Can climate change affect our culture? A drastic thought on the face of it, but when you remember that food is an intrinsic part of culture it may no longer seem so extreme. As local varieties of food, including types of vegetables and rice, disappear from northeast India’s Assam state due to climate change the impacts show not just in the food palette – and palate – of the region. It also changes the culture of the place, however gradually.
Certain varieties of vegetables and edible ferns that are an integral part of Assamese cuisine and typically eaten by the indigenous population are fast disappearing due to increasing temperature and erratic rainfall, says Kushal Barua, senior professor in Tezpur University’s environmental science department.
“For instance, there was a time when several varieties of local kosu, or colocasia, were available in Assam and were a part of the indigenous population’s diet. Now many of these varieties are vulnerable, and some have already disappeared,” he explained.
“Similarly, there are many varieties of dhekia xaak (fiddlehead fern), which is extensively used in Assamese cuisine. Now, many varieties of this fern have disappeared or are vulnerable. It’s a similar tale with lai xaak, another leafy vegetable which is consumed by itself or in fish preparations.”
Kushal Barua, who is studying the impact of climate change on agriculture, says flowering behaviour of plants has been affected, which in turn impacts the grain or fruit quality.
“Joha, Assam’s popular indigenous variety of rice, has also witnessed a drop in grain quality as a result of this. Some commonly available indigenous fruits like poniyal are becoming rarer to find.” Even seasonal vegetables are “losing their taste”.
Climate change is also a factor in the spread of new weeds like parthenium, affecting the growth of other plants. “Parthenium is an invasive weed that affects native vegetation. One of the factors for its rapid spread is climate change. In places where it has invaded, it is seen that local vegetables like kola kosu, dhekia xaak and maimuni have disappeared,” said Ishwar Barua, scientist at the Assam Agricultural University (AAU) in Jorhat.
Parthenium also causes bronchial and skin allergy. “It is not difficult to spot this weed,” Ishwar Barua said. “You can even find it on roadsides. It has caused menace in Guwahati, Jorhat, Golaghat, Karbi Anglong and many other areas in Assam. On our part, we have been trying to educate the local population to identify and kill this weed which does not let agricultural produce grow and also causes health problems.”
There has been a spurt in other invasive weeds, too, which are causing havoc to agricultural produce, including tea, a cornerstone of the state’s economy. “Dicanthium is one such weed which is infesting the tea gardens in Assam. Temperature change has a direct role in the spread of this weed which has come from the tropical zone and which is, worryingly, resistant to weedicide. It is causing a major worry to tea planters,” said Jayanta Deka, principal scientist in AAU’s agronomy department.
Such is its invasive nature that dicanthium, according to scientists, has the capacity to replace the 165 other types of weed that are typically found in tea gardens. Its place of origin is said to be the Caribbean from where its seeds were carried by migratory birds. Its presence was first reported in Mizoram, and in 2015 it was spotted in Hailakandi district in Assam, testifying to its rapid spread.
Indigenous Assamese people are typically rice-eaters, and climate change has had an impact on local varieties of rice too. According to Tapan Baishya of Lotus Progressive Centre, an NGO that has been working with farmers in Assam’s Nalbari district, erratic rains and frequent floods have forced tribal communities to change their food habits.
“Certain varieties of rice like khali dhan are traditionally eaten during the monsoon season. Because of the frequent floods, the harvest is seriously affected. Therefore, farmers are moving to different local rice varieties, like ahu dhan and bao dhan which are more ‘flood resistant’,” Baishya said.
A local variety like bao dhan, for instance, is tall enough to ensure that the paddy grains remain above water even if the field is flooded. Moreover, its roots are strong enough to withstand the water current.
According to Ishwar Barua, this grain is “not the typical bao of Assam. Some communities are trying to grow bao dhan in lower Assam, like in Nalbari and Morigaon, but it’s not the typical bao. The actual variety of bao dhan has almost disappeared from the Sibsagar to Dhemaji belt in Assam where it is typically grown. From being grown in 400,000 hectares, bao farming has reduced to 70,000 hectares. It’s a similar scene in Bangladesh where bao was grown on a similar large scale.” Some potato varieties have disappeared too.
The flood-prone state, through which flows the Brahmaputra, has seen an increase of 1.4 degrees Celsius (minimum temperature) in the last 100 years, and a loss of 22.1 cm of annual rainfall in the same period, reveals data provided by R.N. Bhagat, scientist at Assam’s Tocklai Tea Research Institute.
“There has been a gradual rise in temperature. The changes that these have brought about in agricultural produce and to food habits in people is still not drastic, but the fact remains that it is happening,” Deka noted.