Seeds of Thought

Reflections on Food, Farming and People

One of my earliest memories from my childhood spent in Jalna, a rural tract of Maharashtra, involves my father frequently bringing home guests for lunch. We did not really know these people well and yet, it did not seem strange that they should join us for a simple meal of dal and roti prepared by my mother.

This was during a period in the mid to late sixties when parts of India were hit by famine and food scarcity. The government had a number of initiatives in place to counter the situation, including the well-known ‘miss a meal’ campaign that urged people to help the cause by skipping a meal.

As a child, I did not dwell too much on this practice of strangers dropping in on us. It was only later that I was able to connect the dots between those visits and the prevailing food scenario in the country at the time. I realized then that my parents were trying to help, in whatever way they could, a community hit by a food crisis.

My memories of this time have stayed with me, along with my delayed comprehension of its significance. It also highlights the complex equation between human beings and food, in my view. For those who only have a limited supply of food, eating is linked to survival rather than enjoyment and indulgence. They are not likely to question its source or method of cultivation, in contrast with those who are food secure.

When it comes to the food we eat, there are plenty of strong opinions and views on how it should be grown. But these views largely stem from a vocal section of the urban population that is somewhat out of touch with both the problem and its solution.

I do not say this because my research and work focuses on GM crops but because I feel that there is a need to truly understand the facts and also recognize the specific challenges of the Indian food landscape.
The right to food is undisputed but this right is being threatened by prices that make it inaccessible to many. Since productivity gains have a direct impact on affordability in agriculture, we should be focusing on boosting one in order to improve the other. Yet, even this fundamental economic principle is disputed by certain groups.

Farming is also shaped and impacted by what consumers seek. Changing dietary patterns, shifting demographics and evolving family structures all play into this. For example, with nuclear and smaller families becoming the norm, consumers are now shopping for small heads of cabbage as opposed to the oversized varieties that were popular in the past. Certain exotic kinds of produce are being cultivated to cater to the taste buds of the global Indian.

With production being tightly linked to consumer demand, it is possible that some crop breeds will become scarce and eventually fade out of the market. I remember biting into small local varieties of tomatoes with a tangy burst of flavor as a child. These are no longer easy to find. There was also a small ‘khatta-meetha’ breed of mango that has been driven out by demand for other popular names – Alphonso, Banganapalli, Neelam. Although we may remember these foods with fondness, the reality is that nostalgia alone cannot sustain production in the marketplace. It has to be driven by consumer need and real demand.
Still, we do have to look more closely at our production mix if only to evaluate its nutritional composition. As a population, we are focused more on calories rather than the quality of those calories. The average rural farmer in Central India may have a couple of jowar rotis with a helping of pickle for lunch. Protein and essential nutrients are sorely lacking from his diet. While we focus on boosting production in order to ensure that people have enough food, we have to, in parallel, look at ways of boosting the nutritional quotient of what people are eating.

At the end of the day, we have to ask ourselves: what do we seek from our food? Is it sustenance, enjoyment, or nourishment? Ideally, it should be a combination of all of these. There is also an aspect of comfort associated with familiar dishes. As we travel across the country or the world, many of us have a chance to experience different kinds of cuisines and to have our taste buds grow in sophistication. Yet, we always come back to our old childhood favourites when we are in need of ‘comfort food’. For me, that experience involves dal, roti and subzi and the special privilege of a home cooked meal.