A majority of even the conscious consumers, growing and eating food from sustainable farms are missing a crucial need for a food system to be sustainable – closing the loop of the nutrient cycle.
Lets consider that one grows food crops and livestock using all the sustainable practices, without using chemical inputs and all the while increasing natural resource replenishment. But at the end of the day, a good proportion of the output from the farm is consumed by humans, either living in/near the farm and many a time in a city or town somewhere. What happens to all the nutrients that moved out of the farm in the form of grains, fruits, vegetables, meat, etc?
In nature we see that nothing is a waste – one species’ refuse is another’s food. We digest and assimilate a small proportion of what we eat. Once it has served its purpose, a good proportion of what we consume is sent out of the body – mostly as stool, urine and sweat. What happens to all this “other species’ food”? We flush it down the drain, through a sewage system where it is concentrated all the while becoming a pollutant and then set up sewage treatment plants (that do not work most of the time) and end up polluting our rivers, lakes and seas.
What is the solution? Its a very simple age old practice. It saves precious water. It creates pure and clean compost. And returns the nutrients as food to plants and micro organisms in the soil. It is what is simply referred to as Dry composting toilets.
The Palar Center for Learning (aka Pathashaala) of the Krishnamurti Foundation of India about 75 kms south of Chennai has deployed this simple technology. They started as a black water free campus back in 2010. Over the years they have championed this cause so much that students, staff and visitors see this initiative as an essential part of the campus identity.
When I was introduced to Pathashaala as a resource person to help develop their local outreach efforts and ground some of their in-campus agricultural activities I jumped at the offer. I looked forward to a process of bidirectional learning. In the few months that I have been associated with the amazing folks there, I have completely fallen in love with their ethos and dedication to sustainable living and food systems. Needless to say, the clincher being the dry composting toilets !
To get a better idea of the initiative do read this article sharing the experience of their recent compost harvest on the occasion of Gandhi Jayanti and this video from the previous year’s harvest. And to get a better idea of the technology itself, please see this small handout prepared by the one and only Gautama anna.
Agriculture does not end at the farm gate – eating is an agricultural activity; Food systems do not end at the dinner table. Returning nutrients to the soil is an integral part of a sustainable food system. And dry composting toilets is the simplest and most effective way to achieve this.
More on the concept, theory and some developments in design that have come about following my association with Pathashaala in the coming days & weeks.
A couple of weeks ago, I started sharing some of my understandings of millets, their nutrition, economics, ecology and technology in 2 to 3 hr sessions. The first of these was on Simple quality tests for staple forms of millets. For convenience and brevity, I have split it into three different sets – one on millet rice, another on millets grits and rava and a third one on millet flours and mixes. Here’s the first one on millet rices …
When I talk about millets with those exploring better food options, a common concern expressed is the cost factor. “I am totally convinced from nutritional, environmental and social justice perspectives, but it is too costly. Not affordable.” It is a valid concern. Lets crunch the numbers on this …
Millet rices have a high satiety index, especially whole grain (unpolished) millet rices (wgmr). One feels more full on eating a smaller quantity of cooked wgmr than when eating the same quantity of polished paddy rice (ppr), or even whole grain (unpolished) paddy rice for that matter. But for now, lets look at how much it costs to serve a wgmr based meal as compared to a ppr based one.
In a meal, I eat about 300 to 400 gms of cooked wgmr. When I have a ppr based meal, I eat 400 to 600 gms before I feel full. Millets are thirsty grains and cooking wgmr takes more water than cooking ppr – 1:3 for wgmr as compared to 1:2 for ppr. So for a meal, I need at the most 400gms/4=100 gms of wgmr (dry, uncooked) and 600gms/3=200 gms of ppr (dry, uncooked). In BLR good quality wgmr will cost me about Rs. 100/kg and decent ppr would be about Rs.40/kg. So my cost per meal for wgmr is therefore Rs. 100*(100/1000)=Rs. 10 as compared to Rs. 40*(200/1000)=Rs. 8 for ppr.
This is just from sheer quantity and cost perspective. Factoring in the difference in nutrition that the two meals would provide, the cost of wgmr is already justified. But wait, there is yet another factor that needs to be taken into account.
Again, purely from the quantity perspective, almost everyone who has eaten wgmr based meals share this experience that even after 4 hours of the meal, they typically do not feel hungry for a snack. The same individuals after eating a ppr based meal would be seeking out something to snack on as they touch the 3 hours mark since their meal. This is primarily because of the high fibre (and small carbohydrate to fibre ratio) of wgmr. But from a purely financial perspective, just the ingredients cost of a snack would be anywhere from Rs. 3 to 5. Adding this to the above, when we have a wgmr based meals, I would incur an expense of Rs.10 before I get to the next meal, while on days I eat ppr based meals, I would incur an expense of Rs. 11 before I get to the next meal.
Please see some tips on cooking wgmr here to improve the experience of cooking and eating wgmr based dishes. And just search for ‘millets buy the-place-where-you-live’ online and you will find a whole list of online and real world stores where you can buy millets. Do call and check with them if the millet rices they sell are the whole grain (unpolished) kind before you decide to make the purchase.
Whole grain (unpolished) millet rices are not just good for our health, they are good for our pocket books too !!
- How much electric power will it require to run?
- Does it require 3 phase or single phase electricity?
- What is the minimum quantity needed to get decent output?
- How many people are needed to get the design output?
- How much floor space does it require?
- Does it require an elevator to load grains into the machine?
- How many times do the grains need to be processed before we get desired quality output?
There are four parameters to quantify this:
- hulling efficiency: how many unhulled grains come through in 100 grains of the output after one pass through the huller.
- rice recovery percentage: weight of the rice fraction in the output as a percentage of input material.
- grain shattering percentage: the weight of the shattered grains in the output as a percentage of the input material
- through put / capacity: What is the maximum quantity of input grains it can process in an hour?
- bran loss & damage to bran estimation: how white are the millet rice kernels in the output? And what is the estimate on the extent of damage to the bran layer?
The primary motivation to eat cereal grains such as paddy rice, millet rices, or wheat is the nutrition we can derive from these. The largest component, in terms of weight composition of the grain are the carbohydrates in each of these grains. The other nutritional components we can derive from these grains are fibre, minerals and essential fatty acids – to varying degrees depending on the nutritional content of individual grains. In a recent post, I had mentioned about how we can use the carbohydrate to fibre ratio as a fairly good indicator to identify a grain that suits one’s dietary needs.
When a grain is very light, it is not filled with enough carbohydrates in its endosperm – the hard part of the grain. These grains typically do not get dehusked properly during the hulling process. And even when they do, the millet rice kernel tend to shatter resulting in an increase in the grits among the millet rice kernels. These immature grains would also not taste good when eaten primarily due to the ill-formed starch component in the endosperm or the heart of the grain. So the cooking quality deteriorates dramatically even if we are able to process them to rice or rawa form.
The maturity of the oils – the fatty acids in the bran layer in such grains is also very low. This means that the oils go rancid very quickly in such immature grains even if
one is able to get the husk off without damaging the millet rice kernel. And once the oil on a few grains go rancid, it gives the entire package a foul odour and the rancidity spreads to the other mature grains too.
To summarize, removing the immature millet grains from the better formed ones during processing for the millet rice, improves (i) the taste (ii) the cooking quality (iii) shelf life and (iv) the cleanliness of the product. Once separated, the light grains can be used for cattle feed as it is rich in cellulosic material.
Wheat, paddy and most millets have comparable glycemic index. i.e. the total quantity of sugar released in ones blood on eating 100gms of the grain, a direct function of carbohydrate content. Looking at the nutrition chart we can see that the carbohydrate content in all these grains are not too different.
As I had written about earlier in the year, one needs to eat a lesser quantity of millets to feel as full as one would after eating another cereal grain such as polished paddy rice. So the serving size of millet based dishes are smaller and hence the glycemic load is lesser compared to preparations of polished paddy rice or refined flour.
And then there is the whole slow release aspect I had written about and identified how the carbohydrate to fibre ratio is a better indicator of this feature.
To sum up, after eating a millet based meal, the total sugar released into ones blood stream is reduced and the rate of increase initially, and the decrease later, in the blood sugar levels happens at a much more gradual rate when compared what is experienced after eating a meal of polished paddy rice or refined wheat flour.
Both these aspects are very beneficial for those with type 2 diabetes. Please note that diversity is almost always a good thing. It is advisable to include the various millets available in the local markets, unpolished/semi polished paddy rice and whole wheat flour to one’s diet.