Food sovereignty – an important aspect for poverty alleviation

By Dr Aniruddha Dey*

Nepalis call it Gundaruk. Gundruk is actually recognized as a national dish of Nepal. While living with the Nepalis in the Dooars area, the common people have adapted Gundruk in their diet as part of acculturation process. They don’t say Gundruk, say Gundru. When cauliflower, cabbage, ash guard, spinach, etc. are in excess and are available at low prices, they cut them into small pieces and place them in an earthen container covered with a lid (now generally plastic packets are used) and bury the container in the ground. After a few days of fermentation, the small pieces of vegetables are taken out from the container and left open on the ground for drying. After drying, they store them for use especially during the rainy season when vegetables are not available. This serves as a coping strategy for them. It does not lose its nutritional value but remains the same, so they do not have any lack of nutrition as they eat these foods even when there is a shortage of vegetables at the unusual time. In addition, the tribal communities do another thing, which they call ‘Chech Gura’. They pluck leaves of different wild varieties of arum, jute leaves, radish and other such things, dried well in the sun and put in a glass jar in powder form. When vegetables are not available, they eat them through the stalks or mixing with the rice starch as soup.

There was a scarcity of nutritious food in the first phase of COVID 19 and PRISM was working with Goonj for Humanitarian Assistance, mainly in terms of supporting the families with dry food. Since there are many tribal women working in PRISM, and associated with the BARNALI Women’s Self-Help Group, whatever stocks of Chechgura they had in surplus were procured and included in the dry ration kits to improve the nutritional status. One of the great things was that giving 100 grams of Chechgura to a family helped them for a month as nutritional supplement but it didn’t weigh too much nor the price was too high, rather it helped maintain the nutritional status and on the other hand helped the poor women members of the BARNALI Women’s Self-Help Groups to earn some cash during the crisis period. We are trying to promote this from PRISM as it not only ensured nutritional value, it ensures Food Sovereignty and goes very well with the food habit of the local communities. So, when we think of giving any kind of dry food or some food to some people considering their food insecurity issues in the future, we need to first ensure food sovereignty and then food safety-security and nutrition (PRISM believes in Food Sovereignty-Safety-Security-Nutrition and even during the crisis situation due to COVID 19 we have tried to maintain the standard), keeping in mind the eating habits of the people of the area. The only alternative was to procure soya chunks/ nutri-nuggets, considering them as the good source of protein, especially for the vegetarians. However, first of all, even not going into the details of preparation of soya chunks (Basically, soya chunks are made from defatted soy flour, a by-product of extracting soybean oil) Nutritionists say that consuming soya products in excess can increase the estrogen levels in the body. In fact, this can lead to a condition known as estrogen dominance. So, for a man, the excess of this hormone can give him the much-dreaded ‘man boobs’. In the case of women, it can lead to water retention, bloating, acne, and a toxic weight gain apart from weird mood swings. Additionally, overeating soya chunks can even cause constipation, nausea, and increase the frequency of urination, warns a nutritionist. Due to an overconsumption of soya chunks can elevate the levels of uric acid in the body, which in turn can damage the kidneys and lead to deposition of uric acid crystals around the joints causing immense pain.

The second thing is the question of ‘food aid’ after any disaster, which generally is bought at wholesale prices, from a distant market, as a result a) the money does not reach the local area, b) even if the agency saves some amount while procuring at a wholesale rate, they use huge amount in transporting the commodities, c) small shopkeepers in the area are forced to sit idle for many days, losing their income and opportunities of restoring their livelihood themselves, d) corruption/ corrupt practices increases in the area, e) Price hikes for goods by the small shopkeepers in the area, f) There are many families in the village whose household needs are met from the local shopkeepers and the loan is repaid as soon as the money is available, this relationship is the basis of survival of many families, which is ruined forever, g) People do not get the food of their choice, because it is not customary for the donors to know the needs of the people when buying, h) Cash in-flow in the localities are stopped. If we buy in large quantities, we can help many families become financially self-reliant.

Mostly the large agencies are now working on Cash-for-Work model (if the supply chain is not disturbed and local market is operational) for several reasons as they have understood that a) when commodities are available in the market people should be given a choice to buy the essentials, for which they need cash; b) if centrally procured then there is a possibility of inflation in the market (I am talking about the trend); c) if centrally procured then people’s choices are not given due importance (here it hits the dignity, as dignity is not in gesture only); d) if we give something, which they have and not giving things which they have been looking for, obviously those commodities will be sold in the market to earn some cash to be used to procure essential items and indirectly we will be promoting corrupt practices (although our intentions are different).

When centrally the commodities are decided then obviously, we fail to include Food Sovereignty, without which it’s difficult to ensure food security. In fact, food sovereignty is different from food security in both approach and politics. Food security does not distinguish where food comes from, or the conditions under which it is produced and distributed. National food security targets are often met by sourcing food produced under environmentally destructive and exploitative conditions, and supported by subsidies and policies that destroy local food producers but benefit agribusiness corporations. On the other hand, food sovereignty emphasizes ecologically appropriate production, distribution and consumption, social-economic justice and local food systems as ways to tackle hunger and poverty and guarantee sustainable food security for all peoples. It advocates trade and investment that serve the collective aspirations of society. It promotes community control of productive resources; agrarian reform and tenure security for small-scale producers; agro-ecology; biodiversity; local knowledge; the rights of peasants, women, indigenous peoples and workers; social protection and climate justice.

Here comes our approach to include GUNDRUK/ CECH GURA for the communities living in Dooars, which the people love to have, they consider it as their coping strategy, requirement is low, hence not difficult to move from one place to another place (logistics not a very costly affair), local communities prepare this so buying such items would benefit the local producers.

The International Forum on Food Sovereignty in 2007 in Mali was a defining milestone for food sovereignty. The Declaration of Nyéléni encapsulates the vision of the movement and asserts: Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation… Food sovereignty prioritises local and national economies and markets and empowers peasant and family farmer-driven agriculture, artisanal-fishing, pastoralist-led grazing, and food production, distribution and consumption based on environmental, social and economic sustainability… Food sovereignty implies new social relations free of oppression and inequality between men and women, peoples, racial groups, social classes and generations.

*Chairperson, PRISM

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