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India's wild foods under pressure

Vandana K
May 4, 2021

With Indian forests under pressure, Indigenous communities are working to preserve knowledge of their diverse and nutritious diets. In the country's cities, urban consumers are also getting a taste for the crops.

Local dishes prepared with wild edible plants, namely Bat Pyllon and Jali
Wild edible plants have long been food staples for Indigenous communities in IndiaImage: NESFAS

One of Biskirin Marwein's earliest memories is of accompanying her mother to collect mushrooms, fruit and edible leaves from the lush forest near their Khasi Hills home in the north-east Indian state of Meghalaya. 

"Sometimes I saw a mushroom and didn't know what to do. My mother taught me the difference between edible and poisonous mushrooms," she recalls. 

Marwein, a member of the Khasi Indigenous group, is now a community health worker. She also works as a community facilitator with the North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS), gathering knowledge of traditional crops and wild plants from elders in her village and promoting their use in the wider community. 

Marwein still regularly gathers leafy greens like jatira and jamyrdoh to feed her family or sell in the village. Some, she plants out in her own kitchen garden. 

Marwein and her family eat wild plants that have been foraged or planted in their garden
Marwein in her kitchen garden in Meghalaya, India Image: NESFAS

But her foraging isn't as fruitful as it used to be. "In my childhood, there used to be lots of wild edible plants in the forest," she says. "Now there aren't as many because there are far more people in my village."

Marwein isn't alone in noticing the change. 

In Nongtraw, a village 75 kilometers (47 miles) from Marwein's home of Mawlum Mawjahksew, people have told NESFAS that jatira has vanished from their local forest. Jamyrdoh and tyrkhang, an edible fern, are becoming increasingly scarce. 

Biodiversity loss hits Indigenous diets

Part of the problem, Marwein says, is population growth; more and more people are foraging for wild food in shrinking forests

Some21.6%  of India is covered in forest, and the country's hilly and thickly forested north-east — including Meghalaya — is a biodiversity hotspot. 

But over the last few decades, forest here has been lost to road- and settlement-building and to agriculture, according to a 2017 study by the Indian Institute of Science. The study also found that a quarter of Meghalaya's total forest area is highly vulnerable to climate change.

Indien Klimawandel Tigerangriffe Wald
Forests, which cover a fifth of India's land, are under threatImage: Anushree Fadnavis/REUTERS

While there is no specific data on edible plants in India, a UN Food and Agriculture Organization report from 2019 found that globally, 24%  of wild food species are reported to be decreasing in abundance. In Asia, that figure is 46%.

As these species decline, communities lose an important source of nutrition. 

"Wild edible plants play a very important role in Indigenous diets in the north-east, especially from March to May when crops are not ready, and in times of hardship," said Bhogtoram Mawroh, who works on agrobiodiversity and agroforestry at NESFAS. 

This is part of a pattern repeated around the world. 

Selena Ahmed, an ethnobotanist at the Food and Health Lab at Montana State University in the United States, has studied thedeclining role of wild foods in Indigenous diets amidst climate change in the western state of Montana.

"Our interviews on the Flathead Nation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes indicate that households perceive decreased availability of wild game, fish, and wild edible plants, while some species have become more prevalent because of an unbalanced ecosystem," she said.

Momin uses wild and organic ingredients at his cafe in Meghalaya.
Hendri G Momin outside his cafe in Meghalaya, IndiaImage: NESFAS

Putting Indigenous flavors back on the menu

Yet retreating forests aren't the only reason traditional foods have been replaced with commercially produced ones. 

Since the 1970s, welfare in the form of the Indian public food distribution system has brought subsidized staples like white rice and wheat flour to communities across India that previously saw them as luxuries. Foraged foods like leafy jarain, meanwhile, tend to be looked down on as the food of the poor — or even animal feed.

"Over the years, people's diets have become homogenized, and they lack micronutrients," Mawroh says. "We want to go back to lessons from the past, promote dietary diversity and create appreciation for wild edible plants."

Several initiatives around the country have sprung up across India to try and do just that. 

An agrobiodiversity walk guide in Laitsohpliah village in Meghalaya
A guide teaches locals how to identify and pick wild edibles Image: NESFAS

Mumbai start-up OOO Farms connects Indigenous farmers to urban consumers and businesses like the Bombay Canteen, a restaurant that now sources wild plants still found in abundance in the Western Ghats mountains. The aim is to foster respect for the crops while using them in a sustainable way.

NESFAS, meanwhile, has worked with cafes in eight different villages in Meghalaya that have now rebranded as Mei Ramew—meaning Mother Earth in Khasi—and include Indigenous food on menus. 

Hendri G Momin of the Garo tribe runs Aman A•song cafe in Darechikgre, a village in West Garo Hills in Meghalaya. "The other cafes here serve deep-fried foods such as donuts, malpua and puri which are made from refined flours," he said. "My cafe is different because I cook with wild and organic ingredients from the forest and local farms."

 Children during an agrobiodiversity walk in Meghalaya, India
The next generation are being encouraged to learn about local agrobiodiversity Image: NESFAS

Serefer B Marak is a regular customer at Aman A•song, where he enjoys a rich ruby-colored juice made from blood fruit, which grow on woody vines in the Garo Hills. "I'm lazy about preparing these foods at home, so I only eat them at the cafe," the 22-year-old said, adding that now he's got the taste for them, he would like to try cooking them himself.

Cultural and natural heritage for the next generation 

NESFAS is also working with the next generation to keep traditional knowledge alive, leading children on agrobiodiversity walks in the Khasi Hills. Mawroh says what they learn helps protect their health as well as tradition.

"On these walks, we teach them to identify and pick wild edibles, which they can cook and incorporate into their daily diets," he says. "This can help build their immunity and reduce their dependence on foods in the market." 

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