Centre for studies in Ethnobiology, Biodiversity and Sustainability (CEiBa), West Bengal – 732103, India
Our imagination of food is depicted in appealing packages of flamboyant colors, rich aroma, varied texture and equally enticing ingredients. Many a time, the package bears the signature of its identity, epitomizes our desire and acceptance, etc. Upon disintegration of various primary components, whatever constituents our food yields, namely, cereals, fruits or vegetables, spices or condiments, animal proteins, etc. – all of them are an outcome of rigorous agrarian activities. They have traced a general trajectory from agricultural field through a moderate to extensive post-harvest processing, and finally, traveling short to longer distances locally or globally from their place of production reaching our plate and palate. Thus, the dominant construction of ‘food’ in our mind reverberates with the produced food sourced from cultivation and the activities have been painstakingly achieved by a large population of peasant communities.
Well, well! This has not been so for a major part of human evolution. In contrast to the agricultural mode of lifestyle, humans have been hunters and gatherers throughout their history. And, agriculture is merely the recent biggest ‘triumph’. As hunters and gatherers, they depended on a wider diversity of biological resources, roots and tubers, honey, ripe or unripe fruit, seeds and cereal grains, juicy flowers or stems, etc. We still bear that cultural legacy. A large group of uncultivated and wild or semi-wild edible plants or animal species collected as it is from the anthropogenic ecosystems, forests, semi-forested land; they are eaten raw (e.g., fruits) or after post-harvest processing and cooking (Ray et al. 2020).
So, in other words, food may emerge in many shades and there may be alternate ways to derive them. The potential of uncultivated and wild edibles has not been realized in their entirety. The ‘wild’ in the name does invoke a sense of unaltered virginity, but the reality suggests sufficient management activities, pruning, lopping, tending, clearing by the consumer groups to enhance their yield or to sustain their production. Yet a mention of wild or uncultivated food portrays an image of the foraging flocks of indigenous peoples’ groups in forests or semi-forested land and collection of exotic-looking roots or tubers, leafy greens, fruits, honey, bushmeat, eggs or ants. Indeed, true! But, the domain of food gathering in reality is far more diverse than actually perceived and it includes a host of cultural activities by various stakeholders at their local strata. As humans being the super copiers, social learning plays a great role in food acceptance, and that perhaps explains the cultural traditions, beliefs, norms, taboos related to food choice. Taking my point from here, I would argue that the human interaction with the environment pertaining to food gathering goes far beyond that known realm and the culture is essentially quite diverse.
A bunch of examples
A few examples would illustrate the fact; our so-called unwanted plants in agriculture, which are termed as obnoxious weeds. Weeds are co-growing plants that are supposed to interfere with and reduce production of the sole crop. Weeds are almost ubiquitous and estimated to be represented by approximately 30,000 species present across various ecosystems, notably dominant and recognized as an integral element in agroecosystems (Molina et al. 2014). Although weeds share evolutionary history with the crops their relevance has multiplied in recent years especially in industrial agriculture where they are regularly removed from the field by various chemical or mechanical means. Despite this, the notion of agricultural weeds is highly variable among farmers, so is their presence in the field; i.e., not all plants are unwanted or of no use. Many are of use value, either by consumed humans or by their domestic animals (Sinha and Lakra, 2007; Mazhar et al. 2007).
Now zooming in further, we observe that many of our floral co-inhabitants of agricultural fields are regularly consumed, such as Marsilea quadrifolia or four leaf clover or sushni which is a common herb in the rice field and grow well in soil with a lot of organic content during kharif rice cultivation. It is a favorite leafy green for rural folks and can be obtained at no-cost from the field. Likewise procured is bathua or pigweed (Chenopodium album) which is quite a frequent entrant in agricultural fields in early to late winter where it propagates luxuriantly and becomes almost ubiquitous (figure – 1a). They grow in numbers in fields where agrochemicals are not or least employed. There are numerous other edible herbs in the rice field that co-grow with rice plants (Ray and Chakraborty, 2021). Moving away from agricultural fields, many other edible species are found in the anthropogenic landscapes (Sinha and Lakra, 2007), one such very common one is the fern, Diplazium esculentum or dhenki shaak as it is commonly known in eastern India, that grows and propagates in huge numbers in moist and shady places around the fallow corners of human settlements (figure – 1b). The expanded and juicy foliage are a good ingredient in recipes of eastern or north-eastern parts of the country and elsewhere. This list may go undiminished considering so many other locally available leafy greens, nunia or lunia (Portulaca oleracea) grows in bright red and green in rural and semi-urban areas along the roadside (figure 1c), or Oxalis corniculata or sorrel or Hygrophila spinosa. Leaving terrestrial ecosystems behind, one may find many others which are characteristically hydrophilic, Nasturtium officinale, Enhydra fluctuans or Ipomoea aquatica are present in numbers near the water bodies, streams or ponds nearer to the households, managed and harvested at ease. Rural landscapes of rainfed areas are replete with permanent or non-perennial water bodies which shelter many aquatic flora, in the water kingdom Nelumbo nucifera, Nymphaea nouchali grow profusely and their seeds, stalks, leaves, flowers are quite common eatables (figure 1d). Coming to the animal front, there are various mollusks or insects which are also regularly eaten apart from fish (Sahani 2019). Many mammals or mud-eels are also harvested from agricultural fields or adjacent water channels employing very simple indigenous tools (Barman et al. 2013). Altogether, their diversity, seasonal abundance, knowledge of village folks especially ladies to procure and cook them reflect the various ways humans dynamically interact with the environment for collection and use of common resources. So, generally it is not very uncommon sight to discover village ladies busy in summer or winter late-morning to late-afternoon in their hunts for seasonal leafy greens, be it Sushni or Bathua or the juicy fronds of Diplazium esculentum, or searching for sumptuous mollusk meat in areas around their village landscapes (figure 2).
How does that matter:
Edible biota as well as fodder, timber, medicinal plants, water, etc. are natural rewards from the ecosystems we live in; however, we are not always aware of their integral role in our life perhaps because of their indispensability and sheer obviousness. So, a suite of uncultivated food extracted from nature as provisioning ecosystem service is often a less-talked about issue, be it in the serious scientific world or more so among the common man’s arena (but see Cruz-Garcia et al. 2016).
Now the questions inevitably surface, how does that matter or why should we care about these resources while most of us have easy access to farmed produce? Yes, it is indeed true that most of us have differential access to farmed food, but not all of us are equally socio-economically privileged. Farmed food often comes with a price tag, minimal it may be, but it is often an obstacle for the section of consumers who are economically less-empowered. Therefore, for them gathering no-cost nutritious wild edible plants (or animals) is a service rendered by the ecosystem that goes unnoticed. Furthermore, it also has other implications related to food and nutrition security. Primary of them is the cereal-centric public distribution system that is mostly built on cheap and less-nutritious carbohydrates and eventually ignores the contribution of other necessary elements towards food and nutrition security (Das 2016). It is where the dietary diversity already embedded in our food culture emerges to play an overwhelming role. Various seasonal herbs, flowers, fruits, tubers that grow throughout the years across cultivated fields mixed with crops, waterbodies, marshy land, hedges, fallow pastures, or roadsides (Ray et al. 2020). Most of their lives swing with the seasonal cycles and are shaped by human activities. While a lot others are also gathered from forests by indigenous communities. A majority of them have been consumed in plenty and evaluated to have a good source of nutrition and energy (Ray and Chakraborty, 2021). Altogether, the facts emphasize their undervalued potential as food or supplements. While their contribution to food security can be variable among semi-urban or rural or forest-dwellers their key role cannot be overlooked.
The appreciation of the lesser known dimensions of food also confronts us with its unknown diversity and its embeddedness (Sonnino, 2007). Hence, food is not merely an object to satiate our hunger, it always comes in a package of rich cultural history enmeshed in flavor, taste, and deep knowledge of cooking varying over time and space and also with consumer groups. Most often, our craved comfort food is quite imbued with a ‘feel-good’ factor that essentially draws on one’s lifelong encounter with various shades of food (Goldfield A. 2020). Hence, the discourses of food or nutritional security and overarching policy measures have to take into account the plurality of food culture. The food and its various accepted forms that have already been embedded in the culture should be efficient agents to ensure dietary diversity and many indigenous food cultures are already showing us the right direction in this regard (Ghosh-Jerath 2021). Going further, we may embrace this local or regional diversity of edible biota in the food system. A welcome step could be an integration of these resources in various government schemes or other interventions. For example, promotion of kitchen gardens for propagation of the natural population, maintaining and enhancing ecosystem health for regeneration or recharge for easy access by a diversity of consumer groups. It can also be implemented through the ‘School Nutrition Gardens’ program by the Ministry of Human Resource Development to encourage growing and consuming diversity of plants as part of the school mid-day meals (Government of India. 2019.).
On the contrary, an ill-conceived implementation of extraneous supplements, e.g., biofortified crops like ‘golden rice’ with vitamins or micronutrients that are otherwise not embedded in the food system, may not give desired deliverables (Aga 2016; Deshpande. 2017; Stone and Glover 2017). These policies being reliant on a few selected crops tend to undermine intrinsic dietary diversity of the pre-existing food culture. Instead of craving for biofortified crops, we should turn to a biodiversity-based approach as a long term sustainable and equitable solution. There, the resources procured from the healthy ecosystems may have a far greater role to play in energy and nutrition, and also in alleviating micronutrient deficiency that looms large on the global population. Their seasonal and long-term availability can be ensured in a systematic manner, through in-depth documentation, analyses, and encouraged through specific policy conducive for their propagation, utilization and management. It could create an interface where the ‘loaded’ terms, local resource, just consumption, dietary diversity should be wedded with regional or local food culture towards sustainable food systems.
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