Not weeds, but nutritious food!

Siddhartha narrates the significance of uncultivated food in nutrition security, especially in the rural context. He talks about this from his experience working with the Adivasi community in H.D. Kote taluk in Mysore district. He concludes that selfishness and hoarding are part of the values we have unfortunately imbibed in this brave, new and unsustainable world, as against the sustainable world view of the Adivasi communities. 

A few months ago, Pipal Tree organised an Adivasi festival on sustainability in the outskirts of the forest known as Nagarhole, in H.D.Kote taluk of Mysore district. The area is around the waters of the fresh and beautiful Kabini river and the large reservoir the river flows into. It was a glorious day, with discussions on forest rights, women’s empowerment, food sovereignty and Adivasi cultural renewal. But what excited us non-Adivasi outsiders most was the afternoon meal served in dry-leaf bowls. It was a simple but delectable feast of uncultivated greens and wild tubers eaten with steamed ragi balls.

Adivasis claim that about 40% of their nourishment comes from uncultivated foods.

Uncultivated means plants that grow by themselves, and are not sown or planted, or fertilised or watered. They are part of the local bio-diversity.  In our side of the forest, where the Jenu Kuruba, Beta Kuruba, Soliga and other Adivasis live, the locals have identified one hundred varieties of uncultivated food. Some of them even claim that about 40% of their nourishment comes from these foods. To a modern observer or farmer, most uncultivated plants would be misguidedly seen as weeds, to be forcibly uprooted so that the monocultures of Bt cotton, sugarcane, ginger, banana, rice, and even millets, can be cultivated.

Uncultivated greens gathered by adivasi women from in and around the forest area (Nagarhole national park)

Uncultivated food is available all through the year and is cheap. Furthermore, it is locally found and does not have to be transported, bringing down carbon emissions. No food miles are involved. In the context of climate change, where food production is likely to dip considerably, these varieties will provide the much-needed relief. Being conscious of, and increasing the consumption of uncultivated food not only gives a boost to local biodiversity but also increases the variety in our food basket many times over. More importantly, it could usher in the necessary nutritional sovereignty for the poor, particularly undernourished children. To a fair extent this is already happening in the forests of India. One report from Orissa states that “more than 60 different fruits, 40 different leafy vegetables, 30 different mushrooms, insects and roots and tubers, 20 different  fish and crabs, many birds, and 10 different oil seeds are collected and used for food and medicines.” This is obviously a wider definition of uncultivated food.

“This wild potato will regenerate only if we put back a piece into the earth. How else can mother earth keep feeding us?”

Let me end with a personal experience I had in the Nagarhole forest some years ago. I was walking through the edge of the forest to meet an Adivasi leader. Even before I had reached his hamlet, I saw him squatting along the footpath, beside some bushes, digging the earth with a stick which served as a trowel. He was trying to unearth a wild tuber from the forest floor. We greeted each other and he continued with his task as I looked on. He smiled and talked as he dug on. When he had got the tuber out he showed it to me, saying it would be an important part of their basic cuisine for the day. Then, to my surprise, he broke the lower end of the tuber and put it back in the ground and covered it firmly with the earth he had just scooped out.

‘Why are you burying that piece?” I asked incredulously, aware that he was poor and that every bit of the tuber would help feed his family.

“This wild potato will regenerate only if we put back a piece into the earth. How else can mother earth keep feeding us?”

I shamefacedly realised that people like me would have pulled out the entire tuber and taken it home, if we were in the place of our Adivasi friends. Selfishness and hoarding are part of the values we have unfortunately imbibed in this brave, new and unsustainable world.

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