How starkly evident have Food allergies become in the last 10 years! Seeing my allergic flare-ups every time I ate citric fruits and my intolerance to Besan or chickpea flour, my grandmother would often recall how such allergies were totally unheard of during her younger days!
Recently, the Frontline published an article by Mr. Muralidharan, General Secretary of the National Platform for the Rights of the Disabled after he attended a two-day international symposium on wheat-related disorders in New Delhi this year. The article mentions Dr Tom O’Bryan, Adjunct Faculty at the Institute for Functional Medicine in the U.S. who pointed at Environmental factors and the spread of more and more “toxic” cereals as big factors causing a widely occurring but commonly underdiagnosed condition called Celiac Disease.
People suffering from CD are unable to completely digest Gluten resulting in progressive damage to their small intestines, leading to impaired gut conditions like nausea, flatulence, abdominal bloating or pain, constipation, vomiting etc. The article further cites modern day wheat and its myriad hybrid varieties that require enormous quantities of chemical pesticides towards maintenance, combined with environmental pollution, that has intensified the situation. Muralidharan, in his article quoted the Organizer of the symposium, Ishi Khosla, Nutritionist and President, Celiac Society of India and she said -“the intake of processed foods, toxic chemicals in food and environment are triggers.”
Similarly, hasn't there been a shattering decline in the ‘variety’ of fruits, vegetables, cereals and pulses that we consume as part of our everyday diet over the last several years? Ask your grandparents and they'll tell you about so many indigenous varieties of vegetables, legumes and pulses that have simply vanished from our tables today and for them, have become a fond distant memory!
So, how did this happen?
Native indigenous breeds are such varieties that either originated or existed locally in specific regions for several generations. These are naturally occurring, well adapted to local climate conditions, pollinated without any human interceding - by insects or the wind. This clearly meant that farmers could cultivate their own seeds for the coming seasons. The hybrid seeds that gradually percolated our food systems over the last 10-20 years only lasts a single season - it made commercial sense for the industry giants to keep having the farmers go back to them every season to buy seeds. That's how hundreds and thousands of native varieties gradually disappeared and almost all of the food that we eat today are hybrids. (No, absolutely no exaggeration here.)
Now, let’s understand Indigenous breeds as first step -
What is indigenous?
A breed that originated or is naturally occurring in a specific region or place; native.
One of the most important aspects of the Organic farming that we practise at our farms is usage of Desi Indigenous seeds - in our understanding, these native breeds have a direct impact on Soil health as they do not deplete the soil of its nutrients. They are innately well accustomed to local climate change, they have an inherent adapting power to climatic stress and can sustain drought conditions, require very little or no forced management and are naturally resistant to diseases and pests.
In current times since Hybrid varieties or even Genetically modified / Engineered foods constitute a major share of the food options that are easily available to us, it makes sense to understand the term ‘Hybrid’ better.
What is a Hybrid?
A hybrid variety (of vegetable, fruit or any crop) is created through planned cross-pollination of two different varieties of a plant, so as to create an offspring, also called hybrid, that contains most beneficial, favorable traits of each of its parents.
In hybridization, pollination is carried out in a controlled environment, ensuring that the resulting offspring achieves the desired combination of characteristics, such as bigger size or better disease resistance and hence longer shelf lives.
Organic farming involves conscious, sustainable practices like usage of Desi indigenous, heirloom varieties, multicropping, water harvesting, recycling available resources, mulching and Desi indigenous cow rearing for natural manure.
Now that we have understood Indigenous and Hybrids, another closely relevant term that you might have come across lately is the ‘Heirloom’ breeds.
So what are these Heirloom breeds?
A heirloom seed originates from a plant that has been carefully cultivated and passed down through many generations, in specific isolated communities, hand-selected by farmers or gardeners to preserve any of its unique characteristics - for instance, a distinct flavor, or special adaptation of its to local growing conditions.
All heirloom vegetables are open-pollinated, which means they’re pollinated by insects or wind without human intervention. In addition, they breed true - which means that they will produce new plants that share their characteristics from one year to the next.
Heirloom Vs Hybrids
- Any heirloom seed will give rise to a plant that will inherit all characteristics of the plant’s predecessors.
- Hybrids will not breed true which means that the seed from a hybrid plant will not produce a new plant that shares the characteristics of the hybrid. It will share the characteristics of one of the two plants that were cross-pollinated to reproduce the hybrid.
- Heirloom seeds can be harvested, dried, and stored, so that they can be replanted the coming season.
- Hybrid plants or GMO seeds cannot be cultivated by the farmer for the next season. The farmer is required to repurchase these seeds each year, or buy infant plants. In the words of Dr. Rao, a PhD holder in plant breeding and genetics, and founder of ‘Hariyalee’ (his farm where he and his family preserves endangered indigenous and heirloom seeds from all over the world), “These are seeds the industry produced to make profits.”
Just a few days ago, thevillagesquare.in published the reassuring story of RahiBai Soma Popere, a determined woman in her 50s who travels all across Maharashtra to discover and conserve indigenous seeds. The feature titled, ‘Meet Maharashtra’s Seed Mother’ explains how Rahibai who hails from the Kombhalne village in Maharashtra has conserved many native crops including 15 varieties of rice, nine varieties of pigeon pea and 60 varieties of vegetables, besides many oil seeds.
(This image was sourced from the internet for acknowledgement purpose only. TBOF does not own this image)
Rahibai nurtured 5,000 seedlings of hyacinth beans and shared them with members of self-help groups across 25 villages to aid tribal farmers return to indigenous seeds. 89 acres were farmed with these seedlings.
'Rahibai’s collection includes Kolbhat, a scented, long, fine rice with good fodder quality, Dhavul, a short variety rice consumed as gruel for instant energy, Rajbhog, a scented, long, fine rice that can withstand high rainfall, Godval, a hyacinth bean, which grows both in rabi and kharif seasons and is drought tolerant,' - Village Square. A hearty, roaring shoutout from all of us at TBOF to Rahibai and all her comrades who are pioneering this movement.
Genetically modified foods and hybrids have succeeded in making deep in-roads into our food systems to the extent that anything that you casually pull out of a display rack at a grocery store is most likely to be a hybrid. There is a pressing need for spreading awareness and educating ourselves regarding the importance of choosing naturally farmed or organic produce with desi indigenous seeds.
It is but imperative to reconsider what we eat.
Remember someone wise once said, every single time we eat, is an opportunity to nourish ourselves.
Let us look at some case studies -
Emmer Wheat or Khapli Gehu
A Desi indigenous ancestor of the modern wheat that is known to have originated some 10,000 years ago way back in 9500 BCE.
What a resilient breed, this Khapli!
The deep hued, long grains of Emmer stand out against stout, swollen, fragile husks of modern day wheat. With Emmer, the husk holds on strongly to the grain even after harvest and it had to be heavily pounded to separate the husk. That’s how Khapli got its name.
The tight abidance of the husk to the whole grain is the unique characteristic that helped Emmer survive and flourish even in its extremely dry and desert-like areas of origin, where rains were scanty. Emmer spread across the ancient world, reaching the Indus Valley around 7000-5000 BCE. In Egypt after 3000 BCE, the workers who built the pyramids were found to have had Emmer as part of their daily food.
So, now coming to the next obvious question - if it was clearly a superior breed, what led to the large scale cultivation of modern day wheat? What was the problem after-all?
- Its sturdiness.
Processing became labor intensive for breeds like Emmer. As civilizations grew, convenience superseded quality, making way for crosses between Emmer and other grasses - The hulls were purposely reduced and swollen starchy seeds took its place, giving us our modern wheat.
Emmer is delicious.
It has an ingrained nutty flavor and is versatile - resulting in soft, tasty rotis and nutritious but denser bread due to it is low gluten content restricting the ‘rise or puffing’ that is characteristic of conventional flour or refined flour.
Therapeutic nature of Khapli - Are we saying Khapli has medicinal properties?
Refer to AB Damania's (Department of Plant Sciences, University of California) article published in Asian Agro History Vol.20,[ 2016] - ‘Khapli is found to have curative properties for treating diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. Its capacity to lower blood glucose and lipid levels and high temperature stress tolerance compared to other cultivated species makes it therapeutic.’ This article also explains the ‘Medicinal value of Khapli wheat’ which is found to have curative properties. The article states that in recent years, the popularity of Khapli type wheat is steadily rising in places like Italy and in central Europe because of ‘the high demand for “farro”- the flour obtained from milling hulled wheat grains which was discovered to prevent colon cancer due to its high fibre content when compared to flour from other wheats.’ (Ref. Preedy et all 2011)
Ancient Indigenous varieties of Rice
Jayakumar C, trustee of ‘Thanal’, an NGO working for the environment, and co-founder of Save Our Rice (SOR) Campaign, has been quoted in various media reports - he states, “British gazettes document that more than 3,000 varieties of paddy were grown in Kerala itself. Of that, we have less than 200 now. Traditional knowledge and crops that were ideal for our environment were discarded during the heyday of the Green Revolution, and hybrids were introduced. It almost wiped out the indigenous varieties.”
Jayakumar pioneers a movement in Southern India that has made the conservation of 256 varieties of rice possible, including very rare breeds like Kothambari Kazahama and Chuvanna Kunjinelu, on an area of about 1.5 acres. While 168 are indigenous to Kerala, there are varieties from all the rice-growing areas of India, such as Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Northeastern India, West Bengal, Odisha and Chhattisgarh, and some from Thailand and Vietnam as well.
Therapeutic Value of Indigenous Rice varieties
As per a feature published in the Vikalp Sangam by Varsha Torgalkar on Tribals who are saving indigenous, nearly extinct grains and veggies, she provides a detailed account of how on the western belt of the country, in the state of Maharashtra, tribal farmers are leading the conservation of 722 landraces, or traditional varieties, of rice, pulses and sorghum that were on the verge of extinction. Each type, such as rice or wild vegetables, have multiple varieties with various health benefits and may be categorised as “superfoods”.
[A landrace is a “dynamic population of a cultivated plant that has historical origin, distinct identity and lacks formal crop improvement, as well as often being genetically diverse, locally adapted and associated with traditional farming systems”.]
BAIF, an NGO based in Pune, under a project called Maharashtra Gene Bank Project (MGBP), started to conserve, manage and revive indigenous seeds in 92 villages, mostly tribal, in 2005-06. BAIF also conducted surveys in schools in tribal areas asking all students to get information about what their grandparents would eat, and what their parents and they eat. “Grandparents had over 100 varieties of rice, pulses, vegetables in their regular food, while parents’ plates were reduced to only 30-35 varieties. Kids eat 4-5 varieties,” Patil said. Tribal farmers associated with BAIF have discovered 53 varieties of indigenous seeds, 33 of which are kinds of rice.
In Kerala, Save Our Rice, is setting benchmarks in this movement for conservation of native breeds. Karinjan and karimalakaran are desi rice varieties which are rich in fibre, and consuming helps lower incidence of diabetes. The grains and beaten rice of Mundakan are ideal for increasing physical endurance and thus eaten by physical labourers. It is also believed to combat hormonal imbalances in women.
Desi Indigenous Papaya
image: Desi Papaya at TBOF
The Desi Papayas we grow at the Two Brothers Organic Farms, is a very old Desi, heirloom variety and the seeds were sourced from a farmer in Karnataka. It is a perennial variety and will bear continue to fruit for 5-6 years. Satyajit, one of the two Founding farmers explains, “this breed requires less water, it is less susceptible to viral infections unlike the hybrid 786 variety which is found everywhere in our markets. The hybrid papayas on the other hand bear fruit for only one year and are highly susceptible to viral infections. They also require a lot of water to grow.”
image of Desi Papayas at TBOF
Also what many of us would have noted is that the hybrid varieties that we get to buy in the markets are mostly seedless Vs the Desi Papaya breed that we grow on our farms at TBOF - these are huge fruits weighing 2-3 kgs per fruit and are full of seeds. We grow a combination of male and female varieties that undergo natural pollination while the hybrid varieties are only female or bisexual and self pollinate.
Almost all farmers in India grow the Red Lady Dwarf variety of Papaya, which is also known as the ‘Taiwan 786’ papaya, named after its place of origin. The 786 papaya is preferred for its colour, taste and long shelf life. The plant remains in excellent condition with no signs of rotting for upto 15 days from harvest. The annual world production of the fruit is estimated at 6 million tonnes, of which India’s share is 3 million tonnes.
The babaco, or 'mountain papaya' believed to be a Hybrid mix of two Andean papaya varieties , is an example of a seedless Papaya.
(This image has been sourced from the internet for representation purposes only. TBOF does not own this image.)
The size of this fruit is way smaller compared to the desi variety along with its long shelf life and seedless nature became three main reasons for its high commercial value. Much of the world's seedless papaya varieties come from mass propagation in vitro (controlled environments). Grafting and budding methods are used to grow seedless types with the well-developed root system of a previously-planted papaya tree. It forms a much smaller, dwarfed plant of up to six feet (1.8 m) in comparison with the 30-foot (9 m) tall or even taller Indigenous papaya trees.
So, What next?
What is it that I could do, in my capacity, starting today?
- As far as possible, buy and consume organic, or naturally grown produce. We know of a lot of small farmers and their families who carry out natural farming with honest zeal but haven't been able to afford or pursue certification requirements. Also, we know of certified farms that do not follow sustainable practices like multi-cropping /inter-cropping and continue to follow mono cropping and spray purchased ‘organic’ fertilizers on their farms. So certification need not always be a true benchmark.
- Nothing better if you have access to mediums that allow direct buying from small farmers or farmer markets.
- Always try best to consume locally grown food and keep safe from fancy marketing gimmicks that push imported foreign food options into our kitchens. This is not just good for our health, but also good for the society we live in, our economy and the environment.
- Elections are just round the corner. Look out for social reform leaders who you think have been instrumental in encouraging organic farming practices and work closely with farmers.
- In your city or locality, ask your supermarket to stock more natural, organic foods. Voice your views on GMO.
- If you have some available space in your backyard or even some space for pots in your balcony, try your hands at growing some food on your own - maybe just some herbs - you'll develop a whole new appreciation for how food is grown and for the farmers who do it for a livelihood.
- Visit farmer markets regularly in your locality. This will allow you to rediscover basic wholesome food. Below are the links to three Organic farmer Markets that TBOF is a part of -
- Farmers' Market by Kavita Mukhi, D'Monte Park, Bandra https://www.facebook.com/farmersmarket.co.in/
- Organic We Farmers Market, Mancherji Joshi Hall, Dadar https://www.facebook.com/organicwecommunity/
- The Conscious Community Market Pune https://www.facebook.com/thecocopune/
- A reference compilation of all weekly Farmers Markets (2019) Mumbai https://www.mumbai77.com/city/5698/services/farmers-market/
- Most importantly, Vote with your wallet every single time you make a purchase - REJECT everything containing GE ingredients - which means you have to give up almost all processed food products and ready to cook options.
- Get back in your kitchens. Take charge. Cook a meal for the family.
It all, always, begins at home.
http://www.vikalpsangam.org - Amid Hype For Superfoods, Indian Tribals Save Nearly-extinct Crops by Varsha Torgalkar
www.villagesquare.in - Maharashtra Seed Mother Pioneers Conservation Of Native Varieties
Asian Agri-History Vol 20, No.3, 2016 - The Ancient "Khapli" Wheat: Is It Under-utilized? AB Damania
Indigenous Rice Varieties Make A Comeback - Saraswathy Nagarajan - 11th Jan 2018