Seeds of biodiversity

Print edition : June 08, 2002

A Paris-based agency comes to India with a large variety of traditional seeds and the message of seed conservation.

IT was started in France in 1991 as a botanical garden for aromatic and medicinal plants. Now it is Europe's best-known non-governmental organisation working for seed conservation.

Dominique Guillet at a workshop organised by Annadana at Auroville, Pondicherry.-KEYA ACHARYA

Kokopelli sells at cheap rates traditional seeds of over 1,500 vegetables and medicinal plants to 15 European countries through a network of NGOs, city councils, universities and individuals and distributes these free of cost to countries in Africa and Asia. And now 49-year-old Dominique Guillet, the founder of Kokopelli, has landed his seeds in India. "We want to get the seed out of the commercial concept for poor farmers," he says. Half the world's seed market is controlled through patents by 10 large transnational corporations, which also own over 60 per cent of the chemical sector that includes fertilizer, pesticide and pharmaceuticals manufacturers, he says.

Monsanto, the controversial United States-based multinational seeds and biotech products company, is believed to be looking towards the water and agriculture sectors in India. Its managing director, Robert Farley, is quoted by activists working against genetically modified (GM) plants as saying: "What you are seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies; it's really a consolidation of the entire food chain since water is essential to life."

In an attempt to counter this, Dominique Guillet and his colleagues, agriculturists Bernard and Stephane, have begun a movement called Annadana (the gift of food). They function from a four-acre section of the 50 acres that was purchased by Auroville, a spiritual centre near Pondicherry, two years ago in a bid to regain natural lands that are being flattened by real estate developers.

Since 2000, this Aurovillean movement has supplied free of cost some 50,000 packets of the traditional seeds of vegetables such as brinjal and tomato to NGOs, farmers' networks and Tibetan settlements in India, Sri Lanka and Nepal. All these seeds are organic, obtained from an 'open-pollination' or open-air natural method of pollination environment.

A small but gradually growing number of traditional "seeders" are worried about food security. Poor farmers are unable to afford expensive seeds and their households need traditional varieties as food and as a source of nutrition. With the government promoting only hybridised agriculture through its system of subsidies, the neglect of traditional staples such as millet and sorghum or of non-hybridised vegetables has led to their gradual disappearance.

In Andhra Pradesh, the process of disappearance was speeded up by the State government's Rs.2-a-kg rice scheme, which made the poor, mainly Dalits, disinterested in cultivation. As a result, over 1,000 hectares of land lay fallow. The Deccan Development Society is now highlighting its alternative decentralised PDS (public distribution system) in Medak district. This subsidy-free ration card system, funded by the Union Ministry of Rural Development, is run by women.

Under the scheme, Women's Sanghas (groups) financially supported their members to grow jowar on fallow lands held by the community. Fixed quantities of grain went as loan repayment into a Community Grain Fund. The grain thus collected forms the PDS pool. It is sold to village residents who are its members, at Rs.3 a kg.

In Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal, the Agriculture Department hands out to farmers promotional kits complete with urea and other fertilizers. "It is very difficult to spread the idea of organic seeds because of the government's mindset, coupled with the massive spraying of apple orchards, which destroys all ground-soil crops," says Ajay Rastogi of Ecoserve, Almora.

Samples of seeds that sustain a tribal community.-KEYA ACHARYA

Madhya Pradesh's Biodiversity Board, seen as an example of the political will of the State, does not enthuse its seed- saving citizens, however. Though Madhya Pradesh still has a rich receptacle of biodiversity, efforts to save indigenous plants and seeds are sporadic and inconsistent, with no impetus from the Biodiversity Board, says a seed-saver from Indore.

Seed-savers in Uttar Pradesh have had better results in saving traditional oilseeds, pulses and herbs. The Kisan Vigyan Kendra, an NGO, has worked out a model for multiplication based on a survey and a seed collection drive in 40 districts in the Bundelkhand region.

Karnataka's conservation movement, organised through NGOs and research institutions, is "insignificant compared to the trend towards commercialised crops", says Sunita Rao of Kalpavriksh. In 2001, Sunita Rao began documenting, networking and distributing over 140 organically grown vegetable and flower seeds in Uttara Kannada district. "Any biodiversity conservation in genetic resources must endorse the role of women and their home garden," she says.

Whether seeds obtained from an open-pollination environment are capable of producing as much as hybrids or GM seeds is debatable, but most people agree on the high nutritional value and taste of organically grown vegetables. "India has lost over 50 per cent of paddy varieties because of modern agricultural methods, which use seeds not to meet the farmers' needs or to improve quality or productivity, but to enslave them to the vested interests of the seed industry," says Bernard.

All these efforts to conserve traditional seeds are now being incorporated into the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan (NBSAP) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests (Frontline, February 2, 2001). The plan, coordinated by Kalpavriksh, envisages garnering traditional seeds with a view to conserving indigenous sources and saving the livelihoods and food security of small farmers and marginalised people. The Ministry hopes that its action plan will be strengthened by the Biodiversity Act, recently approved by Parliament.

The idea of modernising traditional methods has evoked divergent responses. The mainstream school of thought believes that India will lose out if it does not incorporate genetic agricultural technology. Another opinion is that traditional organic agriculture does offer food security to the very poor that modern agriculture is meant to benefit. What remains to be effected is an integrated 'golden mean'.

This article was written on the basis of research undertaken under an NBSAP-linked media fellowship granted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests.

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