Nutrition Smart Agriculture: Decoding the Myth

    AgricultureAgri-businessNutrition Smart Agriculture: Decoding the Myth
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    Nutrition Smart Agriculture: Decoding the Myth

    Orphan crops – like sorghum, jowar, barley, ragi and sweet potato, cowpea, cassava and moong bean to name a few, are back with a vengeance and command a fortune in the market. Smart nutrition is, it appears, being influenced by smart marketing.

    By Tarun Shridhar

    “Caution: Milk is Injurious To Health”. This is the announcement, in bold, capitals and extra-large multi-colour font on a recent cover-spread advertisement carried by a leading newspaper for a particular brand of milk and milk products. The outrageously crude and boisterous proclamation was followed by a perfunctory disclaimer in a much smaller font sans caps, “if it contains antibiotics.”

    This advertisement of a particular dairy brand and its egregious comments don’t stop here. It quotes the Centre of Science and Environment to say that “dairy farmers indiscriminately use antibiotics.” Now, Indian dairy is one of the biggest success stories of our agriculture and cooperatives, besides emerging as a symbol of farmer empowerment. And yet, it is being scandalised and the dairy farmer is being vilified with sweeping generalisations without reliable data. It is dishonest and misleading – all in the name of informing consumers on smart nutrition.

    Why should smart nutrition be building its edifice on deceit?  Further, masquerading as milk, all making suspect claims of health and nutrition benefits, are a plethora of drinks based on soy, almond, oat etc. Smart has become Ignorant. We are witnessing an explosion of smart marketing of livestock products, be it milk, eggs, meat, fish and what have you. Capitalising on consumer gullibility may be smartness, but why should it be tinged with dishonesty. Let smart not end up meaning clever, in fact more akin to cunning.

    Domesticating plants and animals
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    Agriculture has always been smart, and animal husbandry smarter. The origin of modern humans or homo sapiens from the great apes is said to date back to 200,000 years ago, and till about 12,000 years ago hunting of wild animals and gathering of wild plants were the primary means of subsistence for our ancestors. The transition to domestication of plants and animals commenced when, as what is known as, the ice age began melting down. What a brilliantly smart idea at the time: collect seeds from the wild, dig the earth, sow the seeds, nurture them and harvest the crop for food. While it is good to extol the virtues of natural farming, we must recall that farming itself was unnatural to begin with. The advent and subsequent growth of agriculture owes to smart initiatives.

    Still greater smartness was taming the animals, which to begin with were all wild, and thereafter domesticating the entire species. Domesticated animals became an invaluable resource with smaller ruminants, goats, sheep, pigs and poultry kept for food production and large ruminants providing the power to operate irrigation systems, ploughs and other farm implements. Further innovations, real smart ones, were exploitation of the milk of mammals, and this graduated to selection of individuals for prolonged lactation, leading to development of dairying; the discovery of methods for incubating birds’ eggs without nesting hens leading to increased availability of poultry products. The domestication of animals has resulted in continuous genetic improvement, manipulation and modification, thus becoming more and more invaluable by the day in the human food and nutrition systems.

    It is an inference universally accepted that domesticating plants, and more importantly animals marked a major and dramatic turning point for humans: the beginning of an agricultural way of life and more permanent and stable civilizations. Agriculture, including animal husbandry transformed man from a hunter to a farmer and thus gave birth to human civilisation. The domesticated creatures also became integrated into the most basic and widespread rituals of the culture. Curiously, all across civilisations and religions, the domesticated animals came to symbolize order as opposed to the chaos of the untamed world. Now, almost all people on earth consume food that they produce themselves or that someone else produces for them. (The few handful communities of hunter-gatherers are at the verge of abandoning their lifestyles and shall soon disintegrate, thereby ending our millions of years of commitment to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle.)

    Common sense, not technology

    Therefore, smart is not a recent phenomenon nor is it a radical departure from how affairs were being managed till now. Smart is not this or that, but this and that; it is dynamic, an ever evolving concept. What is smart today may be stupidity tomorrow. And of course vice-versa. Smart, an ordinary word, has now become an acronym SMART, a much loved jargon of the management consultants. It definitely needs reiteration that agriculture and animal husbandry have been the smartest ideas and interventions in the history of human civilization.

    Agriculture scientists and managers define smart agriculture as management of farms, both agriculture and livestock, using modern Information and communication technologies like Internet of Things, sensors, location systems, robots and artificial intelligence etc. with an objective to increase the quantity and quality of products while optimizing the human labour required. Though correct, this definition confines the concept to the domain of technology. Smart, simply stated, means being dictated by common sense. Smart means innovative. Maximising the gains of effort, resources, inputs etc. Technology is a critical component of smart, but certainly not the whole of it.

    What smart agriculture should recognise is that today’s diet of most peoples around the world is dominated by the ‘Big 3’, rice, wheat, and maize, which account for about 50 per cent of the world’s consumption of calories. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) about 95 per cent of the world’s food needs are provided for by just 30 species of plants. In stark contrast 30,000 plant species are edible of which over 7,000 species, such as millets, yam, cassava, jackfruit, mangosteen, sesame, okra, jowar, bajra and many more were, or still are, a part of the diets of many communities around the world. However, with the rise of industrialized agriculture, the crop diversity on our plates has reduced and only the crops amenable to large-scale industrialized farming have come to dominate our diets.

    Leaving out the producer isn’t smart

    Orphan crops such as millets, sorghum, jowar, barley, ragi, sweet potato, cowpea (lobia), cassava, moong bean, yams and cassava have never received global importance. They have never, or rarely, been the focus of concerted efforts to improve productivity or quality, nor have they been the focus of global value chains. As referred to earlier, the situation is gradually changing. Besides consumer demand, there is a growing recognition of the role of orphan crops in maintaining biodiversity, besides contributing to improved nutrition and local incomes in rural communities, serving as an important safety net for resource-poor smallholder farmers as these crops need fewer inputs. They are also naturally resistant to pests and diseases as they are uniquely adapted to the environment they grow in. There is also an increasing awareness among consumers about the nutritional benefits of these crops. Tools and technology of smart agriculture directed towards these crops to improve productivity and quality would substantially enhance farmer income and the nutrition on our plates.

    Breakfast cereals at the top of the charts of popularity are the ones that are abundant in ragi, millets, quinoa, oats etc., and of course miscellaneous seeds. Essentially what used to be a famished pauper’s diet in the past. An added proclamation of health benefit is “gluten free”. Why should one seek freedom from gluten and how would it be beneficial to one’s health remains unanswered. Smart nutrition is, it appears, being influenced by smart marketing; agriculture and livestock farming is perhaps a mere cog in the smartness wheel. The produce farmer has been growing for generations is suddenly commanding a premium. What are commonly known as orphan crops are back with a vengeance and command a fortune in the market. It is not too distant in the past when the rich farmers were wary of using them even as livestock feed. But for whom do the returns of this “smartness” accrue? The processor, yes; the marketeer, yes. The primary producer? Certainly not.

    The farmer, not Alexa produces food

    Smart Livestock management is already demonstrating impressive gains in introduction of healthy germ plasm leading to breed improvement in all major species including productivity. However, “smart” here too is discriminatory. As is the neglect of orphan crops, so is the indifference to indigenous breeds; and quite akin to the orphan crops the indigenous breeds, apart from enriching the biodiversity, are resilient to climate change and resistant to emerging pathogens. Let smart animal husbandry commit some of its resources, both technology and knowledge to native livestock species. These breeds may not contribute greatly to the volumes, but are significant in value for the farmer and consumer alike.

    Smart is not an antithesis of tradition or conservatism. In fact, smart is a harmonious blend of modern technology and traditional wisdom. Keeping things simple is smart. Living in smart homes in smart cities administered by smart governments with smart phones as our most precious friend, we are actually becoming lazy, if not dumb. Alexa and her technology driven ilk are the smart ones now – but, don’t you forget, farmer and farming have always been smart.

    Tarun Shridhar is former secretary, ministry of fisheries, animal husbandry and dairying.

    Image: Hippopx, licensed to use under Creative Commons Zero – CC0

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