to a level of about 20 per cent or more in their diets alleviated signs of malnutrition.

Forest foods are in high demand, both in tribal community markets and nearby rural markets. Demand for forest produce such as honey and amla is growing in cities which also decreased their availability for local consumption. Though this may appear an opportunity for economic empowerment of tribal communities, if not managed, over-harvesting could lead to degradation of the forests and ultimately, disappearance of these very species.

For Wild Food Plants to be preserved for posterity, the forests must be co-managed by local and tribal communities. The tribal community’s relationship with the forest is one of belonging rather than ownership and this needs to be understood for policy decisions. Forest management as commons is good for sustaining forests. Tribal peoples’ access and control over forest and its sustainable use and management is the key to address issues of sustainability, food and nutrition security. Implementation of India’s landmark 2006 Forest Rights Act that offers provisions to involve communities in safeguarding forest resources and developing co-management plans is needed.

Policy level suggestions

  1. ICDS and Mid Day Meal (MDM) scheme to include WFPs: The Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS) should include provisioning of local wild foods for the pregnant and lactating mothers and children in all Anganwadis. While the MDM is neutral when it comes to serving vegetarian and non-vegetarian food, it only suggests the amount of calorific content. The Government needs to think of nutrition beyond the aspect of calorific value giving importance to other health benefits and nutrition aspects. The MDM scheme can include more local wild foods like greens, vegetables, tubers and fruits. This will enhance the nutritional value and will also have other health benefits. Fortification of food for perceived improvements in nutrition levels of children need to be avoided at all costs, which are currently being pushed by the Multi-National Companies and some political leaders, from a profit. Hot cooked meals prepared from local food grains and WFPs is always better than “fortified” food.
  2. Awareness among women and children how to use WFPs as regular components in daily diets: Awareness drives can be undertaken among women and children on the importance of wild food plants and their health benefits can be undertaken by development actors including the Government and civil society organizations on the local biodiversity and use of wild food plants as food and medicines.
  3. Promotion of WFPs, edible herbs as garden plants in rural, urban and sub urban communities: Mass awareness campaigns on the cultivation, conservation and management of wild food plants and edible herbs can be beneficial to communities to ensure household level food and nutrition security. Many schools in developed countries now include a kitchen garden activity. On similar lines, children and indirectly their parents can be made aware of local herbs that can be used as a source of food.
  4. Identification of WFPs, conservation and documentation of indigenous Knowledge: Local communities are knowledgeable on local biodiversity and are aware of the local wild food plants. They can contribute immensely for the identification of wild food plants and describe their associated benefits including food and nutrition value and medicinal uses in community programs and events. There is a need for systematic identification, in-situ conservation and documentation of the indigenous knowledge systems across the country, especially in the tribal areas.
  5. Government should have a policy on the declaration of drought when the WFPs production is affected by 50%: Adequate steps need to be undertaken for providing support for conservation, protection and management of WFPs by local communities and the Government. This has a bearing on the local communities to ensure their food and nutritional security during abnormal years and prevent distress migration.
  6. WFPs processing and preservation in the areas where they are produced: The Government should set up food processing units and cold storages for WFPs at the Gram Panchayat level. This will ensure better marketability and profits for local growers and ensure food stocks which can be used as a buffer during food scarce months and during natural calamities to cater to the immediate food requirements of the most vulnerable and at-risk communities. Forest communities often carry products that are not well packaged and hence not of long stability. For example, Tribal women form Koraput region sell the flour of East Indian arrowroot but they can also be trained to use them during lean times by adding other ingredients in their diet.
  7. Focused research and extension on WFPs: State Agricultural Universities Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) and other premier food and nutrition institutes like Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), which have existed for over 50 years, have taken little or no steps on research and extension services promote and preserve the indigenous/wild foods especially from Odisha. Preservation of seasonal foods using modified preservation methods for round the year consumption may help alleviate malnutrition. for example making wild fruit jams using local ingredients.
  8. Setting up of more Nutritional Rehabilitation Centres (NRCs): NRCs will reduce child mortality but will not improve the general nutritional status of children in the community. Therefore preventive and promotive efforts must be continued. Strengthening of community based mechanisms for identification, prevention and management of severe acute malnutrition is a must, in the absence of which NRCs will not be effective. Facility based approach may prevent some under5 deaths, but will not be useful in addressing this problem in the community
  9. More engagement and better coordination among Government, private sector and civil society organizations on Nutrition security: A combination of aforementioned Government, private sector and civil society activities would be beneficial to address the issue of malnourishment on a war footing. The public sector and sponsorship through those who donate online, investors, corporates, and volunteers can successfully eradicate the hunger problem, and permanently end the scourge of malnutrition-based infant deaths.

About the Author:

Dr. Ranjit K. Sahu is a Research professional and freelance writer with over a decade of experience in biomedical research , currently located in Virginia, USA. His interests include education, environment, sustainability and health care in the underprivileged regions of the world.

Ravi Shankar Behera is a free lance consultant in the development sector and affiliated to several organizations, currently based in New Delhi.

3 Comments

  1. Very useful

  2. Dr. Binodini Mishra says:

    Good Article on WFP, very informative too. I am highly impressed on such research.

  3. Thanks dear Raju babu and Binodini madam

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