Bringing Back India’s Forgotten Foods

EAT-Lancet Commissioners work in countries across the globe and collaborate with a huge range of stakeholders. Here, we present stories based on science-based innovations worldwide, showing the global impacts of healthy food from sustainable diets. In this feature we explore how, in India, the resurgence of two forgotten foods is having an impact on health, livelihoods and the environment. 

 

Our Increasingly Homogeneous Diets

In 2014, a study found that just 50 crops supply 90% of the world’s calories, protein and fat. It described a huge and rapid shift that has happened globally, with diets becoming increasingly similar across countries, and farmers abandoning diversity and local varieties in favor of a few, high-yielding and easily marketable crops. In India, one of the world’s most ecologically diverse countries, a growing movement is now promising to bring back what it calls “forgotten foods” – arguing that the solution to some of our biggest environmental and nutritional problems lies in reversing what some researchers call a collective loss of memory about nature, taste and food.

Over the last five decades, diets around the world have converged, becoming gradually more similar as they’re shaped by changing policies, agricultural economics and demographics. Humans, an increasingly urban species, rely to an increasing degree on the same few crops and crop varieties – a fact that is true whether we live in India, El Salvador or Egypt.

The dominant crops that now make up the backbones of our diets, and the diets of the animals we eat – wheat, maize, rice, palm oil and soy – occupy a growing proportion of agricultural land, which has expanded in area to cover a full third of the planet’s land mass. Other crops – coconut, sorghum, rye and millet for example – have been pushed into long-term decline. But declining diversity goes beyond staples: leaves, roots, spices, flowers, nuts, seeds, even entire animal breeds, are falling rapidly into obscurity. In the world’s most ecologically diverse countries, this decline in biodiversity is rapidly pushing thousands of healthy, sustainable foods out of the food system altogether. 

“Just 50 crops now supply 90% of the world’s calories, protein and fat”

 

Eat Biodiversity to Bring it Back

Sunita Narain is the Director of India’s Center for Science and Environment, and a Commissioner on the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health. She’s also the author of First Food, a recently published collection of recipes, photos and essays dedicated to India’s forgotten crops – some of which could be in danger of disappearing from diets forever.

Sunita Narain – EAT-Lancet Commissioner

“These foods used to be integral part of our daily diet. But, with time, there has been decimation of knowledge about how to use these foods,” said Narain. “India is one of the 17 megadiverse countries in the world—at least 47,791, or 11.4 per cent, of the world’s 0.4 million plant species are found in the country. Communities have figured out ways to include most of these in their diet. However, their use is now forgotten as people have easier access to markets. Natural habitats of these plants too are now covered with concrete. The most biodiverse regions of the country are under threat from industry.”

Narain says diminishing diversity in the global food system is bad news for the planet, as foods that are adapted to specific local conditions are disappearing, replaced by monocultures that demand high fertilizer and pesticide inputs, and often large volumes of freshwater irrigation. But she stresses that it’s also bad news for our health:

“In India, food has been used as medicine. For example, consuming a beverage made from leaves of a plant called mudakkatraan (Cardiospermum halicacabum) provides relief from joint pains. Food provides a variety of nutrients, be it vitamins and minerals or even macronutrients like proteins and healthy fats but we lose these benefits when we depend only on cultivated foods. Limiting the variety of foods on our plates, we stand to lose on the nutritive and health benefits from those foods.”

Globally, some of the crops and foods that have become more dominant in the global food supply, including vegetable oils, sugar and meats, are also the main culprits behind skyrocketing levels of diabetes, heart disease and overweight which no country, however wealthy or poor, seems able to escape. It’s not a coincidence that India’s movement to revalue traditional ingredients, and traditional cooking, has used health as a way to engage consumers in the wider problem of biodiversity and knowledge-loss.

 

Many Cooks in the Kitchen – Building a consumer movement

Despite increasing interest, Sunita Narain says both markets and regulations stand in the way of getting Indians to shift their diets and rediscover foods that are better for their bodies and the environment.

“Only people living in interior parts of the country now have access to local biodiversity but even this is limited due to rules and regulation on extracting from the forests. Farmers do not grow these foods and they are not part of the market economy. As a result, most people now know only of the dozen or so vegetables that are available in the markets,” said Narain.

Narain’s work stretches far beyond India. As part of the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet, Health, she is working with an international group of researchers to change the ways we eat and produce food. Planetary boundaries researchers working with the EAT-Lancet Commission say biodiversity is an area of environmental impact where we’re doing particularly badly: But how can scientists convince a booming global middle class, which has driven the aspiration towards westernized diets that contain more meat and more highly processed ingredients, to return to their rural culinary roots?

Lessons from India suggest the answer may lie in taking traditional foods out of their traditional context, reinventing them and “glamorizing” them for an urban middle class. Online newspaper LiveMint published a feature in late 2016 exploring how makhana, the puffed and crunchy seeds of lotus plants, had gone from “heartland winter favourite to millennial snack of choice”. The author points out that Indian Accent, a multiple award-winning restaurant run by Chef Manish Mehrotra, the country’s only contender on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for 2017, recently started putting makhana on its menu and that the seed’s entrance into fine dining coincided with new commercial popularity as a crunchy, flavoured snack.

While it may be hard to draw a straight line from high-level cuisine to popular dietary trends, the fact that high-profile chefs are embracing ingredients that might have been derided as unsophisticated just a few years ago, is telling. When Chef Mehrotra tweets about his love of makhana, his followers take note. When he releases a video showing how to toast and pop amaranth seeds, another “forgotten” traditional staple in India, eating the grain becomes an aspirational act for a growing middle class.

“It is only when this biodiversity is lived that it will live”

In her work, Narain reminds us that bringing back forgotten food cultures means adapting them to solve contemporary problems and encouraging the recovery of traditional knowledge must go hand in hand with the creation of new knowledge about nature, food and culture.

“We need to create a demand for the biodiversity-rich foods that have served generations before us, and we need to protect the environment where these plants grow. Many of the plants that make these recipes are still found in our backyards or can be grown and harvested for food. It is only when this biodiversity is lived that it will live. But [recovering forgotten food] is certainly about treasuring this knowledge and creating new knowledge, which brings culinary art to our plates,” says Narain.

 

 

Impact: Makhana and Amaranth

 

Explore how the resurgence of two forgotten foods is having an impact on health, livelihoods and the environment in the photo series below.

Impact: Makhana

Makhana, or fox nuts, are the puffed, starchy insides of lotus seeds. They are eaten in countless ways, including as a popcorn-type snack, a porridge or mixed with yoghurt – and are high in protein, minerals and nutrients. Makhana was in danger of becoming another forgotten food, until a recent commercial boom started to turn things around, changing the game for conservation of India’s wetland ecosystems.

Forgotten Foods, Changing Landscape

Makhana grows in the state of Bihar in eastern India, a wide plain split in two by the Ganges, with vast floodplains and wetlands bordering the river. The lotus plants share these wetlands with an impressive variety of fish, birds and plant species. But for years, fertile wetlands have been lost, drained for agriculture. In the last ten years, 38% of India’s inland wetlands have disappeared and in Bihar, this meant nutritious makhana started to disappear from local diets.

Protecting Wetlands and Livelihoods

Wetland loss is an environmental disaster: It contributes to climate change because wetlands are carbon sinks. It disrupts water cycles, habitats and local food systems. But since the makhana resurgence started, wetlands have also become economic importance to farmers, dramatically improving these ecosystems’ chances of survival.

Commercial Success

Recovering forgotten foods is one food solution that can tackle multiple problems at once. Makhana’s come-back is changing the game for wetlands and for the producers’ livelihoods. It’s even contributing to healthier diets. Producers say they think there is the potential to market makhana around the world and bring in over $100 million a year. But there are thousands of other forgotten foods that could be brought back into diets and ecosystems. You can read about more of India’s forgotten foods at the Centre for Science and Environment or Sunita Narain’s book First Food.

Impact: Amaranth

Amaranth, also known as pigweed, is a broad-leaved, tall plant grown for its tiny grain-like seeds, nutritious leaves and red-coloured roots. It’s a close relative of quinoa and grows at high altitude in several parts of the world but mostly in Africa, Latin America and the Himalayas. Indian farmers have been growing and eating amaranth for centuries but by the 1980’s, recalls famous seed activist Vandana Shiva – who has been involved in recovering the crop, it had already fallen into serious decline.

New Superfoods

Amaranth used to be a staple crop for the poor, but just like quinoa, it’s experiencing a boom right now, in part because it’s also extraordinarily nutritional. Each flower on the amaranth plant can contain up to half a million seeds which can be boiled, ground into a flour or popped like popcorn. The seeds can be tricky to work with, but are uniquely high in protein: If mixed with wheat flour, the protein content is equivalent to eating eggs.

Using Water Wisely

In India people have grown amaranth because it has a low environmental impact and can thrive where other things fail: It grows in drought, high temperatures and at altitude – and it uses very little water. We now know it also has an unusual ability to take carbon out of the atmosphere, using it to spur fast growth. In contrast, many amaranth substitutes, frequently wheat and white rice, use large amounts of water and are much less resilient when the going gets tough. And they are nowhere near as nutritious. In arid, rural places, rediscovering amaranth means recovering knowledge about how to use available resources better – but it can also mean better food security and new income opportunities. For a growing urban population, who often lack access to the most nutritious foods, being able to add diversity to diets can have huge benefits for health.

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