Valuing un-cultivated foods

Commodification of forests in an era of climate crisis has reduced them to mere ‘carbon stocks’. Forests are also food reservoirs and many rural poor communities depend on forests for meeting their food needs. Given the right support, uncultivated foods can be a solution for addressing the issue of food insecurity, especially in the light of climate crisis.

Forests are a rich source of uncultivated foods, like edible flowers, fruits, leaves, seeds, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, roots and tubers, birds, honey and edible insects, etc. Though most Adivasi  farmers in Rayagada district  grow around 30 varieties of crops in a single year, they trust the forest for diversity. Adi, one such farmer says “We can never match the forest. If we grow 40 varieties, there are 200 different foods available in the forest”. In the forests, summer breeds a wide range of foods including fruits, monsoon rains spur bamboo shoots and mushrooms while winter fosters varied tubers. Parbati Pusika, elderly Adivasi woman from Tadingpai village, says “Forest is our mother. The roots and bamboo shoots, edible greens and honey sustained people in my village for three months during a very bad drought year.”

Besides supporting a household’s dietary needs, these uncultivated food items also supplement family income. “When there’s no money at home, we get turmeric growing in the forest and sell it to buy salt or oil from the market,” Aadi says. The forest foods give them a sense of independence, dignity and pride, and more importantly, protect them from falling into the clutches of money lenders.

Therefore, should we accept the idea that the object of agricultural science is the production of a few selected crops in narrowly defined spaces? Should we exclude the spaces around and between ploughed fields, the grazing areas, forested areas, water bodies and the homesteads? Is “food production” synonymous with “cultivation”? Food is also about collecting and conservation says Living Farms.

Role of forest foods in family diet

To understand the role of forest foods in household diets, Living Farms conducted a study in 2013, across the villages of Rayagada district in Odisha. The study recorded 121 different kinds of forest foods being harvested between the last week of July 2013 and December 2013. On an average, 4.56 kg of such foods were harvested per household, which ranged from 21 to 69 different kinds of food. On an average, 0.725 kg of forest foods became part of the household daily diet, accounting for  12% to as much as 24.4% of total cooked foods across six villages. The dependence of communities on forest foods ranged from 20% to 50%, depending on the characteristics of a village and the   biodiversity composition of the forest.  This is both in terms of diversity and quantity.

Largest quantities harvested from forests were that of various tubers. Keta is one of the tubers quite important to local communities as a drought food. Pita konda, another tuber can be stored for 4-5 months. In the years of drought, when cultivated crops fail, these tubers and other forest foods become vital for meeting essential food needs. Additionally, the villagers also collect more than 22 types of edible greens and 12-15 varieties of fruits from forest.

The villagers usually go food foraging into the forests in groups. They share amongst themselves the food they collect. Even those who are not able to go into the forests for collection are given a share; no one is left out. Each village has its traditionally accepted boundary and mutually agreed extent of access to the forest. Every member of the village has equal right to the forest, to the local stream, to the trees, and other shared resources of that ecosystem. If people from one village go to the neighbouring one to collect bamboo shoots, the others may come over to the first one for collecting honey. This culture of interdependence is vital for the survival of people and the eco-system.

Shrinking forest resources

Field experiences and community dialogues show that forests are becoming denuded and are being replaced by monocultures of teak, eucalyptus, and pongamia. As a result, the forest composition is also changing rapidly.  The negative consequences of the shrinking forest biodiversity is particularly experienced by women who gather all non-timber forest produce (NTFP), including wild foods. The forests have changed; and so have the people. In the process, many of our edible forest tubers are lost. We would prefer to plant our own food trees”, says Phulo Sikoka who is over 80 years.

The mainstream model of food and farming does not recognize the multiple values of diverse, traditionally consumed forest-based foods of Adivasis, and other forest-dwelling communities   of the country. The official idea of ‘food security’ is embedded in the supply of entitled quantities of subsidized (ration) ‘card’ rice/wheat from ‘central pool’ warehouses or provision of state-defined meals.  Region-specific cultivation of locally preferred and nutritious crops, such as millets, other grains, pulses, oil seeds and greens in Adivasi food and farming systems, are neglected. There isn’t adequate law and policy support. The traditional forest dwelling communities do not have legal ownership of much of the land, on which they traditionally have been living, has major implications for their life and livelihoods. Even after 10 years of the passage of the Forest Rights Act, only 6% of the forest villages in Odisha have got their customary and legal rights over their forests recognized.

With food security and nutrition high on the agenda in many political and scientific spheres, it is crucial to understand the contribution of forests and trees to a food secure and nutrition-sensitive future.

Way forward

In the context of climate change, uncultivated forest foods are a very important community-based adaptation strategy. There are many other human made threats to forests in a globalising and ever-changing world. Commodification of forests in an era of climate crisis has reduced them to mere ‘carbon stocks’, while they are also food reservoirs. Their ecological functions such as releasing oxygen, precipitating rain, recharging groundwater, conserving fertile topsoil, buffering against droughts and floods are also about securing food for local communities. The multiple functions of forests need to be acknowledged.

India’s forest policies have to be re-aligned with food security objectives. Sustainable forest management ought not to be only from the point of view of timber alone, but from the point of view of the multi functionality of forests. People’s access to commons and the maintenance of diversity in the commons has to be given due attention. Improved tenure and access rights to forest resources, particularly for women, could support more sustainable resource management for food security. Forests need to be viewed as nurturing both people and their cultures.

Uncultivated foods need to be encouraged as a long-term adaptation strategy in the light of climate crisis. Local initiatives for agroforestry and sustainable agriculture, which do not poison the soils and water with chemical fertilisers, or put agroecology at risk ought to be promoted-– this approach to agricultural technologies deployed in farming has implications for forest diversity conservation too (for example, bee population decline due to use of  synthetic chemicals in farming).

With food security and nutrition high on the agenda in many political and scientific spheres, it is crucial to understand the contribution of forests and trees to a food secure and nutrition-sensitive future. Food sovereignty if not nurtured as an organising principle of local forest-dependent communities, can also come to affect the sovereignty of the state as a whole. Food and nutrition are too important an area to be left to markets to deliver on. This is where forests can deliver and that too in a decentralised way. ‘Uncultivated’ foods are not just about satisfying hunger, but about savouring the forests and people’s relationship with them.


Debal Deb, Kavitha Kurganti, V Rukmini Rao & Salome Yesudas, Forests as food producing habitats – An exploratory study of uncultivated foods and food and nutrition security of adivasis in Odisha, July 2014, Published by Living Farms.

S. Bhutani, Forests, Our Food!, Policy brief, 2014, Living Farms, Odisha.

Dr. Debjeet Sarangi

Living Farms  Plot No.1181 / 2146,

Ratnakarbag-2,Tankapani Road

Bhubaneswar – 751018,

Odisha, India.


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