5. Cultivation and use of lesser-known plants of food value by tribals in north-east India.
Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, 25, 1989, pp. 253-267
The study deals with three important lesser-known crops of food value of one of the tribes, the Khasis, at higher elevations of Meghalaya and 8 species of the Nishis, the Hill Miris and the Sulungs of Arunachal
Pradesh in north-east India. This study considers the cropping and yield patterns of these species in the agroecosystem, their nutritive value and the contribution of a nitrogen-fixing legume, towards improved soil fertility.
Of all the 3000 plant species used as food at some time during human civilization, about 150 species are cultivated, of which less than 20 provide over 90% of the food needs. Just about 3 species (wheat, rice and maize) meet over half of the human energy needs. Reliance on such a small number of plants carries great risks, for monocultures are extremely vulnerable to catastrophic failures brought about by diseases or climatic stresses.
In north-east India, under the traditional slash and burn agriculture (locally called jhum), under fallow system (without burning the slash), and under sedentary agriculture, a variety of lesser-known species are cultivated by the farmer. Apart from their food value, many legumes such as Flemingia vestita Benth ex Bax. considered here also fix nitrogen in the soil.
One of the two study sites is located at Shilling spread over a distance of 30 km and considering 40 villages of the Khasis. The other study site is at the Lower Subansiri district of Arunachal Pradesh considering 45 villages in all. The extent of cultivation of the lesser-known species by each tribe is based upon sampling done in these villages. Both the study sites receive an annual average rainfall of 200 cm, with about 80% occuring during May-October. Winter is mild and extends from November to February with average maximum and minimum temperatures of 26 C and 18 C, respectively. During other months, the average maximum and minimum temperatures are 34 C and 25 C, respectively.
In this study Digitaria cruciata (Nees) A. Camus var. esculenta Bor.
Flemingia vestita Benth ex Bax. and Perilla ocimoides L. cultivated by the Khasis at higher elevations of Meghayala, and Amaranthus virdis L., Chenopodium ambrosioides L., Coix lacrymajobi L., Dioscorea spp., Fagopyrum tataricum Gaertn., Panicum miliaceum L., Perilla ocimoides and Setaria italica (L.) Beauv. cultivated by the Nishis, the Hill Miris and the Sulungs of Arunachal Pradesh in north-east India were evaluated from an ecological and socioeconomical point of view. Digitaria cruciata var. esculenta is largely cultivated for manure by composting the biomass, although the grains are also consumed. The role of a lesser-known legume, F. vestita, was evaluated for its ability to improve soil nitrogen status. Mixed cropping with F. vestita was found to give better economic returns, apart from improved soil fertility with a net gain in nitrogen of up to 250 kg/ha-1year-1.
From the point of view of nutrition many of these lesser-known crops such as F. vestita may prove to be superior to traditional ones.
Flemingia vestita has three times more protein than cassava and twice as much as sweet potato, two of the more widely grown root crops in the tropics. On a world basis, plant sources contribute about 70% and animals about 30% of the human protein needs; amongst the tribals in north-east India considered here this is 60% and 40%, respectively. In many developing countries in the tropics, plant sources could provide up to 90% of the food protein. Despite this and their other uses, as cover crops, green manure, etc. legumes are still minor crops in the existing farming systems of the humid tropics. Possibly techniques can be developed for using edible legumes as inter-crops in rotation with non-legumes so as to reduce significantly the amount of nitrogen fertilizer applied to the non-legumes. With improvement, the lesser-known crops could play an important role not only in the nutrition of the rapidly increasing population but also help in improving soil fertility through appropriate inter-cropping.
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