Healthy Horticulture

The importance of health and well being of the humankind is in limelight more than ever before – namely the ‘nutritional well being’. It has been realised that besides access, the quality of food too, is highly critical. What is gaining attention is the need to access diverse food choices available from the local ecosystems themselves; improved production and consumption of fruits and vegetables.

Today’s agriculture produces enough food for the global population, but it has not given everyone everywhere access to sufficient, safe, and nutritious food. Moreover, the role of agroecological approaches in contributing to sustainable and resilient agricultural and food systems of today and future is being recognised – be it food security, environmental preservation, resilience to climate change, women’s empowerment, and increased peasants’ control over agrifood systems. (Kandiah Pakeerathan, p.6)

Recognising the enormous importance of nutritious food systems based on fruits and vegetables, The UN General Assembly designated 2021 as the International Year of Fruits and Vegetables (IYFV). This momentous decision should serve as a unique opportunity to raise awareness on the important role of fruits and vegetables in human nutrition, food security and health and as well in achieving UN Sustainable Development Goals. As hunger continues to rise for the fifth consecutive year and obesity rates increase, encouraging the consumption of healthy foods, such as fruits and vegetables, and ensuring their accessibility is fundamental. The key messages highlighting focus on fruits and vegetables include: need for their daily consumption; boosting sustainable production and inclusive value chains; recognition of multiple health benefits they offer; minimising their losses and wastage. They are critical for contributing to a better quality of life for family farmers and their communities – through additional incomes, improved livelihoods, food security and nutrition,  enhanced resilience and increased agrobiodiversity.(p.25).

We should recognise the current situation for small and marginal farmers. Malnutrition and migration are twin realities. Malnutrition is a serious issue in rural areas. Farmer, the primary producer is constantly confronted by climate, markets and livelihood challenges. Invariably, his own nutritional security is not ensured as their focus has been on incomes from the farm. For instance, in hill regions, there is a large-scale migration of men towards plains, due to which the rural areas contain significantly higher female population leading to demographic imbalances too. Thus, women play the most important role in maintaining nutritional supplies of the family.

Whether it is in rain fed areas in South India, for instance, Dharmapuri, or in hilly areas of Uttarakhand, or as distant an area like Bolivia, when men migrate, women play a critical role in nurturing local biodiversity. They are aware of their traditional benefits – of food, health and nutritional benefits of local biodiversity. For instance, Nutri-gardens of Uttarakhand contribute to diversified family diet resulting in better household nutrition as well as small incomes. Myriad coloured vegetables into the daily diet are expected to raise immunities and hence the concept of “Eating a rainbow” in the plate must be popularized among the rural fraternity. (Preethi Mamgai, p.11)

Women in the Andean highlands of Cocapata, Bolivia too are creating agricultural systems that not only nourish the community and its natural resources but that also support vulnerable populations in the city and secure access to safe and healthy food during the current pandemic. These peasant women are playing a leading role in breeding and managing diverse potato varieties – introducing varieties or species that are better adapted to the current climate. (Lidia paz Hidalgo, p.28).

The production area need not always be backyard alone. If one is desirous of holistic and natural farming, Bhaskar Save’s farm stands out as a great inspirational example of local diversity. The diverse plants in Bhaskar Save’s farm co-exist as a mixed, harmonious community of dense vegetation. Rarely can one spot even a small patch of bare soil exposed to the direct impact of the sun, wind or rain. To ensure this, four fundamental principles of natural farming are adhered to – recognising the ‘right to live’ of all living creatures, recognition and appreciation that each creature is serving a purpose in web of life, farming should not be solely money oriented with short sighted greed and lastly, nurturing perennial fertility regeneration. While consuming 5% to 15% of the plants’ biomass yield, the balance 85% to 95% of the biomass, the crop residue, must go back to the soil to renew its fertility, either directly as mulch, or as the manure of farm animals. If this is religiously followed, nothing is needed from outside; the fertility of the land will not decline. The farm yield– in all aspects of total quantity, nutritional quality, taste, biological diversity, ecological sustainability, water conservation, energy efficiency and economic profitability– is superior to any farm using chemicals, while costs (mainly labour for harvesting) are minimal, and external inputs almost zero. (Bharat Mansata, p.16).

The production model could have horticulture as the core component which ensures multiple income streams round the year, especially, during lean periods from a combination of medium gestation-high resilience and short gestation-high returns cropping patterns. Production from fruit trees starts flowing in from the fourth year onwards. The model results in improved consumption of pulses, vegetables and fruits at household level. (Sawanth et.al., p.33). Choice of fruits and vegetables need not be always for food security alone. Smart choices can be made. It could be even be drive niche market driven pursuits. This requires building skills, tapping new markets for impressive incomes. (Gopi Karelia, p.20)

The benefits can be beyond household levels too. In fact, farmers  organized into farmer producer organizations (farmers cooperatives) took up value chain initiatives including input supplies, aggregation of farm produce, collective processing and marketing resulted in reduced cost of production while ensuring better price for their produce. (Sawanth et.al., p.33). In fact, markets may galvanise communities towards self reliance. For instance, formulating a plan, the panchayat committee of Kanjikuzhi in Kerala invited the 8,600 families in the area to grow vegetables at home, in backyards and on terraces. The idea was to use every available space for farming. The initial funding came from the panchayat. Panchayat in combination with women self help organisation, kudumbashree ensured that Kanjikuzhi village no longer needs to get vegetables from elsewhere. (Tanya Abraham, p.14). This is a perfect example of several players coming together.

IYFV action message is that it should be a multi sectoral, multi institutional initiative. In fact, IYFV recommends that Governments, NGOs, Private companies, farmers and cooperatives, consumers have to play specific roles to strengthen the movement – to increase production, improve markets, reduce losses, strengthen public policies. If driven by a public policy, fostering convergence of several diverse institutions, fostering technologies and digital solutions, creating efficient market linkages and models, the twin goals like health and wealth creation can be simultaneously pursued.

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