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


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