Seeds and Their Keepers are Key to Preserving India’s Food Diversity
Women Farmers' Traditional Knowledge Needs to be Documented and Promoted
Let’s start at the very beginning. Some might say that it all began with the seeds.
Seeds have long been a part of India’s cultural heritage. In a country where about 70 percent of the population still lives in rural and semi-rural communities, seeds are an integral part of many rituals, ceremonies and festivals that celebrate the cycle of birth, life and death. The practice of seed saving has been a cornerstone of Indian farming traditions that made agriculture, itself, a way of life.
But much of this changed with India’s Green Revolution in the 1960s. Introduction of the high yielding seed varieties and pervasive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides eroded the diversity of indigenous seeds. As farmers moved away from the practice of saving and exchanging seeds with their neighbors and families, to buying seeds from the market, their own indigenous knowledge systems related to farming and seed saving slowly became irrelevant. Result — crop diversity suffered. In a land that once had 100,000 varieties of rice, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything outside a few popular varieties in the country’s urban markets today.
And now there’s the increasing threat of genetically modified food crop seeds (GMOs) entering the Indian markets. US chemical giant Monsanto’s BTCotton already dominates the cottonseed market and has been linked with farmer suicides in western India. Genetic engineering experiments are underway for food crops like maize, mustard, chickpeas, potato and bananas. Many environmentalists and farmers’ groups are worried about the impact of GMO food crops on the biological diversity of indigenous varieties, as well health concerns associated with its consumption.
Following massive protests, the Indian government has deferred the commercial cultivation of its first genetically modified vegetable, BT Brinjal (eggplant), a product of Monsanto partner, Mahyco. (Incidentally, India is one of the world’s largest brinjal producers and grows over 4,000 varieties.)
Given all this news, it’s heartening to note that there are several NGOs and environmental groups in India that are trying hard to reverse the country’s industrial farming practices borrowed from the West.
I recently visited southern India, where I came across GREEN Foundation, a community-based organization that has been working to promote conservation of indigenous seeds, agro-biodiversity and ecological farming practices. GREEN works with small and marginalized farmers, including Indigenous people and marginalized lower castes, in semi-arid regions of Karnataka and helps them set up community-managed seed banks.
“When we began talking to the farmers, we realized that traditional varieties of seeds had almost disappeared. Without seeds what we were attempting to do would be a non-starter,” notes Dr. Vanaja Ramprasad, seed conservationist and founder of GREEN. What I found really unique about the foundation was that it recognized that women were crucial to seed conservation efforts.
Traditionally, women farmers are the primary seed-keepers in India. Women are also significant food producers in the country, but sadly, they are not recognized as farmers and have to struggle to access land rights, information and credit. Ramprasad set up GREEN Foundation in 1996 with five women farmers and a handful of indigenous seeds.
The women’s knowledge of seed saving, mixed farming and natural farming is vast, Ramprasad says. She shares an example of an elderly woman farmer, who identified nearly 80 varieties of greens in her field, as well as their uses for medicinal and nutrition needs. “Her knowledge was phenomenal,” Ramprasad says. “When it comes to food security, women play a key role in identifying food that is available. In lean seasons, they trek to the nearby forests, and they are able to identify roots and tubers for their food requirements and medicinal plants.”
Photo by Rucha Chitnis
This intimate knowledge that women farmers have about natural resources around them is often devalued by the state and agro-scientists, who instead promote technologies that might not always be appropriate for poor in rural communities. For instance, says Ramprasad, some greens found on the fields, which poor farmers in India subsist on during lean periods, are considered as weeds by agro-companies, which are eliminated with herbicides, often by male farmers who primarily access information related to the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Rural women rarely access information provided by agricultural extension services to improve farming practices. Besides, these extension services actively promote the use of hybrid seeds and chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And while women farmers provide labor for majority of the farming activities, the decisions regarding the management of the farm land lie largely in the hands of the men.
I later visited a women-run community seed bank where many varieties of millets and other nutritious food crop seeds were being saved. An excellent source of nutrition, some millet varieties are also drought-resistant and require less water for irrigation compared to rice and other water-thirsty hybrid crops. As small and marginalized farmers depend largely on the rain for their irrigation needs, millet is an important source of food security in areas where recurring droughts or dwindling and unreliable rainfall causes stress among farmers.
As I heard one of the elderly women farmers, Hombalamma, affectionately called “Seed Mother,” speak about how she transitioned her farm to an organic one, where she now grows over 30 varieties of indigenous food crops, I could sense how proud these women were of their work and their indigenous seeds.
Indeed they should be proud.
In the face of growing climate unpredictability and increasing expenses for external farm inputs, it’s clear that the traditional knowledge of seed selection and conservation, and natural farming practices that the women have are critical to our future and need to be documented and promoted.
Seed, a symbol of fertility, perpetuity, and sustenance in India, is now also becoming a symbol of self reliance and a key to safeguarding the biodiversity of indigenous crops on small farms across this South Asian nation.
Rucha Chitnis is India Program Director of Women's Earth Alliance, an Earth Island Institute project. She recently traveled to India to research women farmers' traditional knowledge systems for farming, seed saving, and managing natural resources.