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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 1 New Delhi December 23, 2017 - Annual Number

In Search of Lost Seeds

Sunday 24 December 2017

by Bharat Dogra and Madhu Dogra

The steep trek to the home of Kunwar Prasun in a Himalayan village had been difficult to negotiate but once we reached there a cool breeze and beautiful surroundings quickly made us forget all the tiredness. We walked to a field where Prasun and his wife, Ranjana, had been trying to grow some traditional varieties of rice which he had searched and found with a lot of difficulty. He intended to share these seeds with other farmers so that they can also grow these varieties and these can be saved in the fields of farmers.

“Seeds cannot be saved by just keeping them in gene banks,” Prasun told us. “The most sustainable and trusted solution is to make them available in the fields of farmers so that these are saved on farms and farmers also benefit.”

We were standing near a small terraced farm in Rampur village of Tehri Garhwal district of Uttarakhand. Prasun explained that here, as in other villages, the diversity of traditional seeds had eroded rapidly as the government policy in recent years had favoured exotic varieties with a narrow genetic base. Hence there were concerns that many traditional varieties which had evolved for their special suitability for this region may be lost for ever.

This valley of Henval river is well known as an important action scene of the Chipko movement for saving trees. Some of the senior activists of this movement like Kunwar Prasun, Vijay Jardhari and their teacher, Dhum Singh Negi, got together to start the Save the Seeds Movement (Beej Bachao Aandolan). They organised foot-marches to several remote villages. These helped to spread the message of saving threatened seed varieties. Some seeds were shared with local farmers and the seeds found here were collected.

Back at his home, after a delicious meal of red beans and rice, we sat down to study the careful documentation of nearly 300 rice varieties of Uttarakhand which Prasun had prepared after visiting very remote villages and talking to countless farmers, including a large number of women farmers. This included information about special merits and other characteristics of these varieties. Clearly this information was very important for saving threatened seeds. We later helped to publish this documentation so that it could become more accessible to people. Prasun told us that in some remote villages he had found farmers cultivating very delicious and nourishing varieties while in some places the yield was found to be exceptionally high without using chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

Early next morning we left for Nagni village which is close to the Jardhar village of Vijay Jardhari. Here Vijay with his wife, Kamla, had been trying to grow several threatened traditional varieties of various crops. They told us that traditional varieties of as many as a dozen crops are sown together in an intricate mixed cropping system which has evolved over several generations in keeping with the nutritional needs as well as the soil, water and climate situation.

One crop which takes nutrients from the soil is complemented by another one which gives nutrients to the soil. Many types of highly nutritious foods become available from a small plot of land. The creepers of some of the crops can get the support of tall stalks of some other crops.

Despite the great utility of such a system, some officials were insisting that this should be given up in favour of the monoculture cropping pattern. This would have led to heavy erosion of diverse traditional crops and their numerous varieties. Understandably, this official stand was strongly resisted by the Beej Bachao Aandolan. Subsequently the government also accepted the stand of the Save the Seeds Movement to a considerable extent but initially the conflict of the two views was sharp.

When we researched this issue in detail we found that while overall government policies in many countries including India are not helpful for onfield protection of diversity of traditional seeds, several scientists have been raising their voice to warn about the dangers of rapid erosion of seed diversity. They have said that if this continues then one day genetic diversity, most needed for ensuring food security, will simply not be available, or else will be available only in corporate controlled gene banks which will use this with a heavy profit-orientation to suit their narrow ends.

Dr R.H. Richaria is one such scientist who has increasingly emphasised the importance of saving diverse traditional varieties of rice as well as expressed concern over their rapid erosion and loss to narrow control by a few international agencies, in turn linked to corporate control. He was earlier the Director of the Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack, and later the Director of the Madhya Pradesh Rice Research Institute, Raipur.

After losing both his senior jobs due to his spirited stand on protecting the interests of farmers based on protecting the seeds evolved by several generations of farmers, this never-to-be-defeated scientist has continued his research efforts at his own farm near his home in Bhopal and in addition he is trying hard to complete his documentation of over 17,000 varieties and cultivars of rice mainly of Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and nearby areas.

Visits to his home and farm were invaluable for understanding the importance of saving seed-diversity, and when he honoured us with a return visit, we could add further to our understanding of this important issue. Briefly the conclusion of this eminent scientist, who was amongst the first and the youngest to get his doctorate in Botany from Cambridge in record time, was that in keeping with diverse conditions very diverse varieties of rice have evolved over many generations thanks to the efforts of many experienced and committed farmers with a lot of knowledge of local seeds. It is this indigenous germ plasm which should be used for ensuring good and secure rice cultivation.

On the other hand, most problems in rice cultivation have arisen, this eminent scientist said, because this advice has been ignored time and again. He said that farmers having good knowledge of these indigenous seeds should be involved to work closely with farm scientists in a highly decentralised system of agricultural development in which scientists are very close to farmers and there is mutual learning particularly with respect to local seed diversity.

In this system the work of saving seed diversity for now and for future generations is very well integrated with the overall agricultural development effort and there is a lot of scope of utilising and benefiting from the knowledge of local villagers. After some time we could put his ideas and experiences in the form of a book so that these can be accessed conveniently by more people.

A lot of the exciting research work of Dr Richaria had taken place in Chhattisgarh. Later an organisation, Rupantar, tried to implement a seed conservation and farm development effort based on his ideas in the Nagri Sihwa region of Chhattisgarh. Two demonstration-cum-seed multiplication farms were set up here. Nearly 270 varieties of rice were being grown here. By pure line selection good quality seeds were obtained so that farmers in several villages could be self-reliant in good quality seeds.

This work was being taken forward by Dr Binayak Sen and Dr Ilina Sen helped by a young botanist, Suresh Sahu. A visit to this site revealed that it was progressing very well up to a point but when the authorities became very unhelpful towards Rupantar, this work could not progress beyond a point.

However, in recent times more efforts of saving traditional seeds are being made as consciousness about the need for such efforts has increased. Some encouraging efforts from Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and other parts of the country have been reported.

There was ample evidence of this at the recently organised Organic World Congress at greater NOIDA near Delhi. It was the first time that this important international event on organic farming was organised in Delhi. Many visitors said that the most vibrant part of this event was the section on seed conservation and protection efforts. Several organisations which are engaged in this work in various parts of the country had set up their stalls here and they attracted a lot of attention and there took place interactions with visitors. The participants could also learn much from each other’s experience.

Many of them are members of the Beej Swaraj Manch, an alliance of several such seed protectors in different parts of the country. This alliance brings together the interests of seed conservation and protection, farmer rights over seeds and seed exchange, eco-friendly and self-reliant farming.

Such alliances and organisations of seed diversity protectors will be called upon to play an increasingly important role as at the international level the seed industry is getting more and more concentrated and only stronger mobilisation of farmers and seed protectors at the grassroots can salvage the cause of protecting and saving traditional seed diversity and free access of farmers to this diversity.

The authors are freelance contributors with a special interest in development and social issues.

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