Foreign Superfoods: The Global Gut

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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It is not surpising that foreign superfoods like chia and quinoa are now being grown on Indian soil. Just under half of what the country eats has its origins elsewhere

THE HISTORY OF ragi, a traditional staple of India, goes far back into Harappan times. In a number of excavations of Indus Valley cities, remnants of the millet have been found. MK Dhavalikar, one of India’s great archaeologists, thought that in the Saurashtra region, ragi was the major ingredient of the Harappan diet. In History of Agriculture in India (up to c.1200 AD), archaeologist Purushottam Singh also writes , ‘Perhaps the earliest history of ragi comes from Hallur in Karnataka, dating to approximately 2300 BC.’ It is in Karnataka that even now the largest quantity of ragi is produced. Ragi is, however, an immigrant.

It has its origins in Africa and is also now the inspiration for another foreign grain called teff being sought to be made Indian by the Mysuru-based Central Food Technological Research Institute (CFTRI), a government body which does extensive research on food science that often overlaps with a social objective like providing nutrition to people. For example, on 5 July, an ice cream enriched with omega 3 and vitamin E called NutriIce developed by CFTRI was launched by NITI Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant. The reason teff was chosen had to do with some unique properties that made it an all-rounder of sorts. Ram Rajasekharan, CFTRI’s director, says, “If I want to make chappati, I should grow wheat. If I want to make idli, I will need rice. I was looking for a plant that would have a functionality that can spread on both ends—bread making and regular rice type. This grain has that property.” There was also a more emotional motivation because both teff and ragi are from Ethiopia. “Karnataka is the first state which adapted ragi-growing in India. Now we wanted an Ethiopian plant again to be housed in Karnataka,” he says.

They have completed the project and have a seed that can grow in Indian conditions but have not released it for cultivation. That is because right now there are farmers in Mysuru who have just begun cultivating two other foreign superfoods—chia seeds and quinoa—using seeds adapted to India by CFTRI. “We don’t want to put too many seeds and confuse the system. Once chia and quinoa go into auto mode, I can look at this,” Rajasekharan says.

There are about 100 farmers cultivating chia in Karnataka on around 100 acres and the land under acreage is expected to go up to 500 acres soon. A few years ago, farmers in the area had been invited to a seminar at CFTRI where they were told about the chia seeds. One of the attendees was Kurubur Shanthakumar. He took the lead in forming Raitha Mitra Farmers Producers Company, which buys and trades chia seeds. Last year, it supplied chia to countries like Singapore, Malaysia and even some parts of America. “We are cultivating in one or two districts at present. This year we are planning four to five districts,” he says.

A farmer would make more than double cultivating chia than he would a regular staple like rice, says Shanthakumar. “The per acre recovery is 3.5 to 4 quintals. We are selling for Rs 22,500 after cleaning and processing. A farmer would earn more than Rs 70,000 per acre. If he were to cultivate rice instead, he would make less than Rs 35,000-40,000,” he says. If he cultivated ragi on the same land, it would be even less. He adds farmers who are cultivating chia from as far away as Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have got in touch with him. “They discuss with me often and send our company chia seeds also,” he says.

Chia cultivation doesn’t need a lot of water and he also mentions an interesting aspect of it. In fields near forest areas, wild animals often damage the crops when they come foraging. But they leave the chia and quinoa fields alone, possibly sensing that it is an alien crop. While chia has more or less taken off, quinoa has just started to be cultivated by farmers there. “Quinoa is difficult to clean and process. We are planning a quinoa processing unit in Mysuru with the help of the government and other institutions,” says Shanthakumar.

Andhra Pradesh is also successfully growing quinoa with active promotion by its government. Recently a paper in Current Science journal talked about how a preliminary trial by Stakna Farm of High Mountain Arid Agriculture Research Institute to explore quinoa cultivation in Ladakh showed promising results. It noted, ‘The crop performed well and the grain yield was 20 times more than that sown. In Ladakh, its performance is better than all other grain crops like wheat and barley, which yield at the most 7–8 times the weight of the seed sown.’

A farmer growing chia will earn more than Rs 70,000 per acre. If he were to cultivate rice instead, he would make less than Rs 35,000

The CFTRI first got interested in chia because it wanted to provide a vegetarian alternative to Indians for omega 3 in their diet. Fish is the main source of omega 3 otherwise. “In the last 10 years, scientists have unearthed a large amount of evidence that omega 3 plays a major role in wellness. In olden times, we used to consume a 5:1 ratio of omega 6 to omega 3 in diets. But the modern world has really moved to 20 or 30 to 1. [The question before us was] can we bring the ratio to at least 10:1,” says Rajasekharan. Chia also has the advantage of not needing any processing— it can go from field to plate.

To get a variant for India, the CFTRI first irradiated a large number of seeds at the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre to create mutations, one of which would give high yields. The mutation it got wasn’t one with an increased yield but it grew straight instead of spreading. This meant that more plants could grow in a given area than the regular foreign variety. “So yield per unit area increased and not yield per plant. We started this process in 2010, but it was only in 2014 that we could come out with the variety,” adds Rajasekharan.

Chia is sensitive to daylight and if the day is long, like during Indian summers, it won’t grow or thrive. The CFTRI is still looking for a chia variant that will not sense the light, but hasn’t been successful. For the present, the problem can be worked around by growing the crop in non-summer months. For quinoa, it didn’t do research of this kind and instead relied on breeding by natural selection—growing a large number of plants and selecting the variant that survives in Indian conditions.

THAT SOUTH AMERICAN plants which till recently were unheard of in India should now be cultivated is not surprising. Things that Indians take for granted in their daily menu—wheat, onions and tomatoes—are actually not native to us. In June, a scientific paper, ‘Origins of Food Crops Connect Countries Worldwide’, was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B. It looked at 151 crops and 177 countries and traced the level of interconnectedness between national staples and their non-native origins. Colin Khoury, its lead author, is with the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and United States Department of Agriculture. In an email reply (Click here for the  full interview), he says that farmers have always shared and exchanged seeds, but the last 50 years of globalisation have seen a leap in this phenomenon. ‘It’s not so surprising that once transportation allowed, plants quickly got to new places. For instance, just 16 years after Europeans first saw potatoes, they were already being grown in Europe. That’s so fast, especially for a plant that is essentially poisonous, aside from its tubers. What was surprising to me about our results was that things are still changing. I think that the increase in production and consumption of ‘foreign’ crops is associated with some mega trends— economic development (and associated rise in middle class and thus greater purchasing power to buy exotic products), urbanisation (all kinds of changes with people eating more in restaurants and fast food, buying in supermarkets, women working outside the home and thus cooking less, etc.), and globalisation (trade laws enabling faster movement of goods, multinational food companies, much greater transport infrastructure (boats, refrigerated airplanes, etc), and the ongoing movement of people and their foods (thus the curry being one of the national foods of modern England!).’

Khoury’s paper uses the term ‘primary region of diversity’ for native crops, which would in general overlap with their origin but is also where the great majority of genetic diversity in old farmer and wild varieties are found. Wheat, which forms the base for our ubiquitous chappati, has its primary region of diversity in South and East Mediterranean, West Asia; and Central Asia; onions in Central Asia and West Asia, and tomatoes in Andean South America. On when they might have arrived in India, Khoury says, ‘Wheat and onions probably made it to the Indian subcontinent a thousand or more years ago, given that there were great trade-routes by that time all the way from East Asia to the Mediterranean. Tomato arrived only during the Columbian exchange (i.e. post 1492).’

What food is actually native to India then? The paper lists areca nuts, coconut, lentil, bananas, cucumbers, mangoes, sesame, castor oils, dates, melons, sugar cane, chick peas, egg plants, millets, taro, figs, okra, tea, chicory roots, ginger, pepper, walnut, ginger, cinnamon, hemp seeds, pigeon peas, yam, clover, lemons and lime, rice.

By Khoury’s paper’s calculations, around 45 per cent of the calories Indians consume from food come from crops that are non-native. He writes, ‘The average calories (per capita per day) from plants in the Indian food supply (reported over years 2009-2011) is 2208 kcal/cap/day. We found that 1171.3 (53% of total) of these calories were clearly of crops of South Asian primary region of diversity, thus our ‘maximum use of foreign crops’ for India for calories was 47%.’

Why some foreign foods are more successful at adapting can be because of a number of factors. Khoury gives the example of how maize found acceptance in the Mediterranean countries because their traditional cereals were grown in winter and harvested in early summer. Thus in years with poor production, there would be food scarcity during the months the cereals were not grown. ‘When maize was introduced in the Columbian exchange, it was widely adopted because it grew in the summer and was harvested in the fall, filling an unfilled niche,’ he says.

Khoury has another interesting story about sunflower, which is from North America, becoming popular as an oil in Eastern Europe because many other oils and all animal fats were prohibited during Lent, the Christian period of fasting. ‘ Because the Orthodox Church did not prohibit sunflower, people used it more, and it gradually became more popular. It’s still extremely important in Eastern Europe and even in the Mediterranean (just behind olives in Turkey, Greece and Italy). Mennonite immigrants from Eastern Europe then brought it to places like Argentina and Canada (back to its origins), and their immigration is part of the reason why sunflower is important in those countries. Many crops have such interesting twisty stories, although many of these stories have unfortunately been lost over time,’ he says.

Demand in India for quinoa, chia and other superfoods such as goji berries, buckwheat, kale leaves have been led by demand from upper middle-class consumers focused on nutrition. One of the largest retailers in India, Godrej Nature’s Basket, finds superfoods growing steadily at 30 per cent year on year, with quinoa sales doubling over the last 12 months. Avani Davda, managing director, Godrej Nature’s Basket, in an email reply says that three years ago quinoa was a virtually unknown grain and today it is amongst the fastest sellers in the company’s stores. Selling price meanwhile has come down by half. ‘Nature’s Basket has built a supply chain that boasts of many such niche producers and growers that we work with and source from them round the year. Some of these suppliers are from India and many are from international locations as well,’ she says.

An Indian company which is getting into superfoods is 24 Mantra Organic, one of the pioneers in organic foods in India. Launched in 2004, it works with 32,000 farmers on 170,000 acres across 11 states in India. Rajasekhar Reddy Seelam, its founder and an IIM graduate who is himself from a farming family, says that the firm is working with a lot of farmers in the southern states on fine-tuning the cultivation of quinoa. “Every year farmers are able to get better and better production because they learn what is working and what is not. We have not yet commercially launched quinoa; we are internally doing trials. We hope to be out in the market sometime in the second half of this year,” he says.

He says the company’s larger focus is on reviving Indian superfoods that we have forgotten, like many varieties of millets, because they are more affordable than foreign superfoods and have traditionally been grown in marginal farming areas. Farmers there would benefit if they gain popularity. He calls them “our own ancient grains”. There is an irony in it because many of those traditional Indian superfoods are also foreign. That is the journey that food makes, from what was once exotic to becoming part of a region’s identity. A few hundred years down the line, chia and quinoa might just join their ranks.