From India’s geographic and climatic diversity has sprung a rich host of local customs, not least its dietary traditions. Every state in India has unique food habits—from source to preparation—that tie closely into the region’s biodiversity, the available options, and the nutritional needs of its people.
Why are local and seasonal foods important? In a rapidly globalising world, our food habits are becoming unsustainable, contributing to more greenhouse emissions and resource-intensive food production methods. To mark the International Day for Biological Diversity 2019 (whose theme is “Our Biodiversity, Our Food, Our Health”), the Convention on Biological Diversity, under the ambit of the United Nations, has called on people to contribute to biodiversity conservation by purchasing and consuming seasonal and local foods. This is especially relevant to India, where a clash of traditional and modern lifestyles is putting stress on food systems.
Take for example, bajra (pearl millet), a traditional native crop in the Marwar region of Rajasthan. Bajra is not just popular in the region for its taste. Akshraj Jodha, Executive Chef, ITC Windsor Bengaluru says, “Bajra has high water content, because of which people don’t feel too thirsty after eating it.” In an arid region like Rajasthan, pearl millet helps people avoid dehydration while also providing them essential nutrients.
However, in the last few years, Rajasthan farmers have started growing water-intensive cropslike pearl millet in the dry season, including the peak summer months of May and June, instead of waiting for the monsoon, when it is traditionally grown. This is because of a spike in the demand for millet from urban, health-conscious consumers looking for gluten-free superfoods. Crops like pearl millet and groundnut (Kharif crops) only need rain water for irrigation and are perfect for Rajasthan’s climate; sowing them indiscriminately all year round depletes the region’s already-scarce water resources.
“Growing crops according to traditional seasons is essential for soil health and wise water use,” says Chef Jodha. Soil biodiversity plays an important role in mitigating climate change and storing and filtering ground water.. Just one spoon of soil contains 10,000 to 50,000 types of micro-organisms: The well-being of all plants, animals, and indeed humans, depends on the complex processes that take place in soil.
Unfortunately, with each passing day, the world’s diet is becoming alarmingly homogenous. In the last century, more than 90% of crop varieties have disappeared across the world, impoverishing Earth’s biodiversity. By choosing to eat only seasonal and local produce, we can ensure that the demand for the right foods is high in the right season.