Supply chains have been restored and the possibility of an extended lockdown is very minimal. The threat of a covid-19 type pandemic (considering the continued intrusion into non-human ecosystem) however still looms large. During the early phases of COVID-19 lockdown, North East Slow Food and Agrobiodiversity Society (NESFAS) came across stories of food insecurity being experienced by the communities. This seems to confirm the common perception that Meghalaya is not self-sufficient in terms of food production. The question that arises here is – Is it really true? And if so, how much is the shortfall?
In 2107-2018 Meghalaya’s total annual agricultural production (based on data provided by the Directorate of Agriculture, Government of Meghalaya) was 13,17,057 metric tonnes. The crops enumerated for arriving at this figure can be divided into starchy staples (rice, wheat, maize, millet, potato, sweet potato, tapioca), fruits (citrus – khasi mandari, assam lemon, pomelo, others and other than citrus – pineapple, banana, papaya, strawberry, temperate fruits, misc fruits, jackfruits, sohiong) nuts and oil seeds (castor, sesamum, soyabean, linseed, sunflower, groundnut, rape and mustard), condiments (ginger, turmeric, chillies, garlic, black pepper, tez pata, coriander, onion), pulses (pea, cowpea, lentil, tur, gram), green leafy vegetables (cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli, lettuce, mustard leaves), other vegetables (beet root, radish, tomato, cucumber, capsicum, brinjal, ladies finger, turnip, bottle gourd, khol-khol, teasle gourd, ridge gourd) and Vitamin-A vegetables (carrot and pumpkin excluding papaya). This division is very useful as it enables the identification of food plants that are predominantly rich in either macro nutrients (starchy staples) or micro nutrients (fruits and vegetables). A balanced diet includes both.
When the calorie availability from the various crops is combined and compared against the population of Meghalaya, annual calorie availability was found to be 1684.96 Kcal per person per day. This is lower than the minimum daily calorie requirement of 1800 Kcal (less by 115 Kcal) as specified by the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization). This is again much lower than the requirements for the Indian context as given by National Institute of Nutrition, Hyderabad (NIN): the calorie requirement based on activity (ranging from sedentary to heavy work) for males vary from 2320 Kcal to 3490 Kcal while for females, it vary from 1900 Kcal to 2850 Kcal with extra calories required for pregnant and lactating mothers. The gap between calorie availability from local production and the minimum daily requirement therefore ranges from a maximum of 1805 Kcal to a minimum of 215 Kcal. But after taking into account local production of meat, egg and fish (data derived from Government of Meghalaya, Report on Integrated Sample Survey for Estimation of Production Milk, Egg and Meat, 2011-12), the total calorie availability goes up to 1739.48 Kcal and the gap reduces to 1750 Kcal and 60.52 Kcal. However, before we declare that self-sufficiency is not possible through local production, there are certain factors which have to be considered.
There is a hidden diversity within species – different varieties of the same crop contain different level of nutrients and calorific value. The paper, ‘Food compositional analysis of Indigenous foods consumed by the Khasi of Meghalaya, North-east India’ by Daniella Anne L. Chyne, R. Ananthan, and T. Longvah (2019) undertook a food composition analysis of six rice varieties from West Khasi Hills and found calorific value to vary from 340 Kcal to 356 Kcal per 100 grams. The participatory mapping conducted by NESFAS as part of its REC (Rural Electrification Corporation) supported project “No one shall be left behind initiative: Biodiversity for Food, Energy and Nutrition Security for 3000 households in Meghalaya and Nagaland, North East India” in Ri-Bhoi found that the number of rice varieties grown by the community varied from 20 to 41 varieties. Similarly the number of potato varieties (an important starchy staple) in the community ranged from 5 to 15 varieties in the selected villages of East Khasi Hills. Intraspecific diversity was a recurring feature observed in other crops as well. Most certainly there will be differences in calorific value as well. Can these intra-species differences in the calorific value make up the gap? Though unlikely (differences will not be substantial) they will certainly help in getting closer to the recommended levels (at least the FAO levels).
The other important aspect which has to be considered is the omission of particular crops and farming systems from the production data. A very important starchy staple missing from production data is taro/calocasia (shriew) which has a calorific value of 89 Kcal per 100 grams (Indian Food Composition Table 2017) and can be eaten as a starchy staple, green leafy vegetable and other (non-green leafy and non Vitamin A rich) vegetable. This feature is not unique to taro with other food plants like pumpkin, squash, payaya, mustard etc., belonging to more than one food group. As for taro, the intra-species diversity in East Khasi Hills ranged from 3 to 10 varieties. In the Khatarshnong area it was a very important staple crop in the past. Taro, however, is missing from the official production data.
Similarly an average of 202 food plants was recorded during the study but not all of those find mention in the official data. The most conspicuous of the exclusions are the wild edibles and wild fruits whose numbers from Laitsohpliah (a village on the way to Sohra) was found to be 33 and 39 species respectively along with the 23 species of mushrooms reported by the community. There is no production/harvesting data on these food plants. The same can be said of insects, amphibians, rodents and other mammals collected from the wild. While it cannot be stated with certainty as to whether the calorific value of the omissions will remove the gap, in the absence of a comprehensive analysis it cannot be stated otherwise as well.
Finally there is the missing farming system, homestead gardens (kper) which are located in proximity to the residence containing a wide biological diversity of plants and animal species. The participatory mapping exercise found that it was the most important farming system practiced by more than 90% of the surveyed households in Meghalaya and Nagaland. Its importance to household food security is immense. What happens if production from the individual homestead gardens is also taken into consideration? The contribution to the total calorie availability could be substantial. Without actual production data, however there is nothing that can be said with certainty. But the possibility that the recommended calorie requirement can be met from local production does become a strong possibility.
A recent paper ‘Nutritional Intake and Consumption Pattern in the States of Himachal Pradesh and Meghalaya’ by Anika MWK Shadap & Veronica Pala (2017) reported, based on National Sample Survey Organisation data, that per capita intake of calorie in Meghalaya is 1703 Kcal, below the recommended level and what is available from local production. Here it is important to understand that this figure is inclusive of food that must have come from own production and bought from the market (which includes food brought from outside the State). Apart from the issue of access, a weak storage infrastructure (leading to losses), low utilization of local agrobiodiversity, dependence on market (production of food crops for market to earn money to buy food again from the market), lack of nutritional knowledge and diversified diet among others could be important factors which explains this paradox of hunger amidst plenty.
Food self-sufficiency is a possibility provided there is a change of narrative backed by policy initiatives based on utilization and promotion of local agrobiodiversity. Even if the gap persists it may not be an insurmountable one as previously imagined. Such a movement towards localisation of food system crucially will also put more control in the hands of the local community improving their well-being and strengthen their resilience to threats like COVID-19 in the future.
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Note: This article has also been published in The Shillong Times