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HomeIndiaNortheast’s mithun gets ‘food animal’ tag and its meat a leg-up

Northeast’s mithun gets ‘food animal’ tag and its meat a leg-up

Abhijit Mitra recalls an apocryphal tale from the time he was posted in Nagaland as Director of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s main research centre on mithuns, a bovine that’s indigenous to some of the states in the Northeast.

The story went that during Jawaharlal Nehru’s visit to Arunachal Pradesh (then North East Frontier Agency), he was greeted by a tribal chief with a proposition: he offered to give the prime minister 500 mithuns in exchange for a young Indira Gandhi’s hand in marriage with his son.

“True or not, the story shows how significant mithuns are to this society. The tribal chief offered 500 mithuns! Something only an incredibly powerful man could have offered,” laughs Mitra, former director of the National Research Centre on Mithun and currently Animal Husbandry Commissioner with the Union government.

The mithun — steeped in cultural and ritual significance, and consumed for generations across many regions of the Northeast – could be poised for another role in society. With the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) recognising the bovine as a ‘food animal’, starting September 1, work is on to help farmers and tribal village communities benefit commercially from the sale and processing of mithun meat.


A mithun for Rs 2 lakh

The mithun, which goes by its scientific name Bos frontalis, is a ruminant species of the Bovidae family found in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram.

The slaughter of mithuns — an animal that has ritual significance and is also the state animal of both Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland — is traditionally reserved for special occasions, which has in present times come to also include feasts given by election candidates.

At Tening village in Nagaland’s Peren district, Kewiribam’s family has been rearing mithuns for generations, but like many other such farmers, has never sold mithun meat in the market. Last week, however, he was among several mithun farmers from his village who travelled to the town of Medziphema to attend an orientation and five-day training programme at the ICAR-National Research Centre on Mithun on farming the animal and processing its meat.

On an average, an adult mithun weighs between 400 and 650 kg. Kewiribam says a mithun that is 4-5 years of age can be sold for Rs 2 lakh or more, and when sold as meat, can fetch Rs 300 per kg. However, until now, mithuns and their meat were sold only for very special occasions such as festivals or weddings, he says, and that too never outside the radius of a few neighbouring villages.

mithun The slaughter of mithuns is traditionally reserved for special occasions, which has in present times come to also include feasts given by election candidates. (Image credit: ICAR)

Kewiribam says that after receiving training from the ICAR centre, farmers have begun adopting practices to better protect the mithun, including by fencing off mithun enclosures, creating night shelters and vaccinating the animals. “Now, we are excited about the possibilities,” he says.

Is it a cow, buffalo? Not quite

Mitra, the former director of the National Research Centre on Mithun, is fascinated by the bovine. “It is the most dress sensitive animal I have ever seen. They all wear impeccable black coats and white socks,” he jokes.

Traditionally, the mithun is semi-domesticated and is reared in a free-range forest ecosystem. The animal is usually let loose in a community forest and has rarely required shelter or supplementary feeding, except for salt. Since the soil in these parts is acidic and low in salt content, mithuns have an affinity for salt and are known to lick it off the hands of the farmers.

It was this “low input” cost that drew Mitra to the mithun’s latent business potential.

“It has a lot of traditional economic value. Here is an animal that grows from 25 kg to 450 kg without competing for any food from the human basket and with no input. Except salt, it needs nothing else. I realised it had a lot of business potential and the potential to provide nutritional, livelihood and financial security,” he says.

mithun A health camp for mithuns at Thetsumi village, Phek district, Nagaland. (Image credit: ICAR)

The mithun’s striking resemblance to the cow has seen the animal attracting its share of political attention. In 2016, the then Governor of Arunachal Pradesh, Jyoti Prasad Rajkhowa, had referred to a mithun being slaughtered outside the Raj Bhawan, called it “cow slaughter”, and invoked it as a sign of the “collapse of law and order” in the state to recommend President’s Rule.

That same year, Mitra took an appointment with then Nagaland chief minister T R Zeliang to discuss how the mithun could be recognised as a food animal. He later made a presentation before the state Cabinet, and in 2017, the Cabinet under then CM Shurhozelie Liezietsu cleared the proposal, which the ICAR centre then sent to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Over the years, Mitra has also worked towards enabling farmers to take loans for mithun farming, and a mithun insurance scheme.

On September 1, ICAR launched the M-ANITRA app to register mithun farmers as “buyers” and “sellers” with the aim to help them do business at competitive prices. Apart from training farmers such as Kewiribam, the centre has also roped in other stakeholders to be involved in different parts of the supply chain.

As pickle, soups

Bhanu Pratap Singh, founder of the Guwahati-based start-up North East Farm Sales Promotion, is one such stakeholder who is working to market mithun products outside regions where it is traditionally consumed, and to promote it as “premium meat” by underlining its low fat content of 2-4% (it’s around 20 per cent for mutton).

mithun Firms are working to market mithun products such as ready-to-fry wafers and soups. Sourced: Bhanu Pratap Singh

“We have tested it by getting people in Kolkata, Delhi and Hyderabad to try it, and they liked it. So we have come out with six different products including vacuum-packed dry meat, pickle, ready-to-drink soup, ready-to-fry wafers and instant biryani. Now, with FSSAI approval, these can enter the mainstream food market. In the future, we want to promote it as premium meat in the Gulf and Europe, as an alternative to the buffalo meat that India exports,” he says.

Other stakeholders include people such as Alemla Samuel of the Life Ministry Learning Centre in Dimapur. Samuel is being trained in food processing methods at the ICAR centre to carry forward her learning and train village communities.

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“I have already called some farmers and women’s groups, and they were quite excited to hear about this work. What we are not sure about is whether people in other parts of the country will accept the meat. Marketing it outside (the region) was not something we thought about earlier,” she says.

As of 2019, there are around 3.9 lakh mithuns in Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland, Manipur and Mizoram, and its conservation is an area of concern. However, Dr Girish Patil, the current director of ICAR’s Mithun centre, does not see efforts to promote the commercial sale of Mithun meat as being at odds with conservation.

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“Although the mithun population saw a jump of 30% in the last livestock census, its population needs to be further hiked. These developments can actually serve as an incentive to increase the population. As demand for mithun products increases, there is likely to be a greater focus on the propagation and sustainable management of mithun herds… The animal also holds cultural and traditional value for many communities in the region for years. The economic incentive to continue raising the mithun could actually help preserve these practices,” he says.

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