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The biodiversity of food

With monoculture taking over, the only biodiversity that will remain will be stored inside the cold and controlled environments of gene pool labs

Sunita Narain  |  New Delhi 

Food is personal. We know that. What we often do not realise is that food is also more than personal. It is also about culture and, most importantly, about biodiversity. We often do not think how the flora and fauna around us make up our culture. We do not think that food diversity, indeed cultural diversity, is linked to diversity in the biological world.

As a result, we often do not value this biodiversity in our farms, forests, lakes and oceans. Each region of India, indeed the world, has different food habits. Each region has its own recipes; it cooks with different ingredients; and it eats differently. And this is no accident.

Every region, for instance, has its own rice variety. Many of these come with medicinal properties. Most are specific to the ecosystem they grow in. If the region is drought-prone, the variety survives in tough conditions, such as the Kayame rice of Karnataka. The Orkaima, Pokkali and Kuttadan varieties, found in low-lying districts of Kerala, are salt-resistant and, therefore, suitable for growing in sea water. In the highlands of the same state, another rice variety is grown: Navara (in Palakkad), which has medicinal properties and received the geographical indication certificate in 2007.

This richness of variety resulted in culinary methods that were equally diverse and equally rich. Bengal, for instance, has a tradition of cooking different rice in different seasons. This is food and culture.

If biodiversity disappears, we will lose the food wealth on our plates. Food will become impersonal. It will become a sterile package designed for universal size and taste. This is what is happening today, where food comes in plastic cans.

We have to join the dots. Food biodiversity needs our care and attention. With monoculture taking over, the only biodiversity that will remain will be stored inside the cold and controlled environments of gene pool laboratories. It will not flourish in the living world around us - the world that gives us life and the joy of living.

Consider makhana, the seed of a member of the water lily family. The plant grows in the multitude of lakes and ponds that once made up the flood plains of north India. The water bodies were crucial for survival in this region, destroyed periodically by rivers that bring water, silt and sorrow. The ecosystem was built by channelling the water of swollen rivers into ponds. This took away the pain of the flood. It provided for storage of water and, in turn, recharged groundwater, giving economic life to agriculture. But, most importantly, the wetland gave alternative sources of food, one of which is the protein-rich makhana. Once the ponds are gone, the plant will not survive. One source of food will be lost. One more taste will be forgotten.

One may argue that biodiversity does not need the ecosystem. It can be cultivated and can still be available to us. That is indeed possible. After all, the potato originated in faraway South America. It was brought to India not so long ago by the Portuguese, and is now an essential part of our cuisine. We cannot imagine our food without potatoes. Yet we miss the biodiversity of the vegetable that gives South American food its richness and, indeed, its health. We cannot imitate nature. We cannot manufacture biodiversity.

But we can choose to live with it. We can value it in the wild and in the farm. We can savour its taste and smell. This is the joy of living. This is what we must not lose. Ever.

It is for this reason that the Centre for Science and Environment and Down To Earth decided to put together a compendium of recipes that originate in different regions and plants. The book, titled First Food, puts together this taste of India's biodiversity into recipes and information about food and its source. It is an attempt to celebrate the knowledge of plants and their properties; how to best cook them to bring out their flavours and smells. This is lived and living biodiversity.

The emphasis is on appreciating the science and art of nature. If we can make nature part of our lives again, make the connection between what we eat and why we eat it, then we can also safeguard this resource for tomorrow. But if we lose the knowledge and culture of our local cuisines, then we lose more than their taste and smell. We lose nature.

We hope this book will get people to share our passion for food that brings back this connection - between our stomach, kitchen, health and the world around us. Otherwise, diversity in the wild will be lost. We have to remember that it cannot be protected unless we celebrate it in our lives.

First Published: Sun, May 26 2013. 21:49 IST