A plate of seasoned tapioca, green chilli or roasted chutney with steaming hot black tea would bring a sense of nostalgia to most Malayalees.
This is perhaps because tubers like tapioca, elephant foot yam, colocasia, yam and sweet potato are an essential part of Kerala’s food and culture. They have been extensively cultivated on large scale across the state.
But several studies have shown a decline in their cultivation in the recent past, thereby pointing out the need for conserving them.
Realising the same, Shaji NM from Wayanad district has been working relentlessly for conserving different varieties of tubers across the state for almost two decades.
“In the olden times, when poverty and famine were common, our ancestors used to depend on tuber crops to sate their hunger. Eating rice was a luxury back then. So, different types of tubers became their staple food. Other than being a staple, they also helped them maintain good health and have a long life,” Shaji tells The Better India.
“But now, the increase in the cultivation of cash crops like pepper, cardamom, nutmeg, etc. has resulted in the decline of cultivation of tuber crops. So, I realised the need for conserving the valuable species of tubers and this is my humble attempt at it,” says Shaji, who has been growing over 200 varieties of tubers with farmers across the state for the past several years.
Of Conservation and Food Security
Growing up in a family of farmers, Shaji had to experience poverty and hunger at different points of his life. He says that a major part of his family’s diet was nothing but different types of tubers that they cultivated. “My life experiences also motivated me to go ahead with my conservation efforts. Also, as part of my efforts at popularising them, I have distributed seeds to over 12,000 farmers across the state to encourage tuber cultivation,” says the 43-year-old farmer.
Also, he strongly believes that it is the food choices that lead to different lifestyle diseases like diabetes, heart diseases, cancer, etc. “These tubers were an essential part of the diet in olden times. Hence those generations lived a healthy, long life and I wanted to popularise them so that our future generations would benefit,” he opines.
He also points out, “Tubers are also considered the future food security crop due to its ability to sustain under changing climate conditions, especially during a drought.”
So to collect the tuber varieties, Shaji has been travelling across the state and even to interior forests to meet tribal communities. “I source wild tubers from them as such varieties are at the verge of extinction. I grow them on my land and then give the seeds back to the tribal colonies and encourage them to cultivate more on their land and to include them in their diet,” he says.
Greater yam, lesser yam, elephant foot yam, arrowroot, colocasia, sweet potato, tapioca, Chinese potato are a few among the 200 varieties of tubers he grows in his one acre of land.
Apart from growing tubers, he also cultivates several indigenous and traditional rice varieties in a few acres of land that he took for lease. “Just like tubers, there are different rice varieties that face extinction. As an attempt to conserve them, I have been growing those varieties. Altogether I currently grow around 52 varieties of rice. I also give out these rice varieties to people who want to cultivate them,” he explains.
While giving out any variety of crops, Shaji says he has a strict condition for the buyer. “Whether it’s a particular variety of tuber or rice, if somebody wants the seeds from me then they can take it for free but only with a promise of returning the same amount of seeds once they harvest it. This way I make sure that they cultivate it properly at least to pay it back to me,” he says with a smile.
According to Shaji, farmers need to contribute to maintaining biodiversity by growing different varieties of crops organically.
Shaji’s farm, Kedaram, also grows 17 varieties of medicinal plants and around 100 varieties of vegetables and fruits. “I also rear a few cows, goats, honey bees and maintain a small fish farm as well,” he adds.
A role model for several farmers in the country, he also trains farmers and conducts a seed festival at his farm every year. He uses Facebook and WhatsApp groups as a medium to connect to farmers and also to collect and distribute different varieties of crops. He has also received several accolades like the Plant Genome Savior Farmer Award in 2014, the Indian Biodiversity Award in 2021 and several other state and national level awards for his efforts at conserving and popularising a wide array of tuber varieties.
Problems and Prospects of Tuber crops in Kerala (ICAR)
Edited by Yoshita Rao