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Underutilised indigenous crops hold the key to food security for communities living in the Himalayan region

Buckwheat Field in Nawalparasi (Image by Nabin Baral)

Buckwheat Field in Nawalparasi (Image by Nabin Baral)

The Hindu Kush Himalayan region is deeply dependent on agriculture, with 66% of the population engaged in the agriculture sector. Although greater market access and better infrastructure have increased the access of mountain farmers to food through cash crops such as apples and citrus fruits, this has led to radical changes in farming practices and food consumption. This has led to the decline in the local food system and increased dependence on external sources for food grain. Price shocks and disruptions in transportation due to natural hazards have made food supply in the mountains incredibly vulnerable. Added to this increasing population pressure, diminishing landholdings, soil degradation, and high price of inputs are looming threats. Climatic changes such as changes in temperature and rainfall patterns accompanied by more floods and prolonged droughts have added challenges to agriculture, particularly in mountain areas.

A report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in 2009 revealed that, out of millions of known plant species, only 120 are cultivated for human food; and of these wheat, rice and maize account for more than half of the dietary energy supplied by plant sources. This dependency on a few species deeply compromises food security, as a threat to any of these key species has a massive impact on the availability and price of food across the globe. In 2011 the International Conference on Neglected and Underutilised Species (NUS) held in Frankfurt by Biodiversity International emphasised how NUS varieties can play a role in dealing with vulnerability.

Promoting some neglected and underutilised crops can play an important role in combating the negative impacts of climate change on food security in mountains through improving dietary diversity and income opportunities. Many of these species are well adapted to stress conditions of extreme environments. They do not require high inputs and can be successfully grown in marginal, degraded waste lands, with minimal inputs and at the same time contribute to increased agricultural production, enhanced crop diversification and improved environment. They provide useful genes to breed better varieties capable of withstanding climate change scenario and sustaining production.

According to the FAO approximately 78% of the world’s mountain area is unsuitable or marginally suitable, for growing crops. Nonetheless indigenous crops, cultivated under traditional farming systems, have been grown in these areas for centuries, and they provide the hope for adapting to the climate change. When mountain farmers switch to high yielding cash crops, dozens and sometimes hundreds of varieties of traditional foods can be replaced with one or two single varieties. NUS are fast disappearing mainly because of the standardisation of agricultural practices, mono-cropping trends and changes in food habits skewed towards a few commodity crops dominating food systems at all levels.

The people of the Hindu Kush Himalayan region have been practicing traditional farming for centuries using some of these NUS species. Some species of NUS can be placed in the classes of cereals, legumes, root crops and fruits. These species may be prioritised and scaled up as important livelihood source in Himalayan countries according to the area specific agro-ecological potential. Some of these NUS are: finger millet (Eleusine coracana), Buckwheat (Fagopyrum spp), Naked Barley (Hordeum vulgare), Beans (Phaselous vulgaris, Lablab purpureus), Black gram (Vigna radiate), Horse crop (Macrotyloma uniflorum), Taro (Colocasia esulenta), Yam (Dioscorea spp.), Amala (Phyllanthus emblica) and Jammun (Syzygium cumini). Unfortunately the protection and promotion of such practices are not a priority for their governments. This has led to heavy genetic erosion affecting traditional crops around the world, as well as the erosion of cultural diversity intimately associated with their use and appreciation.

In Nepal rural mountain farmers have been abandoning traditional crops like millet, buck-wheat, barley and many other varieties considering them as “foods of poor”, while catering instead to the growing importance and demand of rice in the country. Millet has a wide adaptive range and is very nutritious, yet in a survey conducted by National Agriculture Research Council in Nepal, it was found that traditionally grown finger millet was now considered as a “low status” food and consumed only by the poor. The situation is similar in India, Pakistan, and Bhutan.

The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) made a significant contribution in creating awareness about NUS through their two big projects which were implemented respectively in 2001/2005 and 2007/2010 in Nepal, India and Bolivia. IFAD is contributing to strengthen on-farm conservation through the development of innovative community based participatory methods for documenting, monitoring and promoting agro-biodiversity on the farms. NUS have the potential to address the serious challenge imposed by the changing climatic conditions on mountain food security. It is high time that the government and the people understand the importance of NUS and use them as a tool to improve food security in the face of climate change in the Hindu-Kush Himalayas.

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