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Cultivating diversity

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

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A mosaic of traditional seeds from Andhra Pradesh.-ASHISH KOTHARI

A mosaic of traditional seeds from Andhra Pradesh.-ASHISH KOTHARI

There is an urgent need to accord recognition to the traditional wisdom of farmers who persist with retaining biodiversity in agricultural practices in the face of the aggressive promotion of monoculture systems through incentives and subsidies.

IN the dry Deccan area of Andhra Pradesh, Dalit women farmers have surprised fellow villagers, local officials and visitors with the sheer diversity of the seeds they have conserved and the variety of crops they have been growing. Be it the 20 varieties of crops in Gangwar Maneamma's farm or the 62 seed varieties that Begari Laxmamma has saved, both represent their sheer belief in their heritage.

The Chattisgarh rice controversy was in the news not so long ago (Frontline, January 31). If the `collaborative' research project had come through, it would have entailed the transfer of the rice germplasm collection with the Indira Gandhi Agricultural University at Raipur to the laboratories of Syngenta Corporation. The collection is the result of years of work by Dr. R.H. Richharia, who put it together with the consent of the farmers concerned. In the debate on the issue of ownership rights, one of the more important facts that came to light was the presence of around 24,000 rice samples in India (with 19,000 traditional varieties).

In the campaign against mining above Kataldi village in the Tehri-Garhwal Himalayas, one of the major points of contention was the long-term impact of the activity of the biodiversity of agricultural fields. An important water source that irrigates the farms would be disturbed by the mining activity. And in turn, what would have been affected would be the 100 traditional varieties of rajma, millets and other crops that local farmers grow in their fields. This is the same area where farmers have adopted the unique and highly evolved Baranaja ("12 crops") system. In the same area, the efforts of the Beej Bachao Andolan (Save the Seeds Movement) have helped conserve and promote agricultural diversity.

Agricultural diversity is not confined to Chattisgarh, Garhwal or the Deccan area. It is a heritage that farmers across the country have retained. They have, for generations, cultivated, conserved and celebrated the agro-biodiversity in their fields.

Sometimes one wonders why, especially because neither policies nor schemes have helped promote agro biodiversity for a long time now. Despite limited subsidies and incentives, why have farmers in many parts of the country not adopted the monoculture (single cropping) system?

P.V. Satheesh of the Deccan Development Society points to some of the reasons in a newspaper article. The article, among other things, highlights the fact that diversity of crops helps maintain soil fertility, which means insurance against crop failure (if one crop fails, there is another as a back-up).

One of the most important reasons why farmers have stuck to agro-biodiveristy in the farms is that it provides food security. As Satheesh's article says, one crop or the other is ready for consumption at any given time of the year. Moreover, it provides variety to ensure balance in the nutritional intake. And, as has been the experience all over the world, ensuring agro-biodiversity in the farms is the most ecologically sustainable form of agriculture.

It is important to mention at this point that the popular belief that new, high-yielding varieties of seeds are far more productive than the traditional varieties is not always true.

A study conducted in 1992-93 by Navdanya of traditional varieties of rice (as reported in the Draft National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan) grown in the Garhwal area of the Himalayas showed "a combined output of rice and straw equal to 17,600 kg a hectare (7,200 kg of grain and 10,400 kg of straw) in case of some varieties (such as Jhumkya) while the highest-yielding varieties such as Saket showed yields of only 13,200 kg (6,200 kg of grain and 6,400 kg of straw)."

However, the results of the homogenisation of agriculture, that is market-oriented cultivation, over the past few decades present a not-so-pleasant picture in many parts of the country. While the overall fertility of soil has gone down in some cases, in some others the promotion of rice and wheat has led to the decline of crops such as groundnut and millets. This promotion has been enhanced through the current pattern of the Public Distribution System, which does not encourage the distribution of millets and other `coarse' grains, which are high in nutrition. These are crops that thrive in the fields of Dalit farmers in the Zaheerabad region of Andhra Pradesh, are promoted by farmers of the Beej Bachao Andolan in Garhwal, and are respected and grown in almost all parts of the country, especially by the poor, Adivasi and Dalit farmers. In fact, farmers from Zaheerabad call these `satyam pantalu' (crops of truth), a powerful imagery to signify the fact that these crops grow with virtually no inputs at all, surviving on the available sub-soil moisture, as has been argued in the book Crops of Truth, a compilation based on the farmers' perception of agro-biodiversity in the region. This is what makes one question the need to change the course of rivers (as in the case of the mega proposal of interlinking of rivers) to solve the problems of farmers in the country. What is needed is to go back to such area-specific biodiverse agricultural practices, and facilitate them in all possible ways. As they require very little energy and irrigation input, they present solutions to the two major crises facing Indian agriculture today, that is, of water and power.

As part of the three-and-a-half-year-old National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan process of the Ministry of Environment and Forests, all the States have attempted to look at biodiversity in both wild and cultivated forms. The Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plans (BSAPs) have looked at both positive and negative realities of the States and subsequently presented action plans to deal with them. All this is now being put together at the national level in the form of a National Action Plan (NAP).

The BSAP for Punjab presents the following picture for the area under coverage and production of some crops in the State. These figures are as they have been presented in the NAP.

THE BSAP for West Bengal, based on a survey conducted in all the 18 districts of the State, states that in the post-Independence phase, it is the production of `minor' crops, which are not considered `economically' important, that has gone down. The BSAP mentions that the progenitor of cultivated maize, which existed in Sikkim and Darjeeling hills along with the Assam hills, has been lost. Of the five minor millets such as ragi, cheena, kaon, gundli and sawan, only two, that is, ragi and kaon, have survived.

Reactions against genetically modified crops present yet another set of arguments. On the one hand, there is the question of such modification threatening the sheer biodiversity of crops by subjecting them to monoculture or crop failure after a few years of use. On the other, there is the issue of farmers losing their traditional control over the seeds that they are free to use in their farms. The seed, which not only bring income to families, but also provides food security, would then be part of the market. This is only a mere glimpse of the array of issues related to agro-biodiveristy.

Farmers with crop diversity in their fields present lessons that can prove to be solutions to the issues of production, distribution and food security. We need to build upon their traditional wisdom, which even now is demanding recognition.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Oct 10, 2003.)

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