With climate change a reality and the latest Global Hunger Index revealing a horrific scenario for the world's mountain people in developing countries in South Asia, including India, promoting genetic plant diversity in the mountains can be one important step to battle food insecurity.
Traditional plants provide sufficient nutrition and have adapted well to the mountain environment. Historically, these crops have been referred to as neglected and underutilised crop species (NUS) but in recent years they have been re-branded as future smart foods or FSFs, experts say.
FSFs are traditional crops, the genetic resources of which are vital for sustainable agriculture.They can play a fundamental role in supplementing the incomes of mountain communities as many of these species do not require high inputs and can be successfully grown even in marginal and degraded wastelands.
"FSFs provide useful genes to breed better varieties capable of withstanding climate change scenarios. A crop rotation system, including FSFs, would also disrupt some pest and disease cycles, reducing infestation and contributing to more sustainable food production. Examples of FSFs include taro, black gram and horse crop, among many others," Lipy Adhikari of the Kathmandu-based International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD) has said in a new research paper based on a field study in the Hindu Kush Himalaya (HKH) region.
According to her, buckwheat, amaranth, naked barley, finger millet and high altitude rice are some FSFs traditionally grown in the HKH region that have been part of the agricultural system for several millennia. Millet is perhaps one of the oldest foods known to humans and possibly the first cereal to be used for domestic purposes. Some FSFs have high medical importance. For instance, people in remote areas of the HKH have used jamun to treat diabetes. In the Gilgit-Baltistan province, which is part of Pakistani-occupied Kashmir, locals have re-engaged sea-buckthorn for its nutritional and medicinal value.
FSFs are gaining more attention at national levels as well. Triggered by India's Defence Research and Development Organisaiton, seabuckthorn juice is being marketed across the country, while in Uttarakhand, the government is promoting nutri-cereals under its Rashtriya Krishi Vikas programme to ensure increased millet consumption with close attention to processing and value addition.
In eastern Nepal, the Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC) has established a Hill Crop Research Station to revive the availability of, and interest in, traditional FSFs. It has so far run encouraging pilots on a variety of crops, including sorghum, finger millet and tartar buckwheat. Farmers work closely with the researchers to ensure quality of production.
Ninety per cent of the world's mountain people live in developing countries, where hunger is acute and detrimental, pushing millions of people who are already impoverished further into poverty. Close to 75 per cent of mountain people in developing countries are already at risk or actually experiencing hunger. Around 40 per cent of the world's mountain population suffers from hunger, Adhikari said.
Data from 2014 reveals that 62 per cent of the world's 490 million people who are undernourished live in Asia and the Pacific. Of them, 281 million are from the South Asia sub-region. In the 1980s, countries such as China, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh successfully transformed themselves from chronic food-deficit countries to self-sufficient ones.
Unfortunately, this positive trend lasted little more than a decade, with changing climatic variability leading to several agricultural setbacks. Increasing water stress, partly due to rising temperatures, the growing frequency of El Nino and a reduction in the annual number of rainy days were responsible for a major decline in foodgrain productivity in South Asia. As a result, the most basic food and nutritional needs of people remain unmet.
In Nepal, the mid-1990s was a difficult time in terms of food security. The national food deficit stood at 14.3 per cent but the deficit varied greatly by region, with the mountains representing nearly fourth-fifths of that percentage. In pursuit of income through commercial crops, many rural mountain farmers in Nepal have been abandoning traditional crops like millet, barley and buckwheat. As a result, over time, these nutritious crops developed a reputation as "foods of the poor" and declined sharply in the diets of many Nepalis.
Adhikari said the ICIMOD has been investing its expertise on FSF research in the HKH through its programmes such as the Kailash Sacred Landscape Conservation and Development Initiative and the Rural Livelihoods and Climate Change Adaptation in the Himalayas. If these ideas about FSFs are mainstreamed into contemporary agriculture and policy, these traditional crops will go a long way towards strengthening nutrition security for millions of mountain communities, she noted.
(Imran Khan can be contacted at email@example.com)