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Correlation between non-conventional plants consumed during food scarcity and their folk medicinal usages: a case study in two Villages of Kurigram District, Bangladesh.

Introduction

Human beings started as hunter-gatherers at the dawn of human civilization. It is very much possible, that even during those times, when the human population was low, and natural food in the form of plants and animals in abundance, human beings suffered from scarcity of food due to seasonal declines in availability of plant products as well as depletion of animals within a particular range of human habitat. In modern times, the human race has become almost totally dependent on a few crops like rice, wheat, sorghum, maize or potatoes as their staple food. Any failure in the production of these crops therefore leads to shortages in the food supply, causing food scarcity, which in its severest form is known as famine. Moreover, in large number of regions of the world, like the sub-Saharan region of Africa or even localized areas in a number of countries, because of poor soil and weather conditions, the supply of food is inadequate. Under such conditions of food scarcity, the people often rely on non-conventional plant items, which are edible and enable the people to satiate their hunger and meet their nutritional needs (Glew et al., 1997; Freiberger et al., 1998; Sena et al., 1998; Cook et al., 2000).

Bangladesh is a developing country with a large population size exceeding 160 million within an area of around 55,000 square miles. By a number of estimates, more than 32% of the people live below the poverty level income, which has been defined as income of US$ 1 per day. As such, food is not affordable or in short supply to around a third of the population on a daily basis. Moreover, the northern districts of Bangladesh, falling within the Rangpur division of the country, suffers from a seasonal famine called Monga, twice during the year and which peaks during the Bengali months of Kartik (mid-October till mid-November) and Chaitra (mid-March till mid-April). The Rangpur division, in northern Bangladesh comprises several districts, namely, Gaibandha, Nilphamari, Kurigram, Rangpur, and Lalmonirhat. The people of these districts are usually poor, and apart from Rangpur district, generally lacks any industrial infrastructure. Agriculture (i.e. cultivating one's own land) and agricultural laborer (i.e. cultivating other people's land on a lease or day laborer basis) forms the main occupation of the people. Because of poor soil and climatic conditions, the major portions of these five districts can cultivate paddy (the staple diet of the people) only once a year versus the three crops of paddy in other parts of Bangladesh. The demand for labor during paddy cultivation peaks during the sowing period and the harvesting period. During the off-season months, substantial segments of the people suffer from lack of employment (due to absence of any other employment-producing sectors). As any cash or food reserves start getting lower in the households (particularly the poorest households), the poorer sections of the population, in general, have to rely on non-conventional plant items collected from the wild or from fallow land to mitigate their hunger and satisfy their nutritional requirements. It is to be noted that the poorest sections of the population has to rely on non-conventional plant food items throughout the year and throughout the country, because in their day-to-day existence, they cannot afford the staple diet of the Bangladeshis, i.e. rice.

We have documented the non-conventional plants consumed during times of food scarcity in two randomly selected villages of Kurigram district, namely Chargujimari and Kumar Para in an accompanying paper (Islam et al., 2011). In previous reports, we had also documented the non-conventional food plants, otherwise known as famine food plants, being consumed during times of food scarcity in other parts of Bangladesh, including Lalmonirhat district, which falls within the Monga-prone Rangpur division of the country (Jahan et al., 2010; Biswas et al., 2011; Paul et al., 2011 a,b). Along with our famine food surveys, we had been conducting ethnomedicinal surveys among the folk medicinal and tribal medicinal practitioners of Bangladesh for the last few years (Nawaz et al., 2009; Rahmatullah et al., 2009a-c; Hasan et al., 2010; Hossan et al., 2010; Mollik et al., 2010a,b; Rahmatullah et al., 2010a-f; Jahan et al., 2011). Our various surveys, especially the famine food survey conducted in Talbunia village of Bagerhat district, Bangladesh raised the hypothesis that non-conventional plants selected by the people suffering from food scarcity may not have been originally selected (through possible trial and error) not only for their nutritive and hunger-satiating properties, but the selection procedure may have also possibly considered the medicinal properties of the plants, particularly properties which are particularly relevant in combating malnutrition-induced diseases. Towards testing this hypothesis a survey was conducted among two randomly selected villages of Chargujimari and Kumar Para in Kurigram district, Bangladesh as to the non-conventional plant items that are consumed by the people during times of food scarcity like Monga. The names of various non-conventional plants obtained were next checked as to their folk medicinal uses (obtained from folk medicinal practitioners or Kavirajes) as present in our database of both previously reported (references cited above) as well as non-reported medicinal plants of Bangladesh, as used in various regions of the country. The objective of the present report was to correlate the two sets of data towards checking our hypothesis, which if correct, would indicate that non-conventional plants consumed during times of food scarcity also possess medicinal values, particularly against diseases, which occur more during malnutrition induced by factors like nutritional deficiency, arising out of food scarcity.

Materials and methods

The collection of data on non-conventional plants consumed during times of food scarcity like Monga in two randomly selected villages of Kurigram district, namely Chargujimari and Kumar Para, have been detailed in an accompanying paper (Islam et al., 2011). Information on folk medicinal usages of the plants were collected from various surveys among the different regions of Bangladesh as well as various tribal populations, as detailed before (Rahmatullah et al., 2009a-c; Hasan et al., 2010; Hossan et al., 2010; Mollik et al., 2010a,b; Rahmatullah et al., 2010a-f; Jahan et al., 2011). Briefly, information was collected from folk medicinal practitioners (Kavirajes) with the help of a semi-structured questionnaire and the guided field-walk method of Martin (1995) and Maundu (1995). All plant specimens as shown by the Kavirajes were collected and identified either at the Bangladesh National Herbarium or by Mr. Manjur-Ul-kadir Mia, ex-Curator and Principal Scientific Officer of the Bangladesh National Herbarium.

Results and discussion

Food scarcity, or absence of monetary ability for purchasing food, or a combination of both can lead to food shortages in households, and which affects more the poorest households than the more affluent ones. During times of food scarcity, if food is scarce in one region, and the prices increase considerably, the affluent households can either afford to procure food at higher prices, or go elsewhere for the time being where food is more available at prices they can afford. The poorer sections of the population, who in rural Bangladesh, are essentially agricultural laborers being employed in a seasonal manner, are vulnerable because they cannot afford food at higher prices, even in normal times their stock of food or cash reserves are low, and they cannot seek employment elsewhere like the large cities because of their lack of skills. In the northern districts of Rangpur division in Bangladesh, the poorest households suffer from food shortages throughout the year. This food shortage becomes more acute during the yearly famine--Monga, which peaks twice during the year in the Bengali months of Kartik and Chaitra. At times like this, even medium income households suffer from food shortages. To cover this food and nutritional deficit, the affected population relies on consumption of non- conventional plant items, which they do not normally consume or consume rarely under conditions of food availability and food availability (particularly of the staple diet, rice).

A total of 25 non-conventional plant species distributed into 18 families were reported to us by the poorer households of the two villages surveyed, as to be consumed during times of food scarcity, particularly Monga. A number of the plants Like Amaranthus spinosus and Amaranthus viridis were collected from the wild. Some plants were cultivated like Basella alba, and which was consumed throughout the year or sold, but which was consumed more during times of food scarcity, and formed the main dish in the absence of rice. During normal periods of food availability, rice formed the main dish and the major source of carbohydrates with vegetables as the side dish. During times of food scarcity, vegetables often formed the main dish, or sometimes a side-dish to other carbohydrate-rich non-conventional edible plant items like fruits of Dioscorea bulbifera. Other plants like Moringa oleifera had their fruits consumed normally; at times of food scarcity, people consumed the leaves of the plant also with the fruits. This had a certain advantage for while fruits were only available seasonally, leaves were available throughout the year, and could be used as a good source of nutritious food during the whole year. A detailed account of the non-conventional plant species consumed in the two villagers surveyed can be obtained elsewhere (Islam et al., 2011). Of the 25 plants reported to be consumed particularly during food scarcity, our accumulated reports on folk medicinal uses of the plants showed that 20 plants had published (or still to be published) folk medicinal uses. The results are shown in Table 1.

Any lack of adequate food intake leads to malnutrition and energy deficiency. These would cause a general weakening of the body system, including the immune system, causing the body to be susceptible to a host of diseases. While malnutrition can cause problems like weakness of body, deficiency in energy, or anemia, the general weakening of the immune system caused through malnutrition may bring on a number of diseases, particularly diseases caused by microbial factors. Protein-energy malnutrition (caused through inadequate appropriate food intake) is a serious problem in Bangladesh, which is exacerbated during times of food scarcity and seasonal famines like Monga. Because of inadequate food intake, people become underweight, and the most susceptible segments of the population are women and children. Diarrhea has been reported among young children, who are severely underweight (Nahar et al., 2010). Intestinal mucosal function has been reported to be severely impaired among severely underweight children (Hossain et al., 2010). Enterotoxigenic Escherichia coli (ETEC), Cryptosporidium sp., and Entamoeba histolytica were significantly more prevalent in malnourished children, as observed in a study with children suffering from diarrheal illnesses (Mondal et al., 2009). Prolongation of diarrhea due to cholera has been reported in patients with severe malnutrition (Palmer et al., 1976).

Micronutrient deficiencies and anemia are already major health concerns in Bangladesh (Jamil et al., 2008). Childhood anemia and vitamin A deficiency has also been reported for rural Bangladesh; in one study 56% of the children were found to be underweight, and 17% were severely underweight; 18% were wasted, and 1% were severely wasted; 45% were stunted and 20% were severely stunted (Faruque et al., 2006). Anemia and inadequate vitamin A status have even been reported for adolescent schoolboys in the capital city Dhaka of Bangladesh (Ahmed et al., 2006). Quite obviously, these deficiencies and consequent rise of diseases would be greater when the population is suffering from chronic or acute food shortages, as happens during times of food scarcity.

It is interesting to note that 14 out of the 25 non-conventional plants consumed during times of food scarcity in the two surveyed villages have folk medicinal usages in Bangladesh for treatment of gastrointestinal disorders, among which the most prevalent being diarrhea and dysentery. These 14 plants are Amaranthus spinosus, Amaranthus tricolor, Amaranthus viridis, Colocasia esculenta, Eclipta prostrata, Basella alba, Ipomoea batatas, Cucurbita maxima, Dioscorea bulbifera, Diplazium esculentum, Lathyrus sativus, Leucas aspera, Moringa oleifera, and Corchorus capsularis. Gastrointestinal disorders are widely prevalent in rural Bangladesh because of the general lack of proper sanitary conditions and the poor quality of drinking water. This type of disorders would affect any malnourished population from the first instance of malnourishment and is expected to rise during times of food scarcity or famines. That the majority of non-conventional plants consumed during times of food scarcity are against gastrointestinal disorders strongly suggest that our hypothesis is correct, that is non-conventional plants consumed during times of food scarcity or famines, whenever they may have been selected through a possible process of trial and error, have been selected both on the basis of their nutritional status as well as their ability to treat or prevent malnourishment-induced diseases.

The other plants consumed during times of food scarcity or Monga in the two villages surveyed also support our hypothesis. Amaranthus viridis and Dioscorea bulbifera are prescribed by the Kavirajes for direct treatment of malnutrition. Amaranthus spinosus, Amaranthus tricolor, and Colocasia esculenta are prescribed by the Kavirajes for treatment of physical weakness or debility, which are direct consequences of lack of intake of adequate nutrition (food). Amaranthus tricolor and Basella alba are folk medicinal treatments for anemia. Basella alba is also prescribed by the Kavirajes to increase weight in underweight children or adults. Chenopodium album, Ipomoea batatas, Cajanus cajan, and Leucas aspera, among other uses, are used by the Kavirajes for treatment of energy deficiency, which can also be a consequence of inadequate nutritional uptake. Chenopodium album is further given by the Kavirajes to treat deficiency of vitamins. Ipomoea aquatica is given by the Kavirajes to increase lactation in nursing mothers. Such lactation would be severely impaired if the mother herself suffers from lack of nutrition.

Taken together, 80% of the edible plants (non-conventional) consumed during times of food scarcity had folk medicinal uses. This would lead strong credence to our hypothesis about the selection of plants being made both on their nutritional status as well as medicinal values. This phenomenon has been observed before. It has been reported that the Australian Aboriginal hunter-gatherers used to have over 800 plant foods and that this traditional diet may have been low in carbohydrates but high in fiber, leading to protection of the Aborigines from a genetic pre-disposition to insulin resistance (a physiological condition in which the natural hormone, insulin, becomes less effective in lowering blood sugars) and its consequences like diabetes mellitus, coronary heart disease, and obesity (Brand-Miller and Holt, 1998). As such, the plants consumed during times of food scarcity or famines hold enormous potential for further research as to their nutritional contents (which may prove to be better than conventional food items), as well as for their medicinal properties. Moreover, quite a number of these types of plants grow in the wild under adverse weather and soil conditions, which could make them desirable items to cultivate in various regions of the world lacking climatic and soil conditions for cultivation of the major cereal crops. A combination of these three factors, namely nutritional properties, medicinal values, and ability to grow under adverse conditions can in a combined manner make the plants obtained in the present survey to be widely cultivated in many regions of the world and so avert both famine as well as famine-induced diseases.

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(1) Mohammed Rahmatullah, (1) Farhana Israt Jahan, (1) Syeda Seraj, (1) Zubaida Khatun, (1) Farhana Islam, (2) Mohammad Mafruhi Sattar, (1) Tania Khan, (1) Tasneema Ishika, (1) Mehreen Rahman, (1) Rownak Jahan

(1) Faculty of Life Sciences, University of Development Alternative, Dhanmondi, Dhaka-1205, Bangladesh.

(2) Department of Pharmacy, Jahangirnagar University, Savar, Dhaka-1342, Bangladesh.

Corresponding Author: Mohammed Rahmatullah, Pro-Vice Chancellor University of Development Alternative House No. 78, Road No. 11A (new) Dhanmondi R/A, Dhaka-1205 Bangladesh. Fax: 88-02-8157339. E-mail: rahamatm@hotmail.com
Table 1: Plants consumed during times of food scarcity in
Chargujimari and Kumar Para villages of Kurigram district,
Bangladesh and their uses in folk medicine.

Famine food plant name           Family            Plant part(s) used
(local name)                                       for consumption

Amaranthus spinosus L. (Kanta    Amaranthaceae     Leaves
khuria) English name: Prickly
amaranth

Amaranthus tricolor L. (Laal     Amaranthaceae     Whole plant
shak) English name:
Elephant-head amaranth

Amaranthus viridis L. (Khuria    Amaranthaceae     Leaves,
shak) English name: Slender                        young stems
amaranth

Colocasia esculenta (L.)         Araceae           Leaves, stems,
Schott. (Jongli kochu)English                      swollen roots
name: Green taro

Eclipta prostrata L. (Kalo       Asteraceae        Leaves
keshari shak) English name:
False daisy

Basella alba L. (Puin shak)      Basellaceae       Leaves,
English name: Indian spinach                       young stems

Raphanus sativus L. (Mula        Brassicaceae      Young plants,
shak) English name: Leafy                          radish
daikon

Chenopodium album L. (Bothua     Chenopodiaceae    Leaves,
shak) English name: Common                         young stems
lamb's-quarters

Ipomoea aquatica Forssk.         Convolvulaceae    Leaves
(Kolmi shak) English name:
Swamp morning glory

Ipomoea batatas (L.) Lam.        Convolvulaceae    Swollen roots
(Mishti alu) English name:
Sweet potato

Brassica campestris L.           Cruciferae        Young plants
(Shorisha shak) English name:
Field mustard

Cucurbita maxima Duch. (Mishti   Cucurbitaceae     Young leaves,
kumra) English name: Melon                         stems, fruits
pumpkin

Dioscorea bulbifera L. (Gach     Dioscoreaceae     Fruits
alu) English name: Air yam

Diplazium esculentum (Retz.)     Dryopteridaceae   Whole plant
Sw. (Dheki shak)English name:
Vegetable fern

Cajanus cajan (L.) Millsp.       Fabaceae          Seeds
(Arhor kalai) English name:
Pigeon pea

Lathyrus sativus L. (Khesari     Fabaceae          Seeds,
dal) English name: White pea                       young leaves

Leucas aspera (Willd.) Spreng.   Lamiaceae         Leaves,
(Kansisha, Dome kolosh)                            young stems
English name: White dead
nettle

Malva verticillata L. (Napa      Malvaceae         Whole plant
shak) English name: Cluster
mallow

Moringa oleifera Lam. (Shojina   Moringaceae       Leaves, fruits
shak) English name:
Horseradish tree, Drumstick
tree

Musa paradisiacal L. (Aanti      Musaceae          Inner portion of
kola) English: Plantain                            trunk, flower
                                                   cluster

Echinochloa colona (L.) link     Poaceae           Seed
(Boro dubla, Moina ghas)
English name: Jungle rice

Hordeum vulgare L. (Para)        Poaceae           Seeds
English name: Barley

Paniculum miliaceum L.           Poaceae           Seeds
(Cheena) English name:
Broomcorn millet

Setaria italica (L.) P. Beauv.   Poaceae           Seeds
(Kaun) English name: Foxtail
millet

Corchorus capsularis L. (Tita    Tiliaceae         Young plants
pat) English name: White jute

Famine food plant name           Folk medicinal use of plant part (s)
(local name)                     in various regions of Bangladesh
                                 including area surveyed

Amaranthus spinosus L. (Kanta    Leucorrhea, diarrhea, dysentery,
khuria) English name: Prickly    jaundice, eczema, fever, edema,
amaranth                         colic, boils, abscesses, debility,
                                 diabetes, appetite stimulant,
                                 rheumatic pain, pain in the bones,
                                 pus or blood coming out with urine,
                                 loss of appetite, gonorrhea.

Amaranthus tricolor L. (Laal     Cuts and wounds, skin diseases,
shak) English name:              debility, anemia, dysentery.
Elephant-head amaranth

Amaranthus viridis L. (Khuria    Loss of appetite, fistula, piles,
shak) English name: Slender      sprain, colic, constipation,
amaranth                         acidity, malnutrition in newly
                                 delivered mother.

Colocasia esculenta (L.)         Indigestion, cancer, baldness,
Schott. (Jongli kochu)English    piles, tuberculosis, edema, stomach
name: Green taro                 ache, infertility, cuts and wounds,
                                 indigestion, rheumatic pain,
                                 debility, severe jaundice,
                                 constipation, paralysis.

Eclipta prostrata L. (Kalo       Jaundice, constipation, tumor,
keshari shak) English name:      alopecia, diarrhea, dysentery,
False daisy                      colic, malaria, poisonous animal or
                                 insect bites, vomiting, burning
                                 sensations in hands or feet,
                                 indigestion, fever, puerperal fever,
                                 diabetes, eye diseases, passing of
                                 blood with urine, eczema, stomach
                                 ache.

Basella alba L. (Puin shak)      Syphilis, intestinal disorders,
English name: Indian spinach     tumor, acne, leucorrhea, bloating,
                                 sore throat, hepatic disorders,
                                 anemia, burns, skin diseases,
                                 coughs, colds, to increase weight.

Raphanus sativus L. (Mula        Indigestion, hepatic disorders,
shak) English name: Leafy        insomnia, gastritis, blood
daikon                           dysentery, sexual disorders, kidney
                                 disorders, indigestion, acidity,
                                 edema.

Chenopodium album L. (Bothua     Liver diseases, pain, helminthiasis,
shak) English name: Common       energy deficiency, lack of vitamins.
lamb's-quarters

Ipomoea aquatica Forssk.         Chicken pox, rheumatic swelling,
(Kolmi shak) English name:       diabetes, snake bite, skin
Swamp morning glory              disorders, to increase lactation in
                                 nursing mothers, leucorrhea, burning
                                 sensations in the body.

Ipomoea batatas (L.) Lam.        Spleen enlargement, bloating, burns,
(Mishti alu) English name:       anorexia, energy deficiency, loss of
Sweet potato                     virility, diarrhea, inflammation,
                                 snake bite, hepatitis.

Brassica campestris L.           Rheumatoid arthritis, joint pain,
(Shorisha shak) English name:    coughs, bronchitis, syphilis,
Field mustard                    leprosy.

Cucurbita maxima Duch. (Mishti   Cancer, nervous disorders,
kumra) English name: Melon       helminthiasis, hot sensations in
pumpkin                          body, inflammation, gastrointestinal
                                 problems, joint pain, cold,
                                 constipation, piles.

Dioscorea bulbifera L. (Gach     Goiter, cancer, syphilis, antidote
alu) English name: Air yam       to poisoning, cuts and wounds,
                                 piles, skin diseases, inflammation,
                                 tumor, diarrhea, sexual weakness,
                                 hydrocele, hernia, inflammation,
                                 indigestion, malnutrition, sexually
                                 transmitted diseases, loss of
                                 strength.

Diplazium esculentum (Retz.)     Diabetes, skin disorders, dysentery.
Sw. (Dheki shak)English name:
Vegetable fern

Cajanus cajan (L.) Millsp.       Jaundice, bronchitis, itches, edema,
(Arhor kalai) English name:      tumor, coughs, snake bite, diabetes,
Pigeon pea                       stimulant, stomatitis, coughs,
                                 piles.

Lathyrus sativus L. (Khesari     Antidote to poisoning, cuts and
dal) English name: White pea     wounds, dysentery, bloating,
                                 scabies, eczema, allergy.

Leucas aspera (Willd.) Spreng.   Antidote to poisoning, febricity,
(Kansisha, Dome kolosh)          hypertension, diarrhea, dysentery,
English name: White dead         edema, snake bite, fever, eczema,
nettle                           energy stimulant, loss of strength,
                                 bone fracture, whitish discharge in
                                 urine (men), gout, jaundice,
                                 hepatitis B, impotency, colic,
                                 coughs, mucus, stomach ache,
                                 bloating, peptic ulcer, dysentery,
                                 cuts and wounds (to stop bleeding),
                                 skin disorders, joint pain,
                                 headache, throat pain, lesions
                                 within the nose, nose-bleed,
                                 bacterial infections, tooth
                                 infections, sudden feeling of warmth
                                 in head, goiter in women,
                                 respiratory difficulties, loss of
                                 appetite, blood purifier,
                                 indigestion.

Malva verticillata L. (Napa      --
shak) English name: Cluster
mallow

Moringa oleifera Lam. (Shojina   Colds, boils, fever, joint pain,
shak) English name:              gout, hypertension, constipation,
Horseradish tree, Drumstick      epilepsy, skin eruptions,
tree                             leucoderma, fever, helminthiasis,
                                 body ache, tonic, chicken pox,
                                 stomach ache, stomach ache due to
                                 vomiting, vomiting, diarrhea,
                                 dysentery, sterility, cancer,
                                 myopathic spasm, night blindness,
                                 inflammation, hernia, cardiovascular
                                 disorders, mental disorders,
                                 paralysis, tetanus, pain, diabetes,
                                 leprosy, conjunctivitis, acidity,
                                 rheumatic fever, decreased bile
                                 secretion, appetite stimulant,
                                 formation of blood clots on skin,
                                 frequent urination.

Musa paradisiacal L. (Aanti      Chronic dysentery, stomach pain,
kola) English: Plantain          diarrhea, diabetes.

Echinochloa colona (L.) link     --
(Boro dubla, Moina ghas)
English name: Jungle rice

Hordeum vulgare L. (Para)        --
English name: Barley

Paniculum miliaceum L.           --
(Cheena) English name:
Broomcorn millet

Setaria italica (L.) P. Beauv.   --
(Kaun) English name: Foxtail
millet

Corchorus capsularis L. (Tita    Indigestion, edema, diarrhea,
pat) English name: White jute    itches, stomach ache.
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Title Annotation:Original Articles
Author:Rahmatullah, Mohammed; Jahan, Farhana Israt; Seraj, Syeda; Khatun, Zubaida; Islam, Farhana; Sattar,
Publication:American-Eurasian Journal of Sustainable Agriculture
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9BANG
Date:Apr 1, 2011
Words:5114
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