Food needs, production and consumption should become natural

Narasimha Reddy Donthi

A pertinent point that we need to understand is about our food systems. Even though the UN body has given us the theme of “Our solutions are in nature”, we usually bypass an analysis of those solutions. This particular UN body, Convention on Biodiversity, also does not give you what, why and how. It is for you, me and others to figure out what “our solutions are in nature” means.

Food and food systems the world over have been moving towards crisis. In modern times, hunger in Africa became ubiquitous. World witnessed images of hunger in extreme cases of drought and war. This includes Ethiopia and Yemen. Asia and Africa have always been shown as continents that have hungry people in substantial numbers, World Food Programme is forever working on linking funds from developed countries to delivery of food aid to so-called under-developed countries. This is often debated as the inability of local agricultural systems being under-capacitated to serve the needs of the local populace. However, the destruction of biodiversity and lack of history of hunger before modernity hit them is always underplayed.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, hunger and hungry people are on the rise even in developed countries. These are the countries, which are shown as food surplus and have economic models to emulate. GDP-centric growth and modernization of agriculture in these countries has not been able to stop the emergence and growth of hunger and hungry. United States of America and Britain are increasingly reporting homeless people who are moving about in search of food. Food stamps are also not being responded to this growing hunger. A well-made documentary on US public food distribution system, titled “A Place at The Table” argues for widening the scope for food rations. A single, young mother narrates how she is struggling to give nutritious food for her son. This was done a few years back. In the corona pandemic times, and due to lockdown conditions, hunger and hungry people in these countries have become more visible.

Christopher D Cook said in a recent article in The Guardian, “The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the cracks in a corporate-focused system supported by policies that favor profits at any cost… Centralized corporate power is creating agricultural and economic mono-cropping at a time when we most need a food system that’s diverse, equitable and sustainable.” A. R. Vasavi agrees that “Market and capital-based production systems celebrate and promote food regimes that are supposedly cheap, exotic, healthy, and fashionable. Far from addressing issues of provisioning the masses, supplying nutritious food, or delivering a diverse food basket, such food production systems violate the principles of nutritional, immune, and generative well-being.”

Vandana Shiva says, “The fight is between industrial, chemically dependent agriculture (in cahoots with “Big Food”) and ecologically sustainable farming that supports the health of the planet and the wellbeing of all people.”

These modern food systems have made us dependent on agriculture and processed food from farm harvests. With modern machinery, primary food was mixed and transformed into ultra-processed food. It became value-added food, fortified food, etc. Food came to be addressed with an adjective. Food for nourishment of human beings was always never dependent wholly on crop harvests. Modern food increasingly became an outcome of farm harvests. But this was not the case always.

In India, and most traditional societies, food was sourced from diverse sets of systems. Only grains, pulses and oilseeds came from agriculture. All other food, especially fruits came from the wild. Animal products were sourced from domesticated animals, but not from factory-farms. Vegetables came from backyard or frontyard. As modernity became expansive, urbanization became a new norm, agriculture fields extended into forests and naturally bio-diverse land systems. With expansion of urban lands, agriculture moved away from towns and cities and is moving gradually and inexorably into grassland and forest systems, depleting vegetation, soil and geography.

Forests always provided a diversity of food, through different seasons, in different geographical-climate systems. Tropical systems had wide variety of foods. Fruits, tubers, leaves, edible seeds, fibre, etc., were source of nutrition and nourishment. They are available in open lands and wilderness. Seeds, tubers and roots have an important role in food security and nutrition, especially in critical times such as drought and famine.

World has been moving away from forest and wild food systems to agriculture to industrial food production, with each system having different shades and diversity within themselves. Industrial food systems presently are enticing the new genre with fortified food, modified food and transformed food. Research is being done on meat, coming from lab, than animals. Hydroponic systems promise food, with land and soil. People believe in this technology-centric, non-natural food systems for their own reasons. However, the consequences of such systems and the food that comes out of such systems do necessitate the growth of health care industry. Food and pharma industry are working in cycles, each creating conditions and market demand for the other. In between, pesticide industry and genetic engineering research business chip in with their own unique interventions, further aggravating the consequences of such food systems on ecology, environment and people.

Amidst COVID-19 pandemic, there is increasing realization that humans can withstand such pandemics (more pandemics are predicted) only because of their immune systems. Human immune systems can be strengthened only through food. Natural food and naturally grown food are the only source for strengthening human immune systems. Ecological agriculture, forests, bio-diverse land systems can be the best reservoirs of such foods. A food system that is based on biodiversity is also a foundation for justice, equity and access in human societies, and can redefine the relationship between human and non-human life into a harmonious, symbiotic state.

Local food for local consumption can be the bedrock for the growth of a food system that creates ideal conditions for the growth of agriculture that is balanced, accessible, equitable and cyclical. This also leads to restoration of energy and water cycles to their natural state.

So, when the theme of World Bio-diversity Day is “Our solutions are in nature,” past, current and future generations of human societies have to realize that food cannot be a mere raw material for processed output, but an input in a natural cycle. Food should be accessed directly from natural systems, through restoration of natural cycles of production and consumption.

Dr Narasimha Reddy Donthi is a public policy expert. He can be reached at nreddy.donthi16@gmail.com.

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