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How traditional seeds can make agriculture climate resilient

Climate change is known to hit crop productivity in the years to come, and native seeds may provide an answer; Setting up a network of indigenous seed banks at the village level should be one effective approach

How traditional seeds can make agriculture climate resilient

Pat Mooney is a well-known Canadian author and an agriculture expert. Co-founder of the ETC Group, he is an authority on genetic conservation and biodiversity. In one of the reports he wrote for the United Nations (UN) several decades back, I remember he specifically made a mention of two genes from two traditional crop cultivars from India that imparted disease resistance in popularly grown crop varieties in the United States.

Besides drawing attention to the immense genetic potential that lies hidden in the genetic profile of traditional seeds, I had in my book 'GATT and India: The Politics of Agriculture' (Konark Publishers, New Delhi) first published in 1994, also focused on the scramble by rich countries to collect as much seed as possible from the developing countries before the upcoming international treaties would put a stop to such collections, legally as well as illegally.

The politics of control over seed germplasm is a topic for another day, but first let's take a look at how the genes from Indian cultivars helped save the then popular varieties. Muskmelon crop in the US was hit by the downy mildew disease. The crop was cultivated in 35,000 acres and the disease could have wiped out the crop. A gene from an Indian variety was identified and incorporated in the muskmelon variety. Similarly, another gene from an Indian Sorghum strain that imparted resistance against greenbug insect benefitted American farmers every year to the tune of $12 million.

These are just two illustrations of the huge potential that lies hidden in the genotype of traditional seed varieties. Since India is home to 51,000 plant species of which roughly 7,000 species are endemic, and another 75,000 animal species (including 5,000 species that originate from within the country) imagine the huge genetic diversity that exists. Although there are a number of gene banks, both nationally and internationally, that make an effort to collect, conserve and preserve these genetic resources, no systematic effort has been made to indentify, study the numerous characters, and look into its vast potential for environmental, health, disease and drought resistance as well as for meeting the livelihood challenges. We need to go beyond gene identification, and try to document the traditional knowledge associated with it. This rich traditional knowledge is available with the communities that have lived in close association with these plants, and know for what purpose even the uncultivated plant species can be used for.

By definition Traditional knowledge refers to the knowledge, innovations, skills and practices passed down from generation to generation. This knowledge is primarily available with the tribal communities, who live in close proximity with nature, and they are a rich storehouse of Traditional Knowledge. Just like we have the Doomsday Vault (in Norway) for seed collection, I think these tribal communities and adivasis are the "living vaults of the humanity." They too need to be protected and preserved, and the knowledge they carry should remain in the public domain (and never allowed to be patented).

Why there is a need to go back to traditional seeds as well as the immense traditional knowledge associated with it is to draw from the Prime Minister's statement at the time of inaugurating the WHO Centre for Traditional Medicine at Jamnagar in Gujarat. Referring to the Indian traditional medicinal systems as a 'holistic science of life', Narendra Modi had very positively ascertained the need to draw from traditional medicine. There can be no denying that a Centre for Traditional Medicine is the need of the times.

Not to open the wide debate on intellectual property rights, seed exchange among farmers is a wise step to popularise indigenous seeds, to ensure these are not lost. To illustrate, it was in 2004 that I had gone to speak at the launch of Save Our Rice campaign at Kumbalangi in Tamil Nadu where I called for ex-situ conservation of traditional rice seeds. Within the next 15 years, more than 1,500 traditional rice varieties are now in people's collections, and nearly 100 of these are being planted by farmers. "There are people who are looking for brown rice varieties, some looking for traditional scented varieties, some farmers are keen on drought-resistant varieties, and most are now hooked on to Mappilai Samba rice variety which has medicinal properties that can enhance the libido," Sridhar R of Save Our Rice campaign tells me.

Krishna Prasad of Sahaja Samrudha in Karnataka is yet another pioneer. Over the years, I have followed his work with interest, and tracked his growth strategy in popularising traditional seeds. His work essentially began by organising community-based landraces conservation, a process that has led to the setting up of 35 community seed banks currently maintaining over 3,000 traditional seeds of various plant species. The Desi Seed Producer Company (an FPO) that he has formed, has 250 varieties of millets, including 90 ragi cultivars; 140 roots and tubers; and includes 62 brinjal, 48 tomato, 58 chilli and 23 desi kapas seeds.

The two illustrations above are not to undermine some of the amazing work being done by civil society groups elsewhere in the country. Collectively they are a huge repository of genetic wealth, and given the significant role indigenous seeds play in preserving human health and providing protection against environmental disasters like drought, prolonged dry spells and growing incidence of salt-tolerance arising from sea-level rise etc, the time has come to resurrect biological wealth and knowledge that has deliberately been kept at bay by the commercial seed industry. Setting up a network of indigenous seed banks at the village level should be one effective approach.

More so, at a time when a sudden rise in temperature at the grain-filling stage in case of wheat has resulted in a yield loss of 5 quintals per care in Punjab and Haryana, scientific community as well as the policy makers have to realise the urgent need to bring back the traditional seeds for making agriculture climate-resilient. Climate change is known to hit crop productivity in the years to come, and native seeds may provide an answer. Considering that the world's first traditional medicine centre would focus on – evidence and learning; data and analytics; sustainability and equity, and innovation and technology for good health, there is similarly a crying need for setting up another Centre for Traditional Knowledge and the Indigenous Seed Systems, with almost the same objectives, perhaps this time in collaboration with the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation.

(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)

Devinder Sharma
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