21 May 2019
The Times of India
From India’s geographic and climatic diversity has sprung a rich host of local customs, not least its dietary traditions. Every state in India has unique food habits—from source to preparation—that tie closely into the region’s biodiversity, the available options, and the nutritional needs of its people.
Why are local and seasonal foods important? In a rapidly globalising world, our food habits are becoming unsustainable, contributing to more greenhouse emissions and resource-intensive food production methods. To mark the International Day for Biological Diversity 2019 (whose theme is “Our Biodiversity, Our Food, Our Health”), the Convention on Biological Diversity, under the ambit of the United Nations, has called on people to contribute to biodiversity conservation by purchasing and consuming seasonal and local foods. This is especially relevant to India, where a clash of traditional and modern lifestyles is putting stress on food systems.
Take for example, bajra (pearl millet), a traditional native crop in the Marwar region of Rajasthan. Bajra is not just popular in the region for its taste. Akshraj Jodha, Executive Chef, ITC Windsor Bengaluru says, “Bajra has high water content, because of which people don’t feel too thirsty after eating it.” In an arid region like Rajasthan, pearl millet helps people avoid dehydration while also providing them essential nutrients.
However, in the last few years, Rajasthan farmers have started growing water-intensive crops like pearl millet in the dry season, including the peak summer months of May and June, instead of waiting for the monsoon, when it is traditionally grown. This is because of a spike in the demand for millet from urban, health-conscious consumers looking for gluten-free superfoods. Crops like pearl millet and groundnut (Kharif crops) only need rain water for irrigation and are perfect for Rajasthan’s climate; sowing them indiscriminately all year round depletes the region’s already-scarce water resources.
“Growing crops according to traditional seasons is essential for soil health and wise water use,” says Chef Jodha. Soil biodiversity plays an important role in mitigating climate change and storing and filtering ground water.. Just one spoon of soil contains 10,000 to 50,000 types of micro-organisms: The well-being of all plants, animals, and indeed humans, depends on the complex processes that take place in soil.
Unfortunately, with each passing day, the world’s diet is becoming alarmingly homogenous. In the last century, more than 90% of crop varieties have disappeared across the world, impoverishing Earth’s biodiversity. By choosing to eat only seasonal and local produce, we can ensure that the demand for the right foods is high in the right season.
Spotting the Seasonal
In India, seasonal food changes from state to state, depending on climate, soil and terrain, but some elements remain common. In the hot months, foods rich in water and traditionally considered ‘cooling’ are available in the market. These include fruits like wood apple, musk melon, watermelon, black plum and mangoes, seasonal hot-weather vegetables like lady’s finger, ridge gourd, bottle gourd, jackfruit, cucumbers, Armenian cucumber (a native Indian crop despite the name), squash and several other types of wild local gourds.
In the colder season, you will find foods rich in Vitamin C and iron. These are leafy green vegetables like spinach, fenugreek leaves, cauliflower, green onions and cold-climate fruit like apple, oranges, strawberry and figs.
If you are confused about how to pick seasonal food out of all the vegetables and fruit available 12 months a year, here’s a simple hack: The food that is most abundantly available in the local market or vendor is the seasonal produce. This is also going to be the cheapest options of food and fruit available. Different regions of India will have different seasonal foods – even within the country our plate should not be homogenous.
“In Delhi, amla (gooseberry) is available only for a few weeks in the winter while my colleague from Manipur can enjoy wild amla at her home all year round,” explains Lovneet Batra, sports nutritionist and dietician. “The questions to ask are: who is selling what, where, and at what price – you are more likely to get seasonal produce at a local vendor’s than at a high-end store.”
Seasonal food tastes better, is more nutritious, and you can be satisfied that you are eating food that regenerates and renews your region’s soil health, preparing it for the next season.
Decoding local food
Understanding what constitutes ‘local’ is a bit more complicated. In 2016, a comprehensive study covering 151 crops and 177 countries revealed for the first time that two-thirds of the grains, legumes, fruit and vegetables grown and consumed as ‘native’ crops actually came from elsewhere. “Some of the oldest crops in India were brought from other countries but are now a part of our daily meal – potato, tea, tomato and more,” says nutrition and wellness consultant Sheela Krishnaswamy. “More recently, foods like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, zucchini, quinoa, and chia are being cultivated in India in suitable soils, and I wouldn’t be surprised if, over a period of time, they become part of India’s culinary heritage, too.”
The local aspect of food, then, focuses more on the distance the food travels – local is a loose term for what is grown closest to you and ‘suitable soil’ becomes the key factor. While it is fine to grow avocado in Kerala, it will be devastating to try and grow the water-intensive crop in drier parts of the country just because of the fruit’s popularity. “We need to be a little less greedy,” says Batra, “We may not get avocado locally, but there will always be some other superfood that is local to our region – for instance shahtoot in Delhi is a fruit packed in nutrients. Not everything we eat needs be exotic.”
Long storage also destroys the nutrients in any food, so eating food that doesn’t travel too far to reach our table is a win-win, for both us and the environment.
To make a change, we need to diligently study our regional food and make intelligent food choices in large numbers. “It needs to be a mass movement,” says renowned nutritionist and author Ishi Khosla. “Once organic food was ignored as an elite food choice, but then people came to know about the pesticide use in chemical farming and started opting for organic food, which is also better for the environment. Similarly, policy change and advocacy on a mass scale can make a difference in people opting for local and seasonal food.”
Till the policymakers get around to it, the mass movement can start in our homes. Chef Jodha is optimistic. “Most traditional farmers in India still grow local vegetables,” he says, “There is only a small section growing foreign and unseasonal crops.” If traditional wisdom in agriculture practices can be kept intact, the damage to our biodiversity can be contained. And on our part, we can do our bit by simply reducing our demand for unseasonal and exotic food.
Original post on The Times of India