Seed Savior

In India, One Man Is Keeping Alive Hundreds of Varieties of Heirloom Rice

Debal Deb walks down the muddy path from his thatched mud shack to his fields, marshaling a group of trainees along the way. He stops by one of the small farm’s garden beds, bends down and gently cups a panicle of rice in his hands. His hold is almost a caress. “This is the collar of the rice plant,” he tells the trainees. “And look at this, this is the node,” he says as he points. His voice rustles in the wind. The ripe rice stalks shimmer auburn in the winter afternoon sun. A brook that irrigates the farm gurgles down the slopes of the surrounding Niyamgiri hills.

photo of a man, looking directly at the cameraphoto by Jason Taylor

The trainees, eight in all, have come from across India to Basudha (“Mother Earth” in Bengali) – Deb’s demonstration farm and seed-exchange center in the remote Kerandiguda village of Odisha. They are here to learn how to characterize and evaluate different rice varieties. They couldn’t have found a better place to do so.

On a mere 2.3 acres of leased land, Deb grows 940 varieties of indigenous rice seeds he has collected from small farmers during the last 17 years. Every year, these seeds are germinated the traditional Indian way using clay pots and cow urine. Then they are raised in individual two-by-two-meter beds, harvested, and stored in earthen pots tagged with codes that identify them by name and characteristics.

“What we have here is virtually the last collection of the remaining rice diversity in eastern India,” Deb says. “We grow them every year so that they remain alive.”

Deb’s “Seed Ark” is a testament to nature’s mind-boggling fecundity and ancient farmers’ horticultural knowledge. Stored in the earthen pots are varieties that can withstand changes in temperature and climate, differences in soil nutrients, water stresses, and even ones with much-valued special aromas. There’s Rangi, Kaya, Kelas, and Noichi, which can endure fluctuations in rainfall timing, as well as Sada Jabra, Lakshmi-dighal, and Jal kamini, which grow taller in floodwater. Getu and Matla thrive in highly saline soils, while Bishnubhog and Rani kajal resist bacterial blight. The rarest varieties in his collection are the unique double-grained Jugal and triple-grained Sateen. “Nowhere else in the world do they exist now,” Deb says proudly.

After being harvested, some of the seeds are stored for next year’s planting, while the rest are used for a free seed exchange program. Deb doesn’t believe in selling the seeds, which he says are a part of the commons and must be shared freely. Farmers taking seeds from the bank have to offer some of their own seeds in return. “I believe that this informal network of exchange of crop variety is the only way of conserving them,” he says.

Deb’s efforts are part of a global movement to protect agricultural biodiversity before it is entirely lost. In just the last century, thousands of heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables and heritage breeds of livestock have disappeared as the demands of industrial agriculture shrink traditional farming polycultures into monocrops. Sustainable agriculture advocates say the loss of these so-called “landraces” is a recipe for disaster. Especially in the era of climate change, genetic diversity of food crops is essential for maintaining agricultural systems that are resilient enough to cope with the shocks from extreme weather. In the midst of more frequent and more severe floods and droughts, Deb says, “the indigenous varieties are the best bet for farmers.”

Deb’s efforts have won him praise from agriculture experts who say his work is vital to preserving the diversity of rice – a crop that is a staple for half of the world’s population. “Deb is one of the people committed to the larger picture of food justice and social change in our food systems,” says Stephen Gliessman, a former professor at University of California-Santa Cruz and a leader in the field of agroecology. “His work is a model for others in the movement.”

Farmers have bred different rice varieties for millennia. They took wild species like Oryza rufipogon and Oryza nivara and selected desirable traits for, as Deb describes, “better yield, grain size, and other agronomic or cultural values.” In India, farmers used to grow about 100,000 varieties of rice as recently as the 1960s and ‘70s, Deb says. The country is the top donor of rice germplasm to the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute. But the advent of the so-called Green Revolution in the 1960s and the move toward high-yielding rice varieties led to the extinction, through disuse, of thousands of rice types. Today, 90 percent of heirloom varietals have disappeared from Indian farms, replaced by just 10 varieties that produce strong yields when supported with enough water, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides.

photo of small, labeled bowls of seedsphoto Jason Taylor

The Green Revolution, which initially worked miracles for farmers, soon led to soil degradation. The situation has been particularly bad in areas with marginal soils, where modern varieties don’t grow so well because they lack the genes that are locally adapted to the lands, Deb says. Despite 60 years of research, scientists have not yet been able to create a variety that can yield sufficiently in marginal environmental conditions. Without access to traditional seed varieties or the knowledge of how to grow them, most farmers have no option but to continue using more fertilizers and more pesticides. Over the years, rising input costs have trapped farmers in a cycle of debt that has driven many to suicide. Between 1995 and 2004, about 150,000 farmers in India took their lives.

The loss of seed diversity has also led to a loss of knowledge of traditional farming. “The generation who had the knowledge of indigenous seeds and farming practices is gone,” says Chukki Nandjundaswamy, president of Karnataka State Farmers Association. “This generation of farmers don’t have examples before them. The tradition is lost.”

It was to stall this erosion of genetic diversity that Deb stepped in and took up the mantle of seed saver-farmer-instructor. “Somebody has to do it,” he says.

An ecologist by training, with multiple degrees including a post-doc from University of California-Berkeley, Deb, now 53, started collecting seeds in 1992, when his work with the World Wildlife Fund required him to travel across India. During his trips he noticed the distinct varieties of rice farmers were growing on marginal lands. Such landrace varieties seemed suited to the local environment and tended to be very hardy.

Deb started documenting these landraces and soon realized they were disappearing because farmers weren’t growing them anymore. Clearly, documenting wasn’t enough. The seeds had to be saved. They needed to be classified and listed in the Community Biodiversity Register. And, most importantly, they needed to be propagated.

So, in 1997, with initial funding from environmentalist Vandana Shiva’s folk crop conservation group, Deb set up Vrihi (“rice” in Sanskrit), a seed bank in a village in the state of West Bengal. By 2002 Deb was growing all the seeds he was collecting from farmers. The same year he set up the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, moving his work beyond seed conservation to actively promoting the use of native seeds through seed exchanges, cross-breeding experiments, and organic farming workshops for farmers. In 2010, he moved Virhi to Odisha, where he had better access to water. The organization has run on Deb’s personal funding and donations from friends since the startup money from Shiva’s organization ran out in 2000.

Virhi’s seeds are being put to good use. When cyclone Aila devastated the Bengal Delta in 2009, Deb’s seed bank distributed four traditional salt-tolerant varieties to farmers in the Sundarban Islands. The farmers who sowed those seeds were the only ones who reaped a harvest the next season. In 2002, the bank helped farmers whose fields had been inundated by distributing flood-tolerant rice seeds, and in 1999 it gave out drought-tolerant seeds during a severe dry season in West Bengal. So far, more than 3,000 farmers across India have availed themselves of Virhi’s seeds.

Deb complains that the larger institutional gene banks have turned into seed morgues. The researchers at the seed gene banks believe DNA preservation is enough, he says, and they neglect the need to grow seeds in the fields at least periodically. Deb’s own requests for samples of old Bengal rice landraces from the International Rice Research Institute and India’s National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources have received no response. “It’s anybody’s guess how a farmer from Bangladesh, Nigeria, or Vietnam could obtain any seeds of their choice from these gene banks,” he says.

The loss of rice varieties isn’t unique to India, nor is the erosion of genetic diversity limited to one food crop. Food varieties are disappearing across the world. In the Philippines, where thousands of varieties of rice once grew, only a few hundred now exist. Wheat varieties indigenous to Iraq and Central Asia have gone extinct by the thousands, and in the North America an estimated 90 percent of historic fruit and vegetable varieties have disappeared. Scores of potato and maize varieties have vanished from farmers’ fields in Latin America. Experts estimate we have lost more than half of the world’s food varieties in the past century.

A seed doesn’t just contain biological markers, it also comes with social and political markers, and is a holder of memory, heritage, and tradition. Seeds connect us to the continuum of life. As such, the seed industry’s grip on the food system is deeply alarming. According a report by the ETC Group, all the parts of the food system – seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, processing, and sale – are concentrated in the hands of just 10 global corporations that control nearly 70 percent of the proprietary seed market.

In response to this corporate monopoly, heirloom seed-saving movements like Virhi are springing up across the world. In India, the earliest initiative was Vandana Shiva’s Navadanya, a countrywide network of farmers set up in 1984. Internationally, the Svalbard seed vault in Norway, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank, and Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa are among the well-known seed repositories. Grassroots networks such as La Via Campesina and Brazil’s Landless Rural Worker’s Movement are also doing their bit to win back farmers’ rights to grow and share seeds. In Chile, Colombia, and Argentina social movements have either halted or delayed attempts to introduce so-called “Monsanto laws” that would restrict people’s access to seeds.

In this global movement for food sovereignty, Virhi plays an indispensable part, says Alex Jensen of the International Society for Ecology and Culture. “Deb’s work is a crucial node in the resistance against the systematic monopolization of the food system by the agrichemical industry,” Jensen says.

Nights at Kerandiguda are hushed affairs. The silence is colossal yet intimate. The temperature has dipped to 9 degrees Celsius and a chill seeps into the mud-walled room of Deb’s seed bank, which also doubles as a second home for Deb and his wife, Mita, when they visit the farm. (Their real home is in Kolkata.) Deb sits on his bed, his face lit by the glow from his Mac laptop. The conversation flows from evolutionary biology, to politics, to philosophy, to critiques of the current model of industrial progress, which Deb says is driven by “developmentality.”

He explains how he is trying to “recreate and rediscover” a new mode of living at Basudha, one that shows how all plant and animal life is connected in a web of interdependence. He wants to show that sustainability isn’t just about agriculture, but has to do with a whole way of life, one in which food, traditions, music, and art all play key roles.

To that purpose, Deb has designed Basudha to be self-sustaining. The seed bank itself is built entirely out of locally-sourced materials. A dry toilet serves as a source of manure for the fields. The farm has two solar panels that provide just enough power for four CFL lights and to allow Deb to charge his cellphone and laptop.

Zero-dependence on external inputs, non-exhaustive use of local resources, and an appreciation of “enough” rather than “more” material goods are essential components of sustainability, Deb says. “Environmental justice means that every member of society, of the current as well as future generations, has the right to clean water to drink, pure air to breathe, lifelong food security, and all the richness of biodiversity to live with,” he says.

As the night deepens, the sound of the mountain brook filters through the cold room. It’s getting late. Another day in conservation begins tomorrow.

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