Forest Food Diversity

Satish Patnaik, Jostine A . October 16, 2019

Does ‘food’ only mean products from agriculture and allied sectors or does it also mean food beyond the farm sector? If it does include the latter, why are most deliberations and actions on food, across the globe, only on agriculture? The authors explore here how certain ideas of food have come to dominate our discourse and argue the importance of food produced in the forest.


A cursory study of the archives of newspapers or television news channels of the past decades reveals that it is a rare day that food is not mentioned in our news. Television and online platforms are full of cooking shows and advertisement for food items. Our kitchen and grocery store shelves shine with glittery packets of packaged foods. Many food chains, roadside stalls and restaurants have come up selling diverse foods. Noodles, soups, pizzas, pastas, etc., are now in the ambit of our ravenous appetite. Many of us do not bother to think about the ingredients or the place of their production when eating food. Predominantly, most of the foods we consume are farm-based. But this was not always the case.

Agriculture is hardly 13–14000 years old whereas human beings have been living for some two lakh years. Data from various colonial archives talk of the existence of many alternative food systems along with agrarian produce, in the colonized geographies of the world, up until the Second World War. Since 1950, with the beginning of the industrialization of agriculture, the ambit of alternative foods, especially foods coming from the forest, has reduced drastically.

Large farmers and industrialists took centre-stage. Government food policies and programmes across the world also tilted towards agriculture. In newly formed countries such as India, one of the initial major interventions in food was the Green Revolution. Our diverse food plates began to be more and more homogenized and, with this, the uniqueness of our diverse foods and their societal reflections started to lose significance.

Gradually, we have all become oriented to eating particular foods, marketed vigorously by food chains and companies. Even remote villages have fast-food shops, rare a decade ago.

The Crisis

I n the last 50 years, human beings, no matter which ecological system they belong to, have begun consuming more or less similar foods. Estimates from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) suggest that ‘the diversity of cultivated crops declined by 75 per cent during the 20th Century and a third of today's diversity could disappear by 2050’. (

Of the 52 crops listed by the FAO, 12 food sources contribute 80 per cent of the dietary intake. If some disease or any catastrophe of nature were to affect one or two of these species, we would be left with less than 10 species to eat. This is insane if we look at the future and juxtapose the way microorganisms are taking over the world. Their rampant growth and their resistance to many bactericides and fungicides are already a threat to both the plant and the animal kingdoms. This means that the scenario is much worse than it appears.

There are two things to consider before accepting this frightening prospect presented by FAO. First, many food items are produced locally or by a small section of farmers in some remote farms (already threatened with commercial cropping and monoculture), which are not considered the main food item in the analysis. Second, food beyond agriculture and available in nature are not taken into active consideration.

Food from the forest

A cross the world, many indigenous people eat animals and plants of forests surrounding them. In India, people living in the Similipal biosphere eat termites and roots as staple food whereas the tribal people of Chhattisgarh eat ants. According to a study conducted by Living Farms, more than 30 per cent of the food of the Kandho tribe of the Eastern Ghats comes from the forest.

We are part of a Civil Society Organization named PRADAN and work with the rural population of the Central Indian Plateau, whose diverse indigenous communities face rampant marginalization. Their traditional food practices are important to note. In the undulating terrain of Baghelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh, Gond and Baiga tribes depend heavily on forest produce for food.

During the rainy season, people eat kachhar (root), deahi (a leafy forest plant), kapado (moss-like plants), various varieties of mushrooms such as the piehere, kukkidi, puttu, etc., from the forest. Gaitty, kondru, parvel, padora and bahera are the commonly consumed forest vegetables. During the winter season, bathua (leafy, spinach-like plant) that grows in the wastelands is consumed. Ber, custard apple and brarai are fruits that grow in the jungle during the winter. The villagers dry the ber fruits and powder it to consume it in the summer season. Summer brings a variety of forest produce such as the tendu fruit, Mahua flowers and fruit, bhelwa fruit, two types of karonda fruit, kair, oil from mahua dori, chironjee, etc. Fruits of karondu and achar are also consumed by villagers. Even sal seeds are boiled for consumption. Some tribes such as the Agariyas and Baigas hunt and consume wild rabbits, rats, squirrels, blue rock pigeon, among others. Whereas yams and tuber crops take care of the carbohydrates needed in their diet, the diverse leaves and fruits supply the vitamins and iron. Meat and fish cater to their fat, calcium and protein needs.

Even after realizing the nutritive value of the forest foods, would most of us eat them? Maybe not! The aversion for these foods is worth pondering over.

For many of us, these foods may sound strange. However, hold on a second…do we all not wait for particular seasons for forest fruits and leaves such as jamun, almondatte, bahunia leaves and seasonal mushrooms? How about tamarind in our beloved sambhar and gol gappas? Almost all of these are not cultivated as agrarian food. These are forest foods.

Reasons for Aversion

I n India, we can deduce two broad and interacting sets of reasons for our aversion to forest plants and animals.

The first is the result of government action. The introduction of high-yielding varieties and the subsidizing of agriculture and allied activities suited large farmers and established the hegemony of particular kinds of food. The Public Distribution System (PDS) was also primarily rice- and wheat- based and did not offer alternative foods. School mid-day meals and lessons on food habits also defined the choice of food for the younger generations. Second, we have a hierarchy of knowledge and power that determines what is aesthetic to us. Hegemonic social structures such as caste, class and religion reinforce it. We are taught to like certain kinds of food cooked in certain ways, and this establishes our idea of good, healthy and tasty food. This does not include the majority of food from the forest.

Both sets of reasons lead to the devaluation of the knowledge of indigenous people and their practices. We have seen villagers and indigenous people mocked at in urban settings and also among the better-off villagers for their practices and knowledge. The indigenous people living in these changing villages feel marginalized and try to either stop these practices or practice them in a clandestine way. In such a context, can alternative (or rather native) food really exist and can people practice their choice without being labeled as primitive?

During a meeting in a remote village of Singrauli district of Madhya Pradesh, when one of us asked the Gond women to prepare food that was traditional and indigenous to them and their land, they were taken aback. They said they could provide dal-baath (rice and lentil soup) and roti-sabzi (bread and vegetables) but not their traditional food such as millets and vegetables from the jungle. They laughed and said, “Hum logon ko sharam aati hain (We feel shy to serve forest food to our guests).”

It sounded so primitive to them and they felt inferior that their community members used to consume many other forest foods such as wild rats until just a few years ago. Various new ideologies have also been introduced in the 20th Century by gurus, enunciating religious movements that advocate abstinence from meat and meat products. Several movements such as these and the increased sanskritization have contributed to forest foods being portrayed as primitive.

Reviving forest foods

F or the last two years, as part of the Environment Day celebrations, the villagers in Sarondha in Singrauli district have been coming together to celebrate their tribal consciousness and revive their food. Various food items from forest products such as mahua ki raskootai, mahua ki laddoo, mahua-tilli laddoo, chironjee, tenthu and bhelwa fruit are shared among themselves as a symbol of solidarity. This is also an opportunity to bring back memories of the past and to remind children about the various ways the forests have sustained them and the diverse and nutritious food platter they once had.

Sukhman Singh, who is 75 years old now, could recall around 23 edible plants that they used to consume from the jungle in his younger days whereas young people could only count up to eight. Gradually, the youngsters are getting dissociated from their agro-ecology. This event highlights the gap. Along with such events, the state and the tribal governance system need to make systematic efforts to educate the youth to nurture and sustain fragile eco-systems.

Our argument for change is based upon four prospective benefits. First, eating a variety of forest produce would be more nutritious and much cheaper. Second, these foods require a particular micro- and macro-environment. Hence, their harvest would require us to preserve our eco-system and help it rejuvenate properly. This would have long-term benefits, in terms of maintaining safe limits of planetary boundaries, checking erosion and carbon sequestration. Third, it would reduce the load on farmers as the only food producers, would curb agrarian distress (8,007 farmers and 4,595 farm labourers committed suicide in 2015 in India), and might encourage farmers to adopt a sustainable means of production rather than the industrial mode of agriculture, which is driving them into debt. Last, but not the least, it would create a culture of gathering and eating local. This is important for creating a regional economy, which is less affected by global trends, thus establishing an economy of permanence.

India is predominantly a country of villages. Almost all villages have some common land or forest that can be nurtured well, to address some of the food requirements. Even cities or towns adjacent to forests can be oriented around these benefits and nurture the eco-system. This envisaged change requires a greater political will and a systematic engagement with different sections of society.

In some of the states of India such as Karnataka and Odisha, the government is keen on reviving millets and this is eliciting a positive response; however, there are hardly any initiatives on reviving forest food in India.


L et’s ponder for a while. If the state were to encourage the consumption of alternative foods and these unconventional foods were to be sold in the market and advertised in the media as delicacies, would we buy them? Well, we might. The reasons for aversion, however, are also rooted deeply in the social and political milieu, and the need for rejuvenating the eco-system is of paramount importance. The discourse cannot just be market- and state-driven. Along with the state and the market, each person as a denizen of Earth needs to reflect and consume sustainable food. Here, CSOs and the educational institutes need to take a proactive role to reach the government and the masses with adequate research. All of us need to take these sure-footed baby steps to make Earth more habitable and our dietary basket more diverse.


The article has also been published in Agriculture World (JUNE 2019 issue)

1 Comment

  1. vandana prasad says:

    What an excellent article. Congratulations and all the best in this important work.

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