Time to plant a new idea

Hari Kumar

Representative image | Photo: AP

Walk around anywhere in Kerala during mid-summer (March-April); you will see mango trees laden with green fruits. A wide variety of them – from lemon-size for pickles to large succulent ones to be eaten ripe. As days roll on, their colour will change to yellow signalling that they are ready for harvest. Many would have fallen to the ground prematurely, ending up mostly in the garbage.

Green mangoes were a popular snack until a few decades back, especially with kids. They would roam the gardens during summer holidays with a packet of salt and, maybe, also a chilli or two. Different varieties need different additives to enhance taste, and everyone has their favourites.

Many families used to add green mangoes to some curries besides salting and storing them for future use. Sourness and sap were key indicators that decided the treatment as there would be a few varieties grown in the area around many Kerala homes. A plate of rice, curd and a salted mango made a meal.

But those are days long past. Green mango, like unripe jackfruit, is no longer a popular seasonal vegetable in Kerala kitchens. It is almost like a form of skin colour discrimination that now deprives young mangoes of their role in Kerala cuisine. Families now wait for the lovely golden skin colour to emerge before this fruit is allowed into the house.

Labourers pack raw mangoes into boxes after an auction at the Gaddiannaram fruit market on the outskirts of Hyderabad (File image) | Photo: AFP

This is despite a virtual revolution happening in Kerala’s culinary scene with various cuisines and a plethora of eateries sprouting up. But unfortunately, the vegetarian dishes in newly-minted eateries are now dominated by fancier stuff previously alien to Keralans, like cauliflower, mushrooms, and broccoli.

You keep on hearing people blaming the younger generation for the changes occurring around them, including food habits. However, the side-lining of many local crops is rooted in changes that happened more than six decades ago as research and development led to increased production of rice and wheat, which slowly led to produces like tapioca, sweet potatoes, yams, and millet disappearing from the menu.

This is not a phenomenon limited to Kerala or India. It is a global trend. Increased production of crops like rice, wheat, and corn over the years made them the dominant staple, which led to countries subsidising farmers to grow more of them to ensure food security.

This shift, of course, helped wipe out hunger from most parts of the world. It could now be startling to recall that the rice shortage had made Kerala ban sadya (banquet) during weddings and other celebrations six decades ago.

Those days are ancient. Except for a few, countries worldwide can now feed their citizens adequately by growing their staples or purchasing them from others.

Hunger vanished, but along with it, crop diversity has suffered. Rice, corn and wheat have now become the world’s most dominant crops, accounting for two-thirds of global food-energy intake, according to Bloomberg.

A farmer makes the bundles of rice saplings to transplant in the paddy field | Photo: ANI

Over the decades, many vegetables and fruits disappeared from the daily diet in many parts of the world, leading to unhealthy eating that leans toward too much starch and sugar.

Processed food is the culprit here. Comfort foods like bread, pasta, cookies, and baked items made of refined wheat flour replaced the real McCoy, whole wheat, depriving the consumers of its healthy nutrients.

The effect of climate change and geopolitical tensions are now adding to the woes.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the increase in global average temperature will significantly impact agriculture and food systems in vulnerable regions like India. For example, IPCC said global warming could reduce rice production in those regions by 10-30 per cent and maize production by 25-70 per cent.

Another vulnerability arises from the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war as the region is a major supplier of wheat, maize, and sunflower oil to the world.

According to a World Food Programme report, around 13.5 million tons of wheat and 16 million tons of maize are currently held up in Russia and Ukraine as the war rages on.

Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Syria are particularly vulnerable to any disruption in wheat imports, according to WFP, because millions of their people are dependent on it. These countries, where WFP is running emergency operations, are already reeling from the combined effect of the Ukraine war, climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, and rising costs.

Staples like rice, wheat, and edible oils are sensitive issues for many governments. Consequently, they will resort to drastic measures to ensure food security is maintained at all costs. Such moves can generate a knock-on effect, as in 2008, the global rice market faced a crisis after the second-largest exporter, Vietnam, imposed an export ban to control the domestic price.

“India, China, and Cambodia quickly followed with restrictions, effectively shutting down the entire rice market. Panic followed. In four months, the Philippines bought as much rice as it usually imports in a year. Saudi rice imports shot up 90 per cent as the kingdom built up its reserves.

Jackfruits | Photo: Mathrubhumi

“The result was the most dramatic price increase the rice market had ever seen, with prices soaring to about US$1,100 per ton from about US$480 in just eight weeks,” said the Bloomberg report that also warned against the world’s over-reliance on wheat.

The rice crisis of 2008 seems to be repeating. In addition, the current disruption in sunflower oil has sent palm oil prices soaring, and Indonesia, which together with Malaysia accounts for almost 90 per cent of the world’s palm oil production, has seen the domestic price jump to record levels, leading to large-scale protests in parts of the country.

Last week, Jakarta curtailed palm oil exports, putting major importers like India on a sticky wicket.

Such vulnerabilities threatening food supply is the nightmare of all governments, while the effect of climate change on crop production is worrying agriculture experts. A recent article published in The Nature Communication magazine advocated a rethinking of some US$450 billion annual subsidies being given to the farming sector globally.

The report said if this subsidy is diverted to different crops like fruits, vegetables, and other horticultural products, it will help improve the dietary benefits and decrease the greenhouse gas emissions.

“The findings suggest that reforming agricultural subsidy schemes based on health and climate-change objectives can be economically feasible and contribute to transitions towards healthy and sustainable food systems,” it said.

Some experts say the recent jolts in the agribusiness sector provide an opportunity to rethink the over-reliance on a few crops and spend the subsidies more evenly to encourage the cultivation of other staples.

It is easier said than done. Asking rice and wheat farmers to shift to other crops will be challenging. But with the effects of climate change, the war in some distant country threatening imports, and a need for a more nutritious diet have made such a debate prudent.

According to health experts, a starch-rich diet is a key factor in rising lifestyle diseases like diabetes and other diseases. A nutritious diet with more vegetables, fruits, and legumes could reduce the risk dramatically.

The first step would be to welcome local produce like green mangoes, jackfruit and breadfruit into your household and give them a prominent place on your dining table.

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