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Ensuring food security and genetic diversity

Agro-biodiversity is the most important requisite for having a healthy and strong regional food system. It is genetic diversity that allows regional food systems to be productive, even in times of ecological stress. The richness in the genetic diversity of crops means an agro-ecosystem that is hardier and more resilient to biotic and abiotic stresses such as pests or climate variation.

The concept of regional food systems has become an issue to be debated in the last five years or so, as the world confronts the economic, environmental, and social impacts of the globalised agro-industrial food system that originated in the west and is now spreading to developing countries. Problems as diverse as food inflation, land degradation, climate change, food safety and the seemingly contradictory burdens of rising obesity and stagnating malnutrition levels, have given cause for reflection on the way that we are growing and eating our food. It has prompted a search for an alternative paradigm of food production and consumption (Donald et al 2010).

How far the industrialisation of food has gone can be witnessed by any international traveller. In hotels across the world, identical processed foods are served, supplied by the same companies. French fries, packaged yoghurt, jams and preserves, frozen meats and vegetables, noodle dishes with pre-prepared sauces, even bread, travels around the world from agribusiness companies. Everything tastes the same everywhere!

Environmental and social movements originating in the west, often collectively termed ‘local food movements’ have decried food systems where production is too far removed from consumption. A long value chain, characterized by layers of middle men responsible for refining, processing, packaging, shipping, and marketing, was seen to be rife with inefficiencies and extraneous costs (Pretty 2001). Thus local food movements sought to shorten the value chain, re-link the producer and consumer, and reduce negative externalities to promote a more sustainable food system that was based on a healthier regional cuisine.

What is more, in an era of climate change it seemed imprudent, even reckless, to be transporting foods thousands of kilometers around the globe in the name of international trade and the capitalistic logic of comparative advantage. The concept of ‘food miles’ was borne out of this specific negative externality of the current food system and serves as a metric to gauge the carbon footprint of food and agriculture products. Thus the benefits of returning to a smaller-scale, regional food systems are severalfold and include reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, improvement of health through increased consumption of fresh foods, and less market distortion due to cutting away layers of middle men.

Issue of food security

In regions where food security remains an issue, the benefits of regional food systems are not just better strategies for survival but are also linked to diversified and sustainable methods of cultivation as well as improved (and affordable ) health and nutrition. Studies show that increases in trade liberalisation and the resulting dependence on global commodity markets manifest themselves as increased hunger in poorer parts of the developing world. The soaring inflation and food crisis of 2008 accompanied by food riots and loss of life is attributed to the global food regime controlled by agri- business (Donald 2010). But this is only one of the many impacts which a globalised food system has on marginalised populations in the developing world which struggle with diminishing food options.

The approach to food in every traditional community has been holistic, based on diverse sources and essentially dependent on local foods. These could be cultivated in fields, collected from the wild or nurtured in the commons. Rural communities have food, nutrition and livelihood strategies that are inextricably linked to their surrounding bioresources. These bioresources, which can be cultivated (millets or rice), semi-domesticated (tubers and leafy greens), or wild (fruits, berries), all help households meet their nutritional and livelihood needs. Such bioresource based systems cannot be compartmentalised. Often the same plants will provide several products like food, fodder and fibre or food, nutrition and medicine. Collectively, they provide most of the needs of the rural communities like food, nutrition, fodder, medicine, fibre, fuel and cultural goods.

Traditional cultivation practices allowed supplementary food sources to become available. In typical rice paddies that used farmyard manure and organic nutrients, the rice field yielded rice and fish, the banks offered snails and crabs and many water plants had medicinal properties that were used to treat human and animal diseases. Along the sides of the fields, a plethora of leafy greens eaten as vegetables provided nutrition to the rural family, all for free.

A good example in the Indian context where regional food systems can be far superior to a centralised food system is the PDS (Public Distribution System). Instead of stocking rice and wheat across India, if the PDS would stock local and regional foods, it would enable the government not only to provide foods suited to local tastes but to do so cheaply and more efficiently. Since it would be locally procured, the foods would be fresher and more diverse and they would not come burdened with the food miles that contribute to global warming.

In fact a decentralised PDS system procuring regional foods from close by would give a boost to local farmers and catalyse the local agriculture and economy. It would fulfil another important function, that of conserving the genetic diversity that forms the basis of food security. If the PDS would buy traditional varieties of crops from farmers and thus ensure them a market, there would be a great incentive for farmers to continue growing these crops and they will not feel the pressure to shift to high yielding varieties which get them higher incomes. Most people, specially the rural communities prefer the taste of the traditional varieties of food crops as compared to the high yielding versions, so there should be greater acceptance of these varieties.

In a decentralised PDS , each state can procure regional foods that are grown and eaten preferentially by the people there. Karnataka could include Ragi (finger millet) which is the most popular food in rural areas there; Rajasthan could procure Bajra (pearl millet), its staple for long, for its PDS. Maharashtra where many people eat jowar (sorghum) in preference to rice and wheat could sell subsidized jowar through its ration shops.

Building a system of regional subsidised foods will be a good opportunity to conserve the genetic diversity of crop plants and other foods like tubers and vegetables to support local food security. It will provide a broader basis for food security and help the food system ride out the disruptions anticipated due to climate turbulence resulting from global warming.

Conserving genetic diversity

The most important asset for the rural poor is to have a diversity of resources from which to draw on for food and nutrition. This acts as insurance against the vagaries of nature, so if drought, disease, or pests destroy certain crops one year, they are still able to provide nutrition to the household through other varieties of the same species or other species, forest products or minor crops grown on the field margins. These alternative sources of nutrition, crucial to rural communities’ survival, are available because of the thousands of years of careful crop selection by farmers which has resulted in today’s agro-biodiversity, the basis of local food security.

Agro-biodiversity is arguably the most important requisite for having a healthy and strong regional food system. FAO defines agrobiodiversity as, “the variety and variability of animals, plants and micro-organisms that are used directly or indirectly for food and agriculture, including crops, livestock, forestry and fisheries. It comprises the diversity of genetic resources (varieties, breeds) and species used for food, fodder, fibre, fuel and pharmaceuticals. It also includes the diversity of non-harvested species that support production (soil micro-organisms, predators, pollinators), and those in the wider environment that support agro-ecosystems (agricultural, pastoral, forest and aquatic) as well as the diversity of the agro-ecosystems (FAO 1999).

Species diversity is essential to providing adequate, nutritious and culturally appropriate food, as people cannot live healthy, productive lives eating only a few types of cereals. It is genetic diversity that allows regional food systems to be productive, even in times of ecological stress. The richness in the genetic diversity of crops means an agro-ecosystem that is hardier and more resilient to biotic and abiotic stresses such as pests or climate variation.

Contrast this with the rice, maize or wheat monocultures of the Green Revolution. Although they provided initial increases in productivity, their uniform and narrow genetic base was shown to be inordinately susceptible to pest attacks, drought, and disease. Because they lack the hardiness of locally adapted varieties they require high levels of chemical inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides. This reliance on chemical inputs has led to soil degradation and eutrophication of waterways in the case of fertilisers, and pest resistance and elimination of beneficial organisms in the case of pesticides and herbicides. All this disrupted the ecological balance required for maintaining soil health necessary for the cultivation of diverse crops to support food security. Such developments have been particularly harmful for the poor farmer-consumer, as all of the features of this agroindustrial model led to an extremely fragile system of production, where one inopportune development can mean total crop loss.

In a rural food system, this risk cannot be taken. A system rich in  agro-biodiversity will also face the same ecological stresses, however there will always be alternative crops available in case of a bad year. Agro-biodiversity also contributes to plugging gaps in consumption, which is important in cash scarce households. For example, by cultivating several rice varieties with different maturity periods, food security is augmented over a longer period of time.

The management of an agricultural system rich in diversity does not require intensive chemical inputs and thus negative externalities are minimised. Instead, this system responds well to agro-ecological practices such as integrated pest management, nitrogen-fixing crops, vermicomposting, and multi-cropping. Agro-ecological practices are often labour intensive as opposed to capital intensive, which is better suited to rural communities that are labour rich but cash poor. Further, these practices actually produce positive externalities since they strengthen and gradually improve the ecosystem, leading to overall better resilience to stresses. It becomes quite clear that a strong regional food system is predicated on the maintenance of agro-biodiversity through an agro-ecological approach to production as opposed to chemical intensive monocultures.

Suman Sahai
Gene Campaign
J-235/A, Lane W-15C, Sainik Farms, New Delhi-110 062, India
E-mail: mail@genecampaign.org

Donald, Betsy et al (2010) “Re-regionalising the food system?”
Cambridge Journal of Regions, Economy, and Society 3:2 171-175.
FAO (1999) Agricultural Biodiversity, Multifunctional Character
of Agriculture and Land Conference, Background Paper 1.
Maastricht, Netherlands. September 1999.
Iannotti (2009). Bangladesh Homestead Garden IPFRI Paper.
Pretty, J (2001). The True Cost of Modern Farming.