Reviving underutilized foods

A. Underutilized Foods

Gene Campaign runs a program to revive the use of underutilized and wild foods such as tubers and leafy greens in family diets. To enhance the food basket and increase dietary diversity, these underutilized plants are collected from forests and fields and maintained in village level gardens. Seed and planting material is generated and distributed to local families to plant around their homes as supplementary food.

To enhance the food basket and increase dietary diversity, underutilized plants as tubers, semi wild vegetables, millets, yams, leafy green vegetables and other underutilized crops are collected from forests and fields and maintained in the village level gardens. Seed and planting material is generated and distributed to local families to plant around their homes as supplementary food.

Most of these plants were once developed as ‘famine foods’ by rural and tribal communities to tide them over bad weather conditions when other crops fail. These crops are hence adapted to do well in sub optimal climate conditions and are valuable crops today. Though traditionally these wild plants were consumed by rural and tribal communities, in the present their use has been drastically reduced for a variety of social reasons. Having documented these nutritious plants with help of the elders in the community Gene Campaign is reviving their cultivation to build up a bank of foods for the community for crisis periods. This approach is providing a secondary source of food and nutrition for families.

Less utilised grains often referred to as pseudocereals occur as life support species in extreme environmental situations or threatened habitats. These pseudocereals have such as amaranth, buckwheat and chenopod which had a high degree of acceptability in the poor farming households are being re-grown and re-introduced into the local diet for additional nutrition security.

B. Medicinal Plants and Herbal Gardens

In India, the science of using natural resources—plants, animals, insects, as well as minerals and metals—to cure human and animal diseases, has been encoded in the rich tradition systems of medicine such as Siddha and Ayurveda.

Through the Indian System of Medicine (ISM) we know that there are a number of medicinal plants that can be utilised for curing physical ailments and diseases. Similarly, it can be seen that in the indigenous health system of the adivasi communities, there are several levels of health traditions. Their scope ranges from therapeutic understanding of the value of local food resources to the management of common ailments of humans and animals. It also includes ritualistic and superstitious beliefs.

To revive indigenous health and veterinary care practices, Gene Campaign’s activities with the communities focuses on establishing herbal gardens of local flora and other medicinal plants important for health and veterinary care and reviving community interest through training in traditional healing for health and veterinary care.

1) Reviving interest in traditional healing for health and veterinary care

In the course of meetings with the community in villages Gene Campaign often found community members discuss problems of spurious drugs and the exorbitant cost of allopathic medicines. What was also evident from these discussions were that problematic though they seemed, the community considered allopathic medicines to be more ‘powerful’ than the remedies they knew.

Gene Campaign initiated discussions on the local indigenous knowledge relating to health with Gene Campaign sharing details of how indigenous knowledge is much sort after by the world for its healing traditions.

Communities have gradually begun to accept that they should not lose the basis of their indigenous healing traditions—the knowledge and medicinal plants associated with it. Many agree that in earlier times people were healthier and that only after they began relying on allopathic medicines have side effects of drugs been seen, and though people were cured of an ailment they did seem to ‘lose their strength.’

When it comes to veterinary care most communities agreed that the best way to look after their livestock was to revive and maintain their own healing practices since there was very little help for veterinary care and from the government, and medicines were mostly unavailable.

Beginning an awareness and education program, especially among the youth that their traditional healing knowledge was valuable and therefore worth retaining was not easy. In the early days, the youth often scoffed at Gene Campaign for raising unfashionable, boring issues like their healing traditions.
Discussions in meetings began to identify that the one of the problems communities were having was that of no access to affordable medicines. What was available was prohibitively expensive and often spurious. And veterinary help was practically non-existent.

Gradually, there began a willingness to start a herbal garden and put in plants that the communities had traditionally used, at least to show the younger people what their medicinal plants looked like and what they are used for.

Arousing the interest of the youth was greatly helped by pointing out that the American companies were so keen to lay their hands on the medicinal plants and indigenous knowledge that they did not want, that they were actually stealing it! Explaining what happened to turmeric and the extent to which the Indian government went to safeguard it and the amount of money it spent to get the turmeric patent cancelled, helped to convince them there was economic value to both their bioresources and the indigenous knowledge. And they both had to be conserved.

2) Establishing gardens of medicinal plants

The main objective behind setting up herbal gardens is to revive the traditional system of healing by making local flora and other medicinal plants available, and to demonstrate to the younger generation about the importance of medicinal plants in the treatment of ailments of both humans and animals.

Herbal gardens of medicinal plants have been established in various villages of Bihar and Jharkhand. Here locally important medicinal plants as well as some species obtained from the forest department nursery have been planted. These gardens have been set up by Gene Campaign on land provided by the adivasi community. The youth and women are being trained to collect local medicinal plants identified by the local vaidyas, hakims, and ayurvedacharyas and to plant and nurture them in the gardens.

To reduce dependency on external sources for securing medicinal planting material and often faced with their unavailability at government and private nurseries, Gene Campaign has set up its own greenhouse and nursery. Two greenhouses have been set up in Manatu (Ormanjhi) and Bhandra (Bero) villages. Here over hundred types of medicinal plants are being raised to provide planting material for medicinal gardens.
These gardens are helping local healers easily access the plants needed for their healing practice. Many feel their dying art has been given a lease of life.

Nurseries of important medicinal plants are being set up to provide income to local women. In addition, Gene Campaing is also developing cultivation methodology for some plants with commercial applications like Tagetes minuta and Senna agustifolia and is attempting a tie up with industry for contract farming and, therefore, assured incomes.

The medicinal gardens are moving into their next phase of development, i.e. expanding perimeters and adding more species so they become a live archive of all the healing plants known to the community. This expansion is also the result of a growing community awareness to conserve their local medicinal flora as they are beginning to see their flora as a source of enriching the community once the plants are used by outsiders for commercial products.

3) Building awareness of traditional healing practices

Gene Campaign organizes field trips and visits to these medicinal gardens for local school students, farmers, and women groups to give display and demonstrate the value of medicinal plants and encourage them to grow them in their own homes to cure common ailments.

Through village level discussions and awareness programmes with the community GC has been able to make the community aware about the growing market for herbal products and create an interest amongst farming men and women to conserve such locally available important flora in their homesteads.

To popularise these plants Gene Campaign has distributed over XXX medicinal and nutritionally valuable plants to households and to educational institutions, college campuses and campuses of government buildings.

There is a growing number of people wanting to set up herbal gardens in their own fields, the challenge however is maintaining these gardens in the summer in the water scarce zones. To overcome this, GC is selectively promoting planting of medicinal and nutritional plants around near a well or a tube well which can assure availability of water during the summers.

List of medicinal plants in herbal gardens

Sl. No.
Vernacular Name Botanical Name
1. Aam Mangifera indica
2. Aaonla Emblica officinalis
3. Adrak Zingiber officinale
4. Akwand Calotropis procera
5. Ashwagandha Withania somnifera
6. Babui Tulsi Ocimum basilicum
7. Bach Acorus calamus
8. Baghandi/Reri
9. Bakain Melia azaedirach
10. Bakas Adhatoda vasica
11. Ban piyaz Urginea indica
12. Beng Sag Centella asiatica
13. Bhuin Aaonla Phyllantus niruri
14. Chandra Mool Kaempteria galanga
15. Chhota Dhaniya
16. Chiraita Swertia chirayta
17. Chirchiri Achyranthes aspera
18. Chittur
19. Chitrak Plumbago zeylanica
20. Dhatura Datura innoxia
21. Farhad
22. Gachh Kand
23. Genda Phool Tagetes erecta
24. Haldi Curcuma domestica
25. Kachnar Bauhinia variegata
26. Kalmegh Andrographis paniculata
27. Kapoor Kachri Hedychium spicatum
28. Karanj Pongamia pinnata
29. Kasaunji Cassia sophera
30. Katsaraiya Solanum indicum
31. Kutma
32. Lankeshwari Mirabilis jalapa
33. Motha Ghass Cyperus rotundus
34. Naga Dhania
35. Nimbu Citrus aurentifolia
36. Paththar Chatta Coleus aromatica
37. Phutkal Ficus innectoria
38. Pudina Mintha spicata
39. Putus Lantana camara
40. Ramtulsi Ocimum grandiflorum
41. Rangaini Bhata Solanum xanthocarpum
42. Sada Bahar Catheranthus roseus
43. Seedh Euphorbia antiquorum
44. Simal Kand
45. Sanp Papar
46. Safed Dubla
47. Tulsi Ghass
48. Urhul Hibiscus rosa sinensis
49. Lajwanti Mimosa pudica
50. Lal Tulsi Ocimum sanctum
51. Nirbisra
52. Papaya Carica papaya
53. Sindwar

4) Reviving Indigenous Healing Practices

Along with growing indigenous medicinal plants, the knowledge of preparing medicinal formulations with them too is being revived.

Rural communities are being trained to prepare herbal formulations for simple ailments under the guidance of Vaidyas. It’s usually women from the self help groups who are active learners. Most of the formulations taught at the initial trainings were for minor ailments. They used easily available herbs and simple procedures. The treatments were largely for ailments faced by women and child.

Training programs on preparing herbal medicines have been conducted in many villages involving a good number of men and women. Though most of them were keen to acquire some healing skills to help their children and cut down on medicine costs, yet most of the learners had a problem understanding and remembering the formula for preparations. Subsequently, it was decided that a better approach would be to train select local people to make the herbal medicines under guidance and then sell these medicine nominally to the community.

5) Observing the Effectiveness of Herbal Medications

To convince youth in the communities about the efficacy of indigenous herbal medicines Gene Campaign also with some vaidyas maintains a database of people with ailments vis a vis the indigenous medicines they are taking, and the time taken for a complete cure.

Many people were tracked for ailments ranging from toothache to piles to epilepsy and the report of their successful treatments was shared with the community.

Sample of the patient database

S. No. Patient’s Name & Address Disease Herbal formulations used Effect
1. Jagmani Lakra
Palma, Bero, Ranchi
Goitre Ghegha Jalendra Tel Cured in 15 days
2. Suka Oraon
Malti, Bero, Ranchi
Epilepsy Rasun, Beroo, Jaha-uhi, Semal Effective
3. Ayeechi Orain
Tengia, Bero, Ranchi
Sanpat Sanpat Cured in 8 days

4. Karmi Orain
Palma, Bero, Ranchi
Itches Chakod churna Cured in 4 days
5. Bhinsaria Orain
Palma, Bero, Ranchi
Filaria Majubara Effective

6. Matla Oraon
Malti, Bero, Ranchi
Epilepsy Rasun, Beroo, Jaha-uhi, Semal Effective
7. Simon Kujur
Itki, Ranchi
Headache Ardh Cured in 3 days
8. Goinda Oraon
Bero, Ranchi
Gethia Gethia Effective
9. Gundar Oraon
Jaria, Bero, Ranchi
Barwat Katkaranj Cured in 15 days
10. Jatru Oraon
Kulli, Bero, Ranchi
Bleeding from mouth Karha Cured in 8 days

6) Exploring cultivation and market for cultivated medicinal plants and herbal products

If not done scientifically and sustainably, the promotion of Indian Systems of Medicine and herbal products will place an unsustainable burden on bioresources especially medicinal plants found in the wild.

Yet, these are attractive income sources if harvested sustainably, for example, bulk buyers buying medicinal plants from cultivated sources instead of local collections from the forest. To explore the possibility of cultivating medicinal plants, given the climate of Jharkhand and its potential for cultivating a large range of medicinal plants, Gene Campaign is developing this possibility with local farmers as well as the industry and exporters in Kolkata.

Several farmers have expressed considerable interest in growing medicinal plants for trade while expressing concern over its proper cultivation techniques and most importantly, marketing the products once they were harvested.

Usually, rough and ready means are used to collect medicinal plant from the wild. Such techniques often result in an impure and immature collection of raw materials, for example, many times a plant is harvested at a stage when its active ingredients are not fully developed,this not only fetches a poor price in the market but also destroys a plant prematurely. But in the case of harvesting cultivated plants, most traders agree there is a high demand and improved prices for cultivated medicinal plants because they are likely to be more pure and free from diseases due to proper maintenance during their growth and they contain a high degree of active ingredients as they are fully matured prior to harvesting.

The Agri-Horticultural Society of India, Kolkata and the Government of West Bengal has shown interest in supporting the project to cultivate medicinal plants. The former has been encouraging medicinal plants cultivation as an enterprise and also imparts training in their cultivation. Gene Campaign organised a one-day seminar on exploring opportunities of marketing of medicinal plants. It was organised at the Agri-Horticultural Society of India, Kolkata. It was attended by senior representatives from the West Bengal Government’s Medicinal Plants Board, traders, industries, research institutions and NGOs working with communities and promoting medicinal plants cultivation.

The proposal to form a confederation of buyers and sellers was accepted. The confederation is being set up and will comprise the Horticulture Development Board (Agri-Horticulture Society of India), Kolkata, the State Medicinal Plant Board, Government of West Bengal and Gene Campaign will be the facilitator on behalf of the farming community of Jharkhand and Bihar. Gene Campaign is in the process of negotiating the terms and conditions of cultivation and marketing. The principal point of debate is about ‘buy back guarantees.’ The buyers (ie industry & traders) are reluctant to agree to buy back guarantees whereas the Confederation wants an assured market for medicinal plants before encouraging farmers to start cultivation in large scale.