The false divide: Nutritional security and agrobiodiversity are two parts of the same plate
The spectre of food insecurity is often raised as a critique of agroecological farming suggesting that these practices are unable to produce at a scale needed to feed the world. However, mere food availability is not the same as nutritional security, and the right to wholesome nutrition is not separate from the need for biodiverse farming.
The homogenization revolution
Even as a plethora of culinary shows and cuisines seem to inspire an unprecedented interest in food, our edible palate is probably the most impoverished version since humans began cooking. Studies reveal that 75% of our food is derived from just 12 plants and five animal species. Just wheat, rice and corn contribute to 60% of the calories consumed globally. The dominance of a few staple crops became possible due to the rise of Industrial Agriculture with its focus on yield-oriented, large-scale monocultures since the early 20th century. Consequently, nearly 90% of edible crop varieties have disappeared from cultivation. Some don’t see this as a crisis, given that ‘affordable’ food seems to be widely produced and available. India today has millions of tons of stocked granaries and is a net exporter of cereals, a far cry from the situation in the 1960s when the fear of possible famine gripped the country. However, many scholars have questioned this framing and argue that corporate interests and technology-driven institutional arrangements have promoted monocultural production and standardized consumption under the guise of food security. Ironically, the policies and incentives used to ramp up the production of wheat and rice adversely impacted the cultivation of mixed crops, oilseeds, fruits and the rearing of livestock, which would usually comprise a farming system. The resulting skewed nutritional basket is evident in the rise of diseases such as malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies, obesity, diabetes and other ailments despite the supposed abundance of food. The creation of large monocultures led to the conversion of common lands and forests that were sources of nutritious, uncultivated food for marginalized populations in rural areas. In the growing absence of such sources of food, many rural and tribal areas rely on Public Distribution Systems, which just provide staple grains.
People with diabetes in India, in 1,000s; Source:https://diabetesatlas.org/data/en/country/93/in.html
Resilience at risk
Human health isn’t the only trade-off in the current mode of industrial agriculture. Reduced agrobiodiversity puts the entire food production through over-reliance on fewer crops that are vulnerable to widespread pest attacks. In the 1950s, bananas were on the verge of extinction. Specifically, a variety called Gros Michael had been cultivated extensively through tissue culture, that were genetically identical and thus extremely vulnerable to the same threats. In the 1900s, a deadly soil fungus called Panama 1 began spreading through the world and almost wiped out the variety. The sobering lesson should have proved the crucial need for biodiversity in food, but instead, plant scientists and agri-business groups switched to a genetically similar type called Cavendish that is supposedly fungal resistant. However, a new fungus variety called Panama 4 is already impacting Cavendish cultivations, and warmer temperatures are almost sure to give rise to many more fungal and bacterial varieties that could severely impact food production. Diversity is our best bet in mitigating the impact of aggressive pathogens by ensuring the continuing survival of different species and breeding favourable characteristics, something our ancestors did for millennia and provided us with a mind-boggling diversity of edibles. Yet, within a single century, we risk losing generations of cultivated knowledge and resilience, even as multiplier threats of climate change become more apparent by the day.
Diversity of leafy greens in a local market
The one health paradigm
In a recent webinar hosted by Biodiversity Alliance, activist Kavitha Kuruganti emphasized the fundamental interconnections between soil, plant and human health by drawing attention to the concept of ‘One Health’, an integrated, unifying approach that recognizes the health of humans, domestic and wild animals, plants, and the wider environment (including ecosystems) are closely linked and inter-dependent. Citing a comparative analysis done by the National Institute of Nutrition, which studied the nutrition profiles of 28 food items between 1989 and 2017, she explained how the nutritional composition of the same food item has decreased due to poor soil conditions, disrupted geochemical cycles and widespread pollution. As food crops become less nutritious, compromised health and immunity of populations is an inevitable outcome. Controversial attempts of fortifying items like rice, wheat milk, etc. have arisen to compensate for a lack of nutrition that wouldn’t exist if people could access diverse foods (most food an average person eats during the day can be traced back to wheat, rice, corn syrup and a cocktail of preservatives). The factory farming model extending to livestock and fisheries has also stressed the wild habitats of many creatures and created conditions for increased transmission of zoonotic diseases. The natural mechanisms to counter potential outbreaks are severely impacted by the network of global demand-supply chains and extensive dependency on a narrow range of food sources.
(Left: Variety of tomatoes and brinjals in a home garden; Right: A farmer harvesting groundnuts as part of mixed cropping)
Flavours of the same dish: Food, Ecological, Social and Economic Justice
The advent of mass-produced and processed foods has further compromised the availability of wholesome food. Locally milled flour and cold-pressed oil have ironically become a niche market for elite populations interested in accessing healthy food. Millets, for instance, were once a staple produce in rain-fed areas and an important food source but were marginalized with the GR push for wheat and rice production. Now hailed as ‘climate-resilient’ ‘nutri-cereals’, the once shunned ‘coarse-grains’ now find prominent spaces in upscale supermarkets. Such skewed practices result from practices and policies that are unable to protect the needs of the farmers or vulnerable populations who need nutritional security the most. A great deal of cultural engineering took place in the 20th century to create aspiration and perceived dependency towards standardized, processed foods (such as using sugar instead of gur) and another socio-cultural shift is urgently needed now. Encouraging people to incorporate millet into their diets, for instance, must be accompanied by incentives and a supportive ecosystem for farmers to switch back from paddy cultivation. Community seed banks can be managed and supported by state and local government agencies to help farmers cultivate diverse crops. Newer institutional arrangements stemming from grassroots practices and contextual needs can pave the way for reimagining the agri-food system based on principles of reciprocity, care and stewardship instead of reductionist efficiency and skewed productivity. Health, encompassing human and planetary wellbeing, has to develop on principles of biodiversity and dignified livelihoods. We treat these concepts as separate at our own peril.
Deborah Dutta is a Research and Documentation Consultant in the Living Farm Incomes (LFI) project, IRMA.