Saturday, April 12, 2014


Suman Sahai

There is a view that the Brazilian model of sugar cane based ethanol is what we should follow for transportation. But is ethanol a viable alternative fuel for India as it is for Brazil ? India first promoted an ethanol blending policy in 2002, making  it mandatory for oil providers to blend  oil with five percent ethanol.  This policy never took off since there are fundamental problems with it which cannot be wished away with the pronouncement of an inadequately thought through diktat.  India’s production of ethanol is based on sugarcane. Its production of a little over 2000 million liters annually is claimed mainly by two sectors, the manufacturers of  IMFL(Indian Made Foreign Liquor ) and  the chemical industry. The ethanol production in India is simply not enough to satisfy the demands of the liquor and chemical industry and also provide ethanol for five percent blending . This and the fact that sugar cane production fluctuates greatly from year to year, are  the principal reasons why  the government’s  ethanol blending policy has not taken off.

Brazil’s ethanol production stands at about 23 to 24 billion litres annually ,roughly ten times what India produces . This is more than enough to  satisfy its  diverse domestic  needs, divert  ethanol as fuel  and leave over enough to export to other countries like India.  Brazil with a land mass of over 8.5 million square km is more than twice the size of the Indian land mass at 3.2 million square km. The population of Brazil at 198 million, is a fraction of India’s 1.24 billion and growing population which needs substantial amounts of  land and water to produce food.

Most significantly, Brazil’s water resources are enormous, of central importance  for a water guzzling crop like sugar cane.  To compare at the level of river basin volume, as an indicator of water availability, Brazil has a total river basin volume of  over 11 million square km whereas  India’s river basin volume  stands at some 3 million square km.  The fact is that India’s sugar cane production is largely based on ground water which is being overexploited, with many ground water blocks having become critical. 

In addition to its huge advantage with natural resources,  Brazil also has a very small population compared to India. It is a percentage of this small population  that is the consumer  of ethanol biofuels.  India’s  large population base  would  have a much greater demand for ethanol as fuel . Can India divert more land and water  to increase sugar cane production for ethanol  to satisfy its ethanol needs  without coming into conflict with its food and nutrition needs ?

To suggest that India should follow Brazil’s ethanol example, is to turn a blind eye to India’s ground realities. Most notably, India’s grinding poverty ,its shocking levels of hunger and malnutrition (India is home to the largest number of hungry and malnourished people in the world), must force us to stop and reflect on the way we should use our land and water. Should these critical resources be used to  grow more food or should the land and water be diverted to the production of sugarcane for ethanol for cars.

Clearly, ethanol cannot be a long term or sustainable  option for India, nor for that matter , can Jatropha derived diesel .Any source of alternative fuel that will work ,  can only be one that does  not divert land and water from the production of food and  maintaining the integrity  of ecosystems and biodiversity. However, before introducing an alternative plan, we must realize that the most logical way for India to reduce its dependence on imported oil and  minimize the pollution from fossil fuel combustion is to rationalize its system of transportation.  The proposal favoring public transport over private transport will always remain valid because it is the only sustainable way of transportation. The bane of our transportation system is following the American model of personal motorized transport  without having America’s resources .  The number of personal cars that are allowed on to the road every month, in one city alone,  is unsustainable for the planet and  a  recipe for global disaster.

India has access to at least two  sources of viable energy for transportation. The first is solar energy , abundant and free which remains  practically unexploited barring primitive solar heaters  and solar light panels. The other really promising option is more high tech, to produce alcohol by fermenting algae.  Algal oil and alcohol along with solar generated power is the way forward for alternative fuels. Algae can produce up to 300 times more oil per unit area than crops such as sugarcane or Jatropha. As algae have a short life cycle, they can be harvested every  1–10 days. Sugarcane takes the best lands, masses of water  and blocks the farmer’s land for almost a year. 

Algae can be grown in open ponds or bioreactors which are just plastic or glass containers through which nutrient rich water is pumped. The water can be brackish or wastewater, fresh water is not required. And algae yield two types of biofuels. The lipid, or oily part can be used to produce biodiesel and  the carbohydrate in the algae biomass can be fermented into bioethanol and biobutanol. This is a promising way to move ahead.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Custodian Farmers are the real Seed Saviors

Suman Sahai

Biodiversity and traditional seeds are being rapidly lost in all countries of the world. The reason for this erosion of genetic diversity is the promotion of intensive agriculture relying overwhelmingly on high yielding varieties. The Green Revolution is the greatest culprit for genetic erosion. Government policies while actively promoting the Green Revolution, paid little attention to the conservation of traditional seeds even though the two could have gone hand in hand.

Nevertheless there are many farmers in developing countries that still cultivate traditional varieties, though they too are shifting to high yielding varieties when they get a chance. Farmers in rainfed areas, marginal lands not suited to intensification or special eco niches like regions with brackish water, such as the Sunderbans, continue to rely on traditional varieties.

Such farmers maintain a number of different varieties of many crops, including staples like rice. India which is the birth place of rice was once home to almost 200000 varieties, with a range of different properties. Farmers maintained these because they provided a choice of seeds to cope with different weather conditions like the timing of the monsoon, type of soil, location of the farm etc.

Apart from farmers who maintain traditional crop varieties because it helps them adapt to local ecosystems and weather conditions, there are also those who maintain a diversity of cultivars out of pure interest and passion. Called “Custodian Farmers”, these are the real seed saviors. They  develop & maintain  agricultural biodiversity  and also share this with other farmers. These seed saviors are high on skills and unlike the farmers who practice intensive agriculture, they  are knowledgeable about their varieties and know how and where these cultivars can be adapted.

Farmers who conserve a variety of seeds automatically become an integral part of the informal seed system since with their knowledge,  they can recommend varieties for specific conditions. They are aware of local preferences and promote the conservation and use of local diversity among their friends and neighbors for the sheer joy of it. Such sharing of seeds and planting material like cuttings, runners, buds  and grafts is not monetized within the locality although planting material may be made available to outsiders for a price.

The fruit orchards, especially of mangoes, belonging to the landed aristocracy were a treasure trove of diversity. Mangoes of different colors and shapes, tastes and aromas have been conserved in these orchards for generations. The saviors and keepers of this diversity were more the orchard keepers and gardeners than their masters.

Seed saviors are found in all kinds of agro ecosystems, usually in tropical countries where they are conserving seeds of all kinds of cereals, fruits and vegetables. Now, the trend to save old varieties is becoming increasingly popular in the industrial countries too as people have become wary of the consolidation of the seed industry in the hands of a few companies.  These companies armed with seed patents are pushing a few commercially popular varieties, neglecting the rest. Seed saver networks have sprung up in Europe and the USA, most specializing in the conservation of heritage seeds which are the older varieties that have fallen into disuse.  

National and International Seed Saviors

Not just individual farmers and communities, a chain of national and international gene banks have been established as global seed saviours. For example, the International Rice Research Institute  (IRRI) in Los Banos , Philippines conserves all the rice varieties of the world, as Cymmit in Mexico does for wheat. The International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA) conserves over 135,000 seed samples of wheat, barley, oats and other cereals; food legumes such as faba bean, chickpea, lentil and field pea; forage and rangelean crops, as well as the wild relatives of each of these species. Similarly ICRISAT (International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics) in Hyderabad saves several thousand seed samples of chickpea, pigeonpea, ground nut, pearl millet, sorghum and little millets.

The world’s most dramatic seed saving set up, atleast its most  talked of, lies in the Norwegian town of Svalbard , north of the Arctic Circle. Often referred to as the ‘Doomsday Vault’, the Svalbard seed bank is supposed to protect the world’s seed collection from the most terrible disasters that can befall , hence the name “Doomsday Vault’. The Svalbard bank as it is planned will eventually conserve a sample from all the collections currently housed in more than 1400 gene banks across the world. The reasoning is that if disaster strikes any one or more of the banks, the seed material will not be lost since it will be backed up in the bomb proof bunker built some 400 feet inside a Norwegian mountain covered in permafrost.

Chang La
To match the effort in Europe, Indian authorities are going ahead with the construction of a similar permafrost gene- seed bank in Chang La in Ladakh. At a height of over 17,500 feet, The Chang La gene bank is about 75km from Leh and is under the stewardship of the Defense Institute of High Altitude Research. Intended to be a national conservation centre initially, it is proposed to make available the Chang La gene bank for the seed collections of developing and developed countries. Chang La's permafrost conditions, low  humidity and temperatures generally below - 18 degrees Celsius are ideally suited to conserving seeds at low temperature without the energy costs.

More than apocalyptic calamities like cyclones, hurricanes or bombs , the world’s genetic material and its seeds are threatened steadily by a warming planet and consequent change in the climate. So saving seed collections in Svalbard and Chang La is  of great significance.

Gene Campaign as Seed Savior

In 2008, Gene Campaign along with the farmers that it works with in Jharkhand, received India’s Genome Savior Award. This award recognizes seed saviors, those who conserve traditional seed varieties. Gene Campaign has been working in Jharkhand and Uttarakhand for the last several years, conserving traditional varieties of rice, millets, legumes, vegetables and oilseeds. A special focus is the conservation of rice since India is its Center of Origin and the place where the greatest genetic diversity of rice is found.

Traditional crop varieties from farmer’s fields are collected and the knowledge of the farm family is documented along with the seed sample.  The Gene Campaign collection consists of about 900 rice varieties from Jharkhand, Orissa, Chattisgarh, West Bengal and Assam. The seed samples are scientifically processed and conserved in community managed, field level gene-seed banks.

Zero Energy Gene Seed Banks
Unlike the cold gene banks of the formal system, Gene Campaign’s , Zero Energy Gene Seed Banks have no energy costs. Because these  banks are located in the village, they are owned by the people. Village youth committees supervised by village elders run the banks.. The seed in the bank is accessed every season by the farmers who return three times the seed they take,  when their harvest comes in. The core collection is multiplied in carefully designed plots in farmers’ fields, monitored by trained village youth and Gene Campaign staff.

Seed renewal to maintain viability          

Viability of the seeds is maintained by growing them out each year and returning the fresh seed to the Banks. This routine exposes the varieties to the current climate, helping them to adjust and adapt. The seed material that is returned to the bank after every grow-out season is adapted to the environment, which includes the climate as well as pests and disease. The material frozen in the cold gene bank does not get a chance to adapt to the local climate and when it is taken out at a time of crisis, it may or may not have the adaptive capacity to provide an efficient crop under the prevailing conditions.
In the short term the Gene-Seed banks serve as a seed source for farmers who can access seed adapted to local conditions. They are also a repository of Farmer Varieties, which are being registered with the National Plant Variety Authority.

Seed Saviors are specialists
Rather than just conservers of diversity, many farmers who conserve traditional seeds and planting materials, see themselves as specialists and tend to conserve varieties with unique traits. It is a good thing they are recognized as leaders by their communities and accorded the respect that they deserve. It is high time the scientific community accorded them similar respect and provided them a place in decision making about agriculture and the direction it should take.

If the formal system can find the wisdom to support the women and men that conserve special genetic diversity, it could become the beneficiary of immense wisdom and a cornucopia of genes that will keep food production viable in the face of all kinds of challenges. It will also make our food baskets rich and diverse and make available to us an assortment of delicious and nutritious foods.

In The Hindu, Survey of Indian Agriculture, 2014