What’s Cooking on Farms? Health, nutrition and wealth
Though diminutive and soft-spoken, her words were powerful. Miss S. Jalaja spoke passionately about the “invisible” healthcare crisis now affecting millions of rural and urban poor households, and how protecting biodiversity and farming medicinal trees and shrubs in agroforestry systems can help ease it.
She said chronic diseases that were previously associated with affluence are now affecting the poor, leading to high levels of rural indebtedness and social deprivation.
Jalaja is the immediate former Secretary of India’s Department of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga & Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy), and currently works with the National Human Rights Commission of India. She was the keynote speaker at a symposium organized by the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) in Hyderabad, India on 17 October 2012.
Titled ‘What’s Cooking on Farms? Tree Diversity For Health, Fuel and Nutrition’, the well-attended 90-minute side event was held within the just-ended Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP11).
Jalaja said protecting and promoting plant diversity everywhere would benefit human and animal health, and help ease governments’ struggle with the global healthcare crisis.
Miss Jalaja’s talk delved into Ayurveda and related traditional health systems, which are closely linked with ancient religious scripts. She said the Eastern medical systems are nature-based, holistic, and give equal weight to animal and human health.
“The contribution of medicinal trees and shrubs to livestock and human health is something that’s entrenched in the Vedas. But traditional health systems are more than health systems; they are a way of life. They are are intricately connected with the food you take; what you eat has an impact on your brain. And where does the food come from? It comes from the biodiversity all around,” she said.
“We have to protect biodiversity at all costs. If we do not, the people who depend on traditional medical systems will be greatly affected.”
Jalaja said the cultivation and processing of medicinal plants is a huge industry that depends entirely on biodiversity, and provides employment to millions, alleviating poverty. She said farming of medicinal plants should be encouraged, in order to ensure the conservation and sustainable supply of traditional plant species, which are now threatened with overexploitation, with some approaching extinction.
At the same forum Roger Leakey, vice-chairman of the International Tree Foundation and Senior Fellow at ICRAF, said diverse agroforestry systems could deal a double blow to the spiral of biodiversity loss, land degradation and social deprivation being witnessed in the developing world.
“Farming systems that are more useful, more profitable, and more productive are able to raise nutrition and build wealth,” said Leakey.
Most indigenous fruits have much higher nutritional values than common staple foods. For instance, bush mango (Irvingia gabonensis) kernels have 7 times the protein of cassava tubers and over 10 times the fibre. The fruit is now being grown on farms in West Africa, following domestication through an ICRAF-coordinated participatory programme in West Africa. Safou (Dacryodes edulis), another indigenous fruit species recently domesticated under the same programme, is also highly nutritious.
“Scientists working with farmers in tree domestication should develop cultivars with good nutrient values and low anti-nutrient levels,” said Leakey.
By intensifying and diversifying the farming landscape with these new cultivars, and processing their fruits into an array of new agri-products for sale, rural households stand to gain new sources of income to improve livelihoods, said Leakey.
He described a three-step generic model for agroforestry intensification, which involves ecological rehabilitation, tree domestication, and processing and commercialization of tree-based products. In Cameroon, a programme using the model has expanded to 485 villages in 10 years.
The three steps are discussed in detail in Professor Leakey’s new book: Living with the Trees of Life: Towards the Transformation of Tropical Agriculture: They are:
1. Rehabilitation: Restore soil fertility using leguminous trees that fix nitrogen (fertilizer trees) on farms. Such agroforestry system help fill the ‘yield gap’ on farms – that gap between potential yield and what farmers actually harvest.
2. Participatory Tree Domestication: Bringing into farm cultivation trees that were important during the hunter-gatherer days.
3. Commercialization, value addition and trade: Benefits communities in terms of empowerment and income-generation.
Leakey said there was an urgent, unmet need to protect the intellectual property farmers apply in domesticating indigenous trees, and to comply with access-benefits sharing agreements when farmers work with commercial institutions.
At the same event, ICRAF Senior Associate Professor Tony Cunningham, a professor at the School of Plant Biology, University of Western Australia, spoke on the topic of wood fuel, a multi-billion-dollar industry in developing countries.
He enlightened the audience about the toxic effects some types of wood smoke have on people’s health, and how, with shrinking tree cover, rural poor households who cannot afford to buy non-toxic “good woods” for cooking and heating are becoming increasingly susceptible to poisoning from wood smoke.
Dr. Prabhjot Sodi described the successes of Global Environment Facility (GEF)-supported projects in the Western Ghats and other parts of India, and Virendra Pal Singh, ICRAF Regional Coordinator for South Asia, described agroforestry projects the Centre is involved in in the Western Ghats and other parts of India.
Coming as it did on the heels of World Food Day (WFD) 2012, the ‘What’s Cooking on Farms?’ event gave the audience of about 100 much food for thought. The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012 released on WFD states that almost 870 million people, 850 of them in developing countries, are chronically undernourished.
Restoring, protecting, and diversifying landscapes and ecosystems has an important part to play in addressing healthcare, hunger and poverty, which currently rank among the world’s most pressing crises.
Read transcript of Miss Jalaja’s speech
Presentation by Dr. Roger Leakey