Guardians of crop diversity

Guardians of crop diversity

seed heritage

Guardians of crop diversity

Seed production in Haveri district is not synonymous with hybrid varieties anymore. Indigenous seeds have created ripples in the epicentre of hybrid seed production. The change is visible when one visits some farms in Chinnikatte village in the district. The odour of chemical materials has given way to the scent of organic inputs even as hybrid crops are replaced by traditional ones. Shrenikaraju, a farmer in the village, provides the background, “A couple of decades ago, all the fields in our village were occupied by crops that required heavy chemicals. Later, we became aware of organic farming and with it came the knowledge of indigenous seeds and the concept of community seed banks.”

The concept of community seed banks was introduced in Karnataka in the 1990s. The prime objective was to preserve and revive heritage seeds with stress on local varieties. The factors and circumstances that led to the formation of each seed bank vary considerably — from natural calamities to awareness about the importance of saving seeds. The objectives included collection, production, distribution and exchange of indigenous seeds, promotion of eco-friendly farming methods and the initiation of farm-centric village-level enterprises. Reviving local varieties and making them accessible to farmers also helped achieve nutrition and food security in the villages.

Vibrant efforts
A large number of community seed banks set up in the late 1990s and early 2000s were backed by non-profit organisations. While some of them have endured and are working passionately even now, some have either stopped or limited their activities as they couldn’t make the initiative viable on a long-term basis. In spite of the constraints and limitations, the impact of community seed banks on the farming sector was clearly visible by 2000. By then, the concept had spread far and wide, instilling interest among individual farmers too. As a result, now, most of the vibrant seed conservation efforts in the State are either led by individuals or independent groups.

Consider the case of Anjaneya in Kumbaluru village in Davanagere district. He was forced to think of alternate ways of farming when doctors linked his recurring health problems to overexposure to chemicals. Gradually, as he shifted to chemical-free methods, he realised that high-yielding varieties do not grow well with organic inputs. That was when he started searching for indigenous varieties. In 2006, he managed to collect two varieties of paddy. Realising the advantages of organic farming and the varieties it heralded, other like-minded farmers joined the loop and formed Sharana Muddanna Organic Farmers Group. Now, the seed bank of the group, maintained at Anjaneya’s house, has about 150 varieties of paddy, 40 varieties of millet, 40 vegetable types and 12 green manure varieties.

Apart from safeguarding indigenous varieties, community seed banks also promote seed exchange and research activities. For Boregowda, a farmer in Mandya district, conservation of seeds also meant observing them and experimenting with them. As a result, he has developed two distinct paddy varieties, kanada tumba and siddasanna, which are popular among farmers and consumers. “We exchange knowledge along with seeds,” Boregowda explains, “we share methods of cultivation and ways of disease and pest control.”

Seed conservation has led to farmers’ social and economic empowerment too. The efforts promote participatory activities among farmers and facilitate a network of custodian farmers and other people involved in conservation activities. Papamma, a seed saver in D Kurubarahalli of Kolar district, says that using traditional seeds has brought economic gains to her. She acknowledges the support offered by Grameena Mahila Okkuta and Grama Vikasa that helped her network with like-minded people. Her desire to safeguard seeds has brought her social recognition too. Sanjeevini Organic Farmers Group in Hanumanahalli of Kundagol taluk successfully countered Bt cotton by conserving traditional cotton varieties on farm. Over 70 farmers from three villages are part of this drive. On-farm seed conservation requires skill, passion and dedication. While passion and awareness about the significance of the work sustain most of these efforts, for some, seed conservation becomes a mantra. One such person is Syed Ghani Khan in Mandya district, who has conserved over 700 heritage varieties of paddy, many types of vegetables and legumes, and 120 varieties of mango.

Normally, seed banks either exchange seeds or one has to return double the quantity of the seeds borrowed. In some places, seeds are also sold. Farmers, agricultural research stations and agriculture-related organisations are the major buyers of indigenous seeds. The demand for these seeds has increased with the growing popularity of organic produce. Sahaja Seeds, an enterprise of Bengaluru-based Sahaja Samrudha organisation, is one of the major buyers of indigenous seeds in the State today. Sahaja Samrudha has also been networking individual and group efforts in different parts of the State and facilitating their growth by organising exposure visits and events like seed fairs. Such events have helped mapping and documentation of indigenous seeds in the State.

Challenges ahead
Seed conservation efforts make it a point to document the unique traits of the varieties they have conserved. The properties include appearance, eating qualities, crop duration, tolerance to drought, flood, pests and diseases. In certain instances, documentation of such characters has become a base for the development of a new variety. In most of the seed banks, priority is given to the crops popular in the region. Paddy and millet varieties have caught the imagination of these efforts along with vegetables and pulses. Farmers gladly recall instances of reviving nearly-forgotten traditional varieties.

Nonetheless, seed savers face technical and operational challenges while producing and storing seeds. Production of quality seed, maintaining purity (both physical and genetic) and ensuring the viability of stored seed are crucial for the success of any seed bank. All these require a proper understanding of the complexities of seed production and a certain level of technical expertise to handle different stages of the cycle like seed management, crop selection, proper nurturing, seed collection, storage and regeneration.

Krishna Prasad, director, Sahaja Samrudha says, “Proper training and skill development are necessary to sustain a seed bank. Though many seed banks have been set up under different government schemes, they lack support and thus, do not endure.”

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