For a long time, seeds have held the attentions of poets and technologists alike. They conceal within their tiny bodies the magic of life, and across cultures are celebrated as symbols of revival, resilience and prosperity. In agriculture, everything begins and ends with the seed.
Farmers' freedom to save, propagate and share their seeds freely year after year was the cornerstone of sustainable food systems that protected them from hunger, and the ecosystems they depended on from the vagaries of climate change. To a traditional farmer, seeds stood for self-reliance and security. In India, known to have once been home to over 100,000 varieties of rice alone, seed autonomy made a farmer the keeper of a small part of a priceless genetic heritage.
But things changed for the newly independent nation. The Green Revolution, disguised as a silver bullet, promised to boost farm productivity and end the widespread hunger the country was facing. The Green Revolution’s credo - to make India self-sufficient again - was to be realised with a package of high-yielding varieties of seeds, heavy doses of chemical inputs, and intensive irrigation. It did temporarily lift India out of its ship-to-mouth status by liberating it from dependence on food aid. But today, the legacy of the Green Revolution lies in India’s ‘paradox of plenty’ - a crisis marked by crippling losses of agro-biodiversity, ever-mounting farmer debt, declining soil and water quality and growing hunger.
“If we grow just one crop, where will we get the rest of our food from?”
Dr Vanaja Ramprasad is a veteran seed conservationist and founder of GREEN Foundation who spent close to 30 years promoting farmer sovereignty and sustainable farming practices. GREEN is a community-based organisation that facilitates the conservation of indigenous seed varieties, revival of native agricultural expertise and biodiversity-based farming to improve nutrition security among small and marginal rain-fed farmers in Karnataka.
As monocultures of hybridised rice and wheat began blanketing the country, control over land, livelihood and seeds was wrested from the small farmer. “The practice of saving seeds from one year to the next became irrelevant because farmers were required to grow high-yielding varieties by buying seeds anew every season," Ramprasad says - a move from seed freedom to monopoly control. With the arrival of GM technology which manipulated the very genetic makeup of seeds, their status changed from carriers of life and sustenance to commodities to be traded for profit. It shifted the control over food, its production and exchange from the local level to the global. In such a food system, the value of indigenous knowledge and skills developed over centuries of farmer-crop coevolution was superseded by market logic and capital flows.
Since the 1900s, FAO estimates, there has been huge genetic erosion from farmers' fields as they shifted from growing multiple landraces to a few, modern high-yielding varieties. Today, most of the world’s food originates from 12 plants and 5 animal species. Of the tens of thousands of edible plant species that exist, only 150-200 are used by us. But, genetic homogeneity was not always the norm; multi-cropping was the backbone of traditional agriculture because it offered nutritional diversity and resilience against climate change. If a six-month crop failed, farmers had a fast-maturing, two-month crop that would feed the family.
Nutritional security was also provided by a diet that included many different local and seasonal, often wild foods, before plates across the country started looking the way they do today - homogenous and dominated by Green Revolution grains. "During the monsoon, Ramprasad explains, "several plants grow uncultivated alongside the crops. She recalls how an old lady gathered 60 or 70 such plants and demonstrated how they could be used in preparing food and medicines, and for ethno-veterinary practice. To modern agriculture, these plants are 'weeds' to be destroyed.
“Women decide how much food is needed for the house, what festivals are to celebrated, and how many varieties of crops they require.”
Traditionally, women were the custodians of seeds. They were repositories of knowledge about which plants would yield the best seeds, how to best collect and preserve the seeds; they determined the rhythms of sowing and harvesting, and decided what would be eaten by the family and what would be stored for re-sowing. Their control over seeds made women guardians of agricultural biodiversity, sustainable resource use and nutrition security at the level of the family and collectively, at the national level. When crops began flowering, women observed them for various qualities: resistance to pests and pathogens, adaptability to soil, water and climate, grain size, and amount of fodder, selecting and saving only the seeds that met their exacting standards. Because they had picked seeds from plants they preferred, farmers could be more or less sure of how the new crop would react, say to disease or untimely rainfall. With commercial seeds, uncertainty is high because no such information is available to the farmer - one of the reasons for the tragic rise in farmer suicides.
Seeds were also preserved as commons, not commodities to be sold for profit. The annual safeguarding and free exchange of seeds played a vital role in ensuring that every farming family had food to eat during dry or lean periods. But, the arrival of proprietary hybrids and changes in cultivation techniques made plant reproduction big business, putting an end to conservation practices built over generations.
“With indigenous varieties, excess seeds can be used for home consumption; this is not possible with packet seeds.”
GREEN Foundation began in 1992 as a response to declining agro-diversity and loss of seed freedom among the farmers of Karnataka. It started simply: 5 rural women, a fistful of seeds, a small patch of land and a cattle shed. The group organised seed melas, encouraging surrounding farmers to bring whatever desi seeds they had, rewarding those who brought the most. They found the number of indigenous seeds of locally-suited crops such as ragi and several vegetables had all but disappeared. Seeds that were collected were brought back and multiplied and stored by the women. It was tough work, Ramprasad says, to go against the tide when the scientific community was convinced of the magic of HYV seeds.
But their efforts paid off: in a few years, the team along with the participating farmers had saved more than a 100 varieties of seeds of millets, oilseeds and dryland paddy on their experimental plots. “For ragi alone, we had 49 varieties and 70 to 80 varieties of paddy that farmers were given to cultivate,” Ramprasad says. As more women joined the movement, the message of seed saving, cooking with 'lost' foods, organic agriculture, and soil and water conservation spread.
In 1994, GREEN’s first community-run seed bank was born. It was a place where indigenous seeds could be stored, exchanged and borrowed by interested farmers without having to wait in long lines or pay steep prices. Farmers gained access to high-quality seeds locally on the condition that they returned twice the quantity borrowed. GREEN also helped landless labourers set up kitchen gardens where they could grow food and produce seeds for sale in the seed bank. Farmers like Hombalamma whose fields had become unproductive with years of commercial seeds and chemical inputs could now hope to improve soil fertility and grow a sizeable variety of crops. “The men of the village were initially against the idea of a seed bank," Ramprasad recalls, but a drought in 1995 claimed all the high-yielding varieties, not the indigenous ones. That changed everything.
“Modern scientists compare high-yielding variety seeds with indigenous ones on the single parameter of yields; farmers have 13 distinct criteria for ranking crop varieties.”
In 2006, with the establishment of a farmers’ federation called Janadhanya, many women farmers became entrepreneurs working collectively at the village level to conserve agro-biodiversity, promote seed banks, and provide market linkages for farmer produce. Many of the early members of GREEN emerged as leaders who travelled to other parts of the state to spread the message of desi seeds and a reversal to traditional farming practices. Today, GREEN’s mission is carried out in partnership with a network of organisations working with small and marginal farmers across Karnataka.
"It is self-defeating myth that the industrial system of fossil-fuel based farming and genetic engineering technologies alone will save the world," Ramprasad argues. The way crops are being selected and grown today is ecologically unsustainable, with no thought for farmers’ knowledge or the country’s future, only a demand for increased yields. That’s why we see that despite knowledge of climate-smart alternatives, rice which is not an aquatic crop, is most commonly grown inundated in water since the Green Revolution. Or why this system of doubling ragi yields with local seeds has not caught on faster.
On the bright side, initiatives to strengthen farmers' right to patent-free seeds that they can independently regenerate are picking up steam all over India. They may vary in scale and impact but are united by the belief that the best way to defend indigenous seeds is to bypass the market and put control over food back in the hands of the farmer. Here, the very act of distributing seeds, exchanging them, harvesting them from the plant, and returning them to the ground is a subversive one. These movements offer an alternative to the dominant approach to agriculture - an alternative founded on centuries of accumulated knowledge of responsible human interaction with natural resources. Faced with growing unpredictability - climatic and economic - learning to revalue regenerative farming practices and democratic food systems could be what separates us from a truly sustainable food future.
Featured image: Source
Maya is a social researcher by training. Her writing has appeared in Scroll, YourStory and The Alternative. She is the Founder of Eartha and tweets @Maya_Kilpadi.