This volume explores the current state of knowledge on the role of agricultural biodiversity in improving diets, nutrition and food security. Using examples and case studies from around the globe, the book explores current strategies for improving nutrition and diets and identifies key research and implementation gaps that need to be addressed to successfully promote the better use of agricultural biodiversity for rural and urban populations and societies in transition.
By suggesting that even coal extraction falls within provisions of the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 and its specific provision of access and benefit-sharing, the Madhya Pradesh State Biodiversity Board has raised important questions relating to the interpretation of the law. While the principle of profit sharing from commercial use of biological sources is justifiable, the authors argue that the principle of the conservation ethic should not be lost.
It is in the nature of law to be interpreted. Once a legal statute is in place, administrators face the challenge of relying on their discernment in both understanding and prioritising the law’s provisions. At the same time, there are principles that courts often use along the way to give meaning to a legal text. Such is also the case with India’s Biological Diversity (BD) Act, 2002, where not all of its current interpretations seem to coherently fit into a common understanding of the law. While the executive is challenged with implementing the law, there are instances of judicial interpretations of the law that raise important questions.
One such instance has come to light in Madhya Pradesh (MP) in the context of the BD Act. The MP State Biodiversity Board (MPSBB) has chosen to take a substantially expanded meaning of the words “biological resources” and “commercial utilisation” used in the BD Act.
The BD Act was legislated to give effect to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). Therefore, the explicit objectives of the law are supposed to be in line with the convention. These are not just conservation of biological diversity and sustainable use of biological resources, but also fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources. The latter requires putting into place a mechanism through which benefit-sharing arrangements can be arrived at when the question of access for research or commercial utilisation arises. This is both for Indian entities (who need to intimate the relevant SBB of the state in which these resources are accessed) and for foreign entities, who need to take prior permission from the Chennai-based National Biodiversity Authority (NBA).
More than the conservation and sustainable use aspects of the BD Act, the legal provisions seeking to establish the prerequisites of access and benefit-sharing (ABS) have received national and international attention. Essentially what this means is that when bio-resources or people’s knowledge are accessed, the user/accessor must compensate the provider community either in financial terms or acknowledge the source. While the biodiversity law broadly prescribes the six ways in which benefit-sharing is to be effected, neither its text nor the BD rules specify situations that attract the legal provisions for such “sharing”. Moreover, the procedural clarities have yet to emerge through actual experiences of implementing the rules.
Law and Context
Yet, context also determines the meaning that a certain law is given. The MPSBB’s initiative to push a certain interpretation amidst the uncertainty brings to the fore the objectives in the real-time practice of the BD Act in India. A letter by the Member Secretary of the MPSBB to the NBA dated 3 April 2013, states emphatically that
in the absence of any guideline by the NBA for access and benefit sharing to the State Biodiversity Board, we are not able to implement third and most important objective of the Biological Diversity Act, 2002 and, i e, access and benefit sharing.
For the MPSBB this clarity is critical. Its aim is to harness as many “benefits” from those who access biological resources. This clear aim pushes the board to stretch the meaning of biological resources so as to maximise the number of cases that will be subject to the legal requirements of the benefit-sharing provisions. Since December 2012 and until March 2013, the MPSBB has issued notices to several private companies, including pharmaceutical, coal mining, food processing, liquor, sugar, oil and industrial processes which, according to MPSBB’s interpretation, are (commercially) utilising biological resources. It has also written to the state forest department, the Forest Development Corporation, the Minor Forest Produce Federation and the fisheries department.
In its letters, the MPSBB has invoked Section 2(c) of the BD Act, which defines biological resources as “plants, animals and microorganisms or parts thereof, their genetic material and by-products (excluding value added products) with actual or potential use or value, but does not include human genetic material”.In its letters to all these industries, the MPSBB has highlighted that each of the industries, as per the BD Act, needs to intimate the MPSBB through the prescribed Form 1 and pay Rs 1,000 as they are carrying out “commercial utilisation” of biological resources, which attracts the definition of the BD Act. Each of the industries to whom notices have been issued are now being asked to deposit 2% of their gross sales or gross revenue on financial year basis towards benefit-sharing in the Biodiversity Fund of the state.
According to the MPSBB, since there are no prescribed guidelines for ABS, nor any directions from the NBA, it is using the same formula that the NBA has adopted in one of the agreements signed by it in 2009. In part, the NBA practice has also spurred such an interpretation by an SBB because in several cases, the NBA has granted access for not just the transfer or trade of a gene or small quantities, but approved access to several tonnes of biological materials (excluding only normally traded commodities that are traded in bulk from coverage under the BD Act) and insisted on benefit-sharing thereafter.
It comes as no surprise that this step of the MPSBB has triggered strong reactions. Several of the industries that received notices have dragged it to the National Green Tribunal (NGT). The Central Zone Bench of the NGT at Bhopal has admitted cases filed by several private companies such as Agro Solvent and Lilason Breweries that are presently being heard.
On 28 May 2013, the NGT bench stayed the MPSSB’s notice of legal action against Lilason Breweries in case no response was received. The MPSBB had sent such a show cause to various companies who had not responded to their earlier notice. Following the same logic, the Eklehra Panchayat in Chhindwara district has filed a public interest litigation (PIL) against Coal India to share profits from coal extraction with the panchayat. The panchayat argues that while coal is being extracted from coal mines that fall under the panchayat, the company is not sharing its benefit with them.
The argument against the MPSBB’s position on this issue can be that aspects of ABS in the BD Act are applicable only to genetic material and not biological resources in general. While the BD Act uses the term “biological resources”, internationally, the CBD defines “biological resources” (Article 2) to include genetic resources, organisms or parts thereof, populations, or any other biotic component of ecosystems with actual or potential use or value for humanity. And in the specific Protocol on ABS, the Nagoya Protocol, the legal obligation of benefit-sharing is talked of in situations of access to genetic resources and/or “traditional knowledge” associated with such resources.
The logic of the MPSBB as stated in its letter to the NBA in April 2013 is that “coal is a plant fossil and it has a genetic material of a plant”, and therefore it needs to be treated as a biological resource under the BD Act. Similarly, “limestone is a genetic material of marine organisms and is made after calcification of marine organisms”. Further, it argues, that it is not just coal mining but also thermal and other industrial operations, which use coal, that need to come into the purview of ABS.
The MPSBB has sought a response from the NBA, which it is yet to receive. In both its letters of April 2013 to the NBA, the member secretary of the board has stressed how
it is very very necessary that it should be clarified that what are the bio-resources and broader classification of industries are covered under the purview of industries using biological resources for commercial utilisation.
Debate on Biodiversity
This action by the MPSBB has sparked off a debate on the interpretation of the BD Act in India, 11 years after it was gazetted. The matter is now before the NGT. If the tribunal’s interpretation is in line with that of the MPSBB and if the NBA too acknowledges that the steps taken by the MPSBB are in order, it would mean that private companies using biological resources created through all kinds of “genetic material” would need to pay from their profits. These “double taxes”, as the companies call it, will go into the coffers of the MPSBB. It is likely then that other SBBs, who are perhaps awaiting the decision on this, would follow suit.
This brings us back to the larger question of implementation of the BD Act. Should it preoccupy itself with collecting cash by insisting on ABS? Or should those mandated with ensuring that the objectives of the BD Act are met, bring extractive and potentially biodiversity-destructive businesses under conservation rules or sustainable use principles? These questions are sought to be settled by charging fees from those who continue in the business of extraction and possibly unsustainable use. The strategy does link itself to the “polluter pays” principle by asking those making profits out of biological material to contribute financially. However, this alone will not reduce the extent of coal mining or stop distilleries from continuing business as usual even though the BD Rules, 2004 give administrators the power to restrict or prohibit access to biological resources on account of overriding public interest or for protection of environment and conservation of biological diversity.
These interpretations of the law tend to suggest that implementing agencies are seeking to derive financial benefits from the extraction and commercial use of biological resources. Some panchayats and Biodiversity Management Committees (BMCs) being set up under the BD Act might also follow suit to increase their cash coffers. But this move by the MPSBB, even if it were to be accepted, should not replace the first objective of the BD Act, that of conservation of biodiversity. The real purpose of ABS even in its broadest definition and not the minimalistic view of cash compensation, will fail if it separates itself from a conservation ethic. That is what needs to be constantly reinterpreted no matter what the case.
Biodiversity Authority will oppose Monsanto’s patent application involving Indian melon
Indian melon (Photo: Seth Vidal)
TAKING the lead in another biopiracy case after Bt brinjal, the National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) has decided to challenge the alleged misappropriation of the germplasm of Indian melon, Cucumis melo, by US agri-biotech giant Monsanto Company. NBA plans to file a pre-grant opposition (an application opposing the patent before it is granted) to the patent application of Monsanto before the US Patent Office.
Monsanto has applied for a patent for the breeding of melon seeds resistant to closterovirus using molecular biology. The virus causes cucurbit yellow stunting disorder in melons, turning the leaves yellow and stunting the plant growth. First detected in 2006 in cantaloupe and honeydew melons, watermelon and squash in the US, the virus has since spread across North America, Europe and North Africa.
NBA’s decision has come after the 31-member Expert Committee on Agrobiodiversity, headed by E A Siddiq, recommended taking legal action against the alleged violators of the Biodiversity Act. C melo’s resistance to the virus is already registered in international seed banks as P13 13970.
Sources in NBA say the authority has also decided to serve notice to the Indian subsidiary of Monsanto. NBA is waiting for commitment of funds from the Union environment ministry as opposing such cases in US courts is a costly proposition, they say. However, most committee members were initially reluctant to challenge the patent application of Monsanto despite evidence, Debal Deb, a member of the expert committee, told Down To Earth. “We had to push hard to convince them,” says Deb, adding that even NBA is reluctant to pursue the case. The committee submitted its report last year. Being the apex authority for biodiversity, NBA should have immediately taken action. But it has failed to act till date, he adds. “The irony is,” Deb says, “the patent is being given to a hybrid developed with normal hybridisation.”
Monsanto has already obtained a European patent on this seed breeding through its Dutch subsidiary, Monsanto Invest N V. The patent was originally filed by DeRuiter Seeds Group in the EU in 2005. In 2008, Monsanto Invest acquired DeRuiter and thus received the EU patent—EP1962578—granted in May 2011. NBA sources say by the time they learnt of the patent the time for opposing it was over.
A Monsanto spokesperson says any allegation of misappropriation of the Indian melon germplasm is factually incorrect and grossly misleading. “We understand that the public germplasm melon (Cucumis melo) line P13 13970 germplasm was included into the Russian VIR database (plant genetic resources database of Russia) in 1961 and was transferred to the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 1966 by Russian research institute, N I Valvilov Research Institute of Plant Industry. DeRuiter Seeds Group lawfully obtained samples of this line from USDA in the 1990s and the subsequent development work relating to the Cucurbit Yellow Stunting Disorder Virus resistant allele was conducted by DeRuiter Seeds using these materials (obtained from) outside India. Thus, the inventors accessed the melon from a public source in accordance with the applicable laws.”
The spokesperson adds that since the scope of the patent is limited, the germplasm line from which the innovation was achieved remains available for all breeders and seed researchers. The patent does not restrict further research and development efforts with the germplasm line, he adds.
No Patents on Seeds, an international coalition of non-profits and advocacy groups like GeneWatch and Greenpeace, however, fears that with this patent Monsanto can block access to all breeding material inheriting the resistance derived from C melo. Melon breeders and farmers could be severely restricted by the patent as it might discourage future breeding efforts and the development of new melon varieties.
“New research from West Africa challenges the widely held view that African and Asian ‘farmer rice’ varieties have only local value owing to their poor ability to adapt to adverse environmental conditions.
Researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and AfricaRice in Benin studied 26 varieties of rice developed and cultivated locallyby farmers in five West African countries between 2006 and 2012. They were varieties of both African rice (Oryza glaberrima) and Asian rice (Oryza sativa). Their findings suggest that farmer rice varieties can grow without fertilisers, require no special maintenance and can develop ways of coping with stress. This makes them highly adaptable to a wide range of environments.”
The book presents the current state of thought on the common path of sustainable diets and biodiversity. The articles contained herein were presented at the International Scientific Symposium “Biodiversity and Sustainable Diets: United Against Hunger” organized jointly by FAO and Bioversity International, held at FAO, in Rome, from 3 to 5 November 2010. The Symposium was part of the
official World Food Day/Week programme, and include done of the many activities in celebration of International Year of Biodiversity, 2010. The Symposium addressed the linkages among agriculture, biodiversity, nutrition, food production, food consumption and the environment.
The Symposium served as a platform for reaching a consensus definition of “sustainable diets” and to further develop this concept with food and nutrition security, and the realization of the Millennium Development Goals, as objectives. In the early 1980s, the notion of “sustainable diets”was proposes, with dietary recommendations whichwould result in healthier environments as well as healthier consumers. But with the over-riding goal of feeding a hungry world, little attention was paid tothe sustainability of agro–ecological zones, the sustainable diets’ concept was neglected for many years.
Regardless of the many successes of agriculture during the last three decades, it is clear that food systems, and diets, are not sustainable. FAO data show that one billion people suffer from hunger,while even more people are overweight or obese. In both groups, there is a high prevalence of micronutrient malnutrition. In spite of many efforts, the nutrition problems of the world are escalating. Improving nutrition through better balanced nutritious diets can also reduce the ecological impact of dietary choices. Therefore, a shift to more sustainable diets would trigger upstream effects on the food production (e.g. diversification), processing chain and food consumption.
With growing academic recognition of environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity, as well as a dramatically increasing body of evidence of the unsustainable nature of agriculture as it is currently practiced in many parts of the world, renewed attention
has been directed to sustainability in all its forms, including diets. Therefore, the international community acknowledged that a definition, and a set of guiding principles for sustainable diets, was urgently needed to address food and nutrition security
as well as sustainability along the whole food chain A working group was convened as part of the Symposium and a definition was debated, built upon previous efforts of governments (e.g., the Sustainability Commission of the UK), UN agencies (FAO/Bioversity Technical Workshop and Biodiversity and Sustainable Diets), and others. The definition was presented in a plenary session of the
Symposium and accepted by the participants, as follows: Sustainable Diets are those diets with low environmental impacts which contribute to food and nutrition security and to healthy life for present and future generations. Sustainable diets are protective
and respectful of biodiversity and ecosystems, culturally acceptable, accessible, economically fair and affordable; nutritionally adequate, safe and healthy; while optimizing natural and human resources. The agreed definition acknowledged the interdependencies of food production and consumption with food requirements and nutrient recommendations, and at the same time, reaffirmed the notion that the health of humans cannot be isolated from the health of ecosystems.
The crop fields of the women of Deccan Development Society (DDS), an NGO working for the last 25 years in Medak district, would be soon recognised as biodiversity heritage sites by the Government of India.
This was announced by Dr. P. Balakrishna, chairman, National Biodiversity Authority (NBD), after formally launching 14th mobile biodiversity festival at Ippapally village in Zaheerabad mandal of Medak district on Monday. This would be the first such heritage site in India. The site would cover about 50 villages spread across three mandals in Medak district. He also said that to recognise this area as a biodiversity heritage site would be a matter of pride.
He has also full of praise for the uniqueness of the localised Public Distribution System (PDS) based on jowar pioneered by DDS for the last 15 years. This model of the PDS, which was a by-product of the rich biodiversity being practiced by the farmers of the DDS, would be propagated by the NBA all over the world as one of the best practices based on biodiversity, he added. Dr. Balakrishna explained that the Government of India was about to announce a new policy wherein about 5 per cent of all productivity in agriculture would be based on the biodiversity.
Dr. Hampaiah, chairman, AP State Biodiversity Board, said that the efforts made by the Sangham women were being recognised by the Board. The festival would be held for one month.
Rice is life for thousands of people. At a time when the country debates a second green revolution in the eastern states, here is a story of a farmer, Ghani Khan, who is shrugging off modern hybrid rice seeds to return to more nutritious and health traditional rice seed.
The lane to Bada Bagh is muddy, accost by trees. The whole farm is hidden with shrubs, trees, sugarcane, so you donot realize that lies ahead. Bada Bagh orchard, managed by Syed Ghani Khan’s family at Kirugavulu in Malavalli taluk of Mandya district is very popular among the city dwellers for its flavoured mangoes from the trees that have a legacy of 250 years, but now the bagh is popular for a different reason. Bada Bagh was a gift received by Syed Ghani Khan from Tipu Sultan himself. Four generations later, the farm is now with Ghani Khan, a young and energetic farmer, who has completely changed the outlook of the ancient farm by combining the mango crop with traditional rice varieties, all of 567rice strains of different combinations are grown here. Bada Bagh is now an essential museum of traditional rice strains is drawing in farmers from far and near.
Ghani the eldest among the four sons says that it is the quest for alternative seeds and farming practices that brought the family together. The once separated brothers are back and they owe much to the traditional rice strains. Ghani just like many young farmers operated the farm adopting all modern agricultural practices. Though initially all was well, very soon he witnessed deterioration of his fertile farm. With the help of a fellow farmer he began to discover alternate methods to rejuvenate the soil. His experimenting started in 2000 by trial and error method using only organic compost. The hybrid rice, the IR series of rice varieties did not respond well to organic compost, so he had to find a rice variety that would suit the traditional cultivation methods. With the Kaveri river flowing through the district, there was wide spread hybrid cultivation and the region had lost almost all the traditional rice diversity that existed.
The region had very distinct drought resistant rice varieties like raja bhog batha, coimbatur sanna, kadi batha, bangaru sanna, bangaru kaddi and doddibatha, as there was no water in these villages before the ‘Kannambadi’ dam was built. Ghani says while hybrids have outstanding qualities, the ability to reproduce themselves is clearly not one of them. You may expect a good yield from hybrids with a sufficient input, but the main drawback is the you cannot save seed, as they may not even germinate, since it may be sterile. If it does sprout, the young plants will probably not have many of the characteristics of the parent plant, nor will it look anything like the plant you got the seeds from. But the traditional seeds have developed resistance to certain pests and diseases and are hardier and healthier than hybrids. Their original genetic material is intact and they have unique reproductive and immunity is preserved. Each variety has distinct flavors, and come in many different and unique colors, sizes, and shapes.
As the region had lost much of its traditional rices, search for the traditional seeds proved difficult. He came across a fine rice variety, Rathnachudi, and his experimentation began with only one variety. The variety performed well under organic farming and he continued cultivating the variety for about 6 years, before he realized to test some more of the traditional varieties. He says his hunt for traditional seeds took initiation with a that he was able to collect handful of seeds of about six paddy varieties in 2006. All the varieties were successful as they did not use chemicals and required less water. Later varieties increased from six to twenty-six in the consecutive year and again to seventy-five in 2008 and now he has as many as 146 varieties. He says he vows a lot to Sahaja Samrudha, an organic farmers association, stationed at Bangalore, for continuously guiding him technically and helping him collect seeds from different regions. His collection is from five different states and also few from another country. He has a wide diversity of wetland, dryland, medicinal, aromatic, irrigated rices. The whole 20acres is a rich verdant tapestry in all hues of red, gold, brown and black. All the 146 traditional rices are maintained in a single, largest experimental restoration plot, an individual farmer can maintain. Each variety is evenly spaced with straight rows that are distinctly visible on the plot. A portion of the experimental plot is covered with high-yielding dwarf varieties that are planted for comparative study with the predominant expanse distinctively taller traditional rice plants.
Though he has irrigation facility, he feels that it is important to limit water usage so he is cultivating his farm by following System of rice intensification (SRI) method. SRI unlike conventional methods of raising productivity through genetic improvement and increasing inputs relies on providing an enabling environment for the rice plant to express itself fully. The plot has been designed and about 146 varieties are sown following the system that involves a combination of several principles, including the use of organic inputs, alternate wetting and drying, increased spacing between plants, and transplanting the plants while they are young.
Ghani says it is essential to conserve the different traits of rice varieties that have evolved through the combined process of natural selection and farmer selection that are so adapted to different eco-climatic conditions with their fragrance, taste, medicinal and high yielding properties as frequent floods and prolonged droughts are the order of the day and the modern high yielding rice varieties and hybrids have drastically reduced performance and suffer a partial or total loss of crops. Switching over to traditional crop varieties is the need, as it not only maintains biodiversity but will definitely offset the hurdles posed with climate change. “For thousands of years farmers have been breeders and developed and nurtured crop genetic diversity. With their careful insight of selecting plants and developing varieties with suitable traits and improve on the existing one. This system of selection and improving on the plants is what has led to an astounding diversity of landraces, which still exists with some farmers. Though most of the rice diversity has been eroded there are some farmers, who are working towards reviving and maintaining the rice diversity that Karnataka has been a host and Ghani is one among them”, says Shanta Kumar, Coordinator of ‘Save our Rice’ campaign.
Ghani is maintaining different paddy strains to keep alive the evolutionary processes and also to sustain a continual supply of germplasm. He has developed skills in the art of seed production and has the ability to select the best seeds. The whole plot of 567 rice varieties has been dedicated for seed production. Some of the diversity maintained on his field are Rajabhog, which is a weed suppresser, Anandi a variety from Dharwad has a high yielding capacity, Jeeriga samba is a very popular variety among the farmers and is aromatic, non lodging and good grain yielding variety andParimalasanna is a fine variety appropriate for making festoons. Two varieties of Burma black rice, both grains are black in colour and one variety has less fibre and the other has high fibre content. Chinnaponni, Kempudoddi, Halublu, Rajakayame, Rasakadam,Gamgadale, Burmablack, Kagisali, Ambimohar, Gamsale, Kottayane, Bilinellu, Gandhasale, NMS2, Rajmudi, Ratnachudi, Gowrisanna, Jeerigesanna, Bilidoddi, , Gambatha, Jeerigesale. Some of the varieties from Orissa that are performing well are kalakali, baingan mangi, govindbhog is a sacred variety used as an offering to God Krishna, of Orissa. Some from Maharashtra like sagvad an upland variety used for pooha, maladi a medicinal rice used in bone fracture treatment, HMT a farmer developed variety and Katte HMT a variety that has awns, Kasubai a scented variety, Raj gudiyapa a dry land medicinal rice variety used for weakness and Dharisal, Tulasiya, Sheerabathi, Thamadisala, rathbath.
Mr. Krishna Prasad,sahaja samrudha says “ On-farm conservation of rice diversity is carried out only by farmers who are interested and willing to do so. It cannot be imposed on them. A farmer who conserves inter and intra specific diversity has to have an understanding as to how, what and why he does it. Organizations can only technically support and provide opportunities for the farmers in continuing their efforts at conserving crop diversity”. He further adds that on-farm conservation of crop diversity is important. This form of managing diversity of crops is easy to implement and links farmers’ economic concerns with conservation. Management for crop diversity can promote on-farm conservation of rice, and potentially other crops too, in a feasible and sustainable way.
Ghani’s concern for conservation of biodiversity has infact got many farmers interested in traditional varieties. His farm in the outskirts of his village has grown into one of the largest experimental restoration plots, drawing visitors from villages near and far. His experiment has enthralled Scientists and Officials, who have applauded his venture.
India is presently facing a rice crisis due to erosion of its biodiversity and increase of monocropping in agriculture. Reliance on a narrow spectrum of cultivars grown in monoculture have increased pest problems and India being a mega diversity country has a plethora of traditional varieties which are nutritious and developed over centuries. The traditional strains are more resistant to drought and could be an answer to the climate change. So saving them is important lest we lose it.
The small farmer is increasingly getting the short shrift, and control over farming is moving into the hands of the private corporate sector. This does not paint a happy picture.
Natwar Sarangi could eat a new variety of rice every day of the year. None of it bought in the market. When I met this remarkable farmer in a small village in Odisha, I realised the magical potential of India’s ‘ordinary’ peasants. A potential sadly neglected by our agricultural bureaucracy and ‘development’ planners.
Natwarbhai, 80+, is a resident of Narishu village, near Niali in Cuttack district. A retired schoolteacher, he has been practising organic farming for the last decade or so, and swears by its potential to feed India’s population. He says some of the varieties he grows yield over 20 quintals per acre, higher than the so-called ‘high-yielding’ varieties that farmers around him get after using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And he spends much less, since his main inputs are gobar, natural pesticides when occasionally needed, and labour.
Natwarbhai was earlier a ‘modern’ farmer, lured into it by officials and traders, involving high-yielding varieties, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. One day, while watching a labourer spray Carbofuran (a highly toxic pesticide), he was horrified to see him stagger and collapse. Rushed for treatment, the worker survived, but not Natwarbhai’s faith in the new agriculture. Especially after the labourer told him: “I could not breathe, my head was reeling”; and especially after, having buried the remaining stock of Carbofuran in a pit in his fields, Natwarbhai “saw dead snails, snakes, and frogs floating in the water that had accumulated there; I immediately wondered what would be happening to the earthworms and micro-organisms that I knew kept the soil alive.”
Natwarbhai switched to organic inputs, but with the high yielding varieties that the agricultural establishment had distributed. His son Rajendra, by now having become involved in a number of environmental movements, advised him to try traditional crop varieties. The problem was, most such varieties had gone out of cultivation in the area.
Around this time (1999), along with Rajendra another young man of the village, Jubraj Swain, had been active with relief and reconstruction work after a super-cyclone. Now they set off to find traditional rice varieties; travelling over 5000 km within (and a bit outside) Odisha, they brought back dozens of varieties still being grown by so-called ‘backward’ farmers. Natwarbhai tried them all, noting down their names, characteristics, and productivity. He and Jubraj continued even after the tragic death of Rajendra due to cerebral malaria, eventually reaching the astounding figure of 360 varieties (90per cent of these from Odisha). When I expressed astonishment at this, Natwarbhai laughed: “we are aiming to have at least 500. This is in any case only a small fraction of the total diversity that Indian farmers have created”.
So true. I remember when coordinating India’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan process a decade ago, I had come across the mindboggling fact that the country’s rice diversity was anything between 50,000 and 300,000 varieties!
How does Natwarbhai keep track of this diversity, year after year? He said he and his colleagues kept an album, in which they noted down each variety’s characteristics. I was later shown a two-volume set of this album by Sudhir Pattnaik of the Oriya journal Samadrusti; it had tiny packets of each kind of rice variety, with key features of their growth, performance, and values written alongside.
Diversity was nice, but would it feed India’s growing population? Natwarbhai was categorical: “Without doubt. Firstly, I get as much or more average rice production on my land as those using chemicals in this region; secondly, I can grow pulses as a next crop, and then gourds or other crops as the third … all on the same plot of land. And I get better fodder and mulching material. Overall productivity is therefore higher than my neighbours who use new seeds and chemicals. If land is not turned to non-food cash crops like tobacco, we would easily produce enough food with organic farming.”
So why then were his neighbours not switching to organic? Natwarbhai explained that the government and corporations were constantly giving ‘incentives’, e.g. subsidies on chemicals, and filling the cultivators’ minds with promises of bumper crops and high returns. Another factor was that many of the traditional varieties had tall stalks, and ‘lodged’ (fell down) if there were unseasonal rains. But Natwarbhai asserted that even with this, productivity did not drop significantly, provided it did not keep on raining. Yet another reason was that many of the lands here were being cultivated by sharecroppers, who had to do what their absentee landlords told them to.
I reflected on this a bit. Farmers here were probably also being seduced by news from other regions of India, some of which had achieved over 30 quintals per acre; no-one was telling that this was possible only with increasing amounts of external inputs, that the land would simply not sustain this intensity of cultivation for long, and that growing costs of inputs would eventually reduce profit margins. Official records showed that in any case, HYV rice had yielded an average of around 15 quintals in Orissa.
Other farmers were slowly getting interested in Natwarbhai’s methods. He and others have organised dozens of meetings with farmers, and offered free seeds for those willing to test them out (on condition that if they had a good crop, they would return twice the amount, to go into a grain bank). The journalSamadrusti also did its bit in public outreach. If only the government would help, these efforts would go much further. Unfortunately even civil society organisations were not always helpful; Natwarbhai pointed to a patch of black-grain paddy (Kali Jiri) swaying gently in the breeze, and sadly recounted how an institution from Chennai run by a famous agricultural scientist had taken some samples, and then claimed credit for the variety!
I asked Jubraj why he had not gone looking for a job in the city, like his other young colleagues? He was, after all, a graduate in history. His answer was simple: “I enjoy this. I think it is more worthwhile than a job in the city”. Productivity on his land? “I’m getting 18-20 quintals per acre; those using new seeds and chemicals here were getting less, while spending more.” In a general scenario of the newer generations turning away from occupations like farming, it was good to see the young man wanting to carry on Natwarbhai’s mission.
In a recent address to an international conference on biodiversity in Hyderabad, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: “Biodiversity, found in our forests and our fields, could provide us keys to the solutions of the future. So we need to build a movement to conserve traditional varieties of crops.” Nice words. But the Indian government’s agricultural policies and programmes have systematically destroyed the diversity and knowledge of thousands of years of intelligent, innovative farming systems. Increasingly they are marginalising the small cultivator, and handing over controls over farming to the private corporate sector. Efforts like Natwarbhai’s and Jubraj’s, small as they may seem, are crucial elements of sustainability that India is going to desperately need when its food production systems face ecological and social collapse.
Hyderabad: Is rice dying? Environment experts feel that the rich biodiversity of rice is fast depleting with only a handful of commercially viable varieties being cultivated the world over.
In the last 100 years as many as 1,00,000 varieties of rice have simply vanished from the fields. Today there are fewer than a dozen varieties planted in 70 per cent of the land under rice. Indian rice varieties are famous for their quality, aroma and grain length and any disturbance to the rice biodiversity will have a catastrophic impact on the agro-economy of the country.
Tinkering with rice like attempts to produce golden rice and GE rice has come in for sharp criticism from biodiversity experts.
“Rice is not just a daily source of calories. It is intrinsically linked to Asian lifestyles and heritage,” argues Aziz Choudry, researcher and activist from New Zealand.
A fact sheet published by Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PANAP) points out that rice is the staple food for half the people on Earth, and is at the heart of Asia’s diverse cultures. Yet its future, along with that of millions of small-scale rive farmers, many of them women, is in jeopardy. “Transnational corporations are shifting control of rice production away from farming communities which have grown and nurtured countless rive varieties over centuries,” it adds.
Dr Ricarda A Steinbrecher, co-director of EcoNexus, a public interest research organisation based in the UK, cautions that with the advent of science and modern technology in agriculture, the arrival of uniform seeds, fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, the rich diversity of rice varieties has decreased drastically.
“With three billion people consuming rice, profits promise to be high for any company or corporation that can acquire proprietary rights over the rice seed. Genetic engineering is an important tool towards this end as it enables companies to claim ownership over the “new seeds” they have “invented” giving them a legal basis to control its sale and use,” Dr Ricarda clarifies.
Charito P Medina, environmental biologist from the Philippines, said there was no need for “golden rice”, which is genetically modified to hold more quantity of vitamin A. “Vegetables and fruits like sweet potatoes, mangoes and carrots are rich in vitamin A and there is no need to include vitamin A in rice,” Charito added.
Agriculture scientist G.V. Ramanjaneyulu has criticised that the recent international biodiversity conference in Hyderabad focussed only on how business could be done with bio-resources instead of suggesting measures to protect biodiversity.
The deliberations completely ignored farmers and their interests and also their role in the protection of biodiversity. The conference deliberately sidelined the need to protect biodiversity, he said while delivering a lecture on ‘Farmer in Biodiversity’ organised by the Jampala Chandrasekhara Prasad Trust in memory of the late student leader, here on Saturday night.
State role He said the government should have a major role in protecting biodiversity, environment and eco-balance for which it should involve the farming community. On the contrary, it was encouraging farmers to use dangerous pesticides and chemical fertilizers, he added.
In pesticides only one per cent was useful to kill pests and the rest would mix in soil and air polluting the environs. So also, in fertilizers only 45 per cent was useful to protect plants and the remaining 55 per cent would mix in soil and water. Dr. Ramanjaneyulu said pests were gaining resistance and the farmer was getting caught in a vicious circle by investing more money. Excessive use of fertilizer and pesticide make the food grains poisonous with their residues remaining in them. Pesticide residues were creating fat in human bodies, he said.
GM propaganda In this backdrop, governments and corporates were resorting to propaganda on the necessity of GM crops for food security, but behind this lay business interests rather than human interests, he said cautioning that, “Our food habits are getting spoilt with such a false campaign.”
Listing out the ill-effects of fertilizers and pesticides, he said the Green Revolution in Punjab destroyed biodiversity and today one in every third family in that State was suffering from cancer. He said for the protection of biodiversity farmers should have freedom in cultivation.
‘Meet focussed on how business can be done with bio-resources instead of suggesting measures to protect biodiversity’