By RK Nimai
The fourth National Indigenous Seed Festival, 2019 was held at Central Agricultural University Complex, Iroishemba organised by the All Manipur Trained Medicinal & Aromatic Plants Promoters Consortium, Imphal (AMAPCON) under the Technical Support of Bharat Beej Swaraj Manch from 12th to 14th October, 2019. It was satisfying to see all the institutions related to plant crops like CAU, CSIR-NEIST, ICAR-NEHR, MSFABC, etc involved in the organisation.
The question that is asked is why such event is being held? The question is not that easy to answer. But it stresses the ability of the farmers to grow their own seeds. Since time immemorial, farmers grow their own seeds, selecting the best and keeping it for the next planting as a result different varieties and strains for various crops were maintained. However, with the advancement of hybridisation technology, the efforts to develop new varieties are now mostly with corporate houses, which markets F1 generation seeds or those with killer genes so that the harvested seeds cannot be grown next season and thus the farmers becomes the captive buyer for the corporate houses. Thus, the marginalised farmers of India who are generally poor have to spend more on inputs. Another is in the move for higher yield, so why rely on traditional varieties? The answer is provided later on.
It is true that food security was provided by the Green Revolution which uses hybrid high yielding varieties for various crops which are responsive to fertilisers but after cultivating for a few decades, their limitation is being slowly discovered. For example in rice, the yield is slowly going down due soil fatigue and application of higher doses of fertiliser is not improving the yield and many farmers are taking out the top soil in an effort to minimise such fatigue. In other words, cultivation of crops is no longer unidirectional with yield only the target. The nutrient content of such HYV is not comparable to the traditional varieties. Massive fertilisers and chemical inputs reduce the protein and other nutrient content. And on top of it, due to emphasis on HYV, the traditional varieties or land races or germ-plasm is being lost for posterity. In our text book we learnt about the disappearance of Dodo which was found in Mauritius due to over hunting and was lost forever; but we are not concerned about the loss of a large number of land races of crops and their germ-plasm. Many may have unique character which may be useful in the time to come, especially those which can grow in adverse conditions. For our present, we are destroying our future.
Some heirloom varieties like San Marino tomato are marketed but unfortunately very few heirloom varieties are marketed from India; despite efforts from a few entrepreneurs. Traditionally open pollination was the norm, but with hybridisation strict protocols were enforced for seed purposes. The open pollination regime led to natural hybridisation which may in the long run throw up better strains for specific conditions which are sustained through selection process.
Manipur has a very large number of rice landraces but many are lost. Under the initiative of AMAPCON, about 264 land races from Manipur were registered but this is but a small fraction of the varieties that were once available. Most of the registered are from the hills as HYV for slope-land cultivation is still limited, but from the valley many of the land races have disappeared due to widespread adoption of HYV. State Government have started emphasising on Chakhao cultivation for exports which is suppose to grow organically but growing cereals organically is not an easy proposition. Even in Chakhao there were about 20 land races, which most of the Manipuri are not aware of and are only aware of Chakhao Poreiton, perhaps the best land race in this category. Many of these land races have been lost.
There is now a realisation that a holistic approach to farming is the only alternative and merely adopting HYV and chemical inputs are not going to sustain farming. There are even reports that organic cultivation is not going to reduce the green house gases emission. There are still areas where our understanding is still incomplete. As an example, the role of the soil microbes; we know that they are beneficial but the details of each and every microbe are yet to be understood. The details of companion and antagonistic plants are still incomplete and many a farmer is not even aware. For example Alliums (onion, garlic, chives, etc) helps tomato, chilli, potato, carrot, etc and is helped by carrot, tomato, marigold mints, etc but need to avoid beans and peas; or maize helps beans, tomato etc and is helped by legume, cucurbits, but need to avoid tomato or celery. The list is long and more knowledge is being gained every year. Thus the farmer from being a simple person has to be an encyclopaedia of knowledge to be successful. He has to face the vagaries of global warming also. For a vegetable farmer, he can rotate the crop every year of after a period but for most of the farmers who grow cereal, there is no alternative as yet in Manipur. It is paddy, paddy and paddy.
After a series of scientific study, it has been reported that the branding of the local varieties of rice as low in production is a myth’ perpetuated by those having power to change the policy; there are traditional land races which can compete with the HYV in terms of yield if grown properly. Most of the HYV cannot grow successfully when there is agro-climatic stress but many of the local varieties can; as is the case of Taothabi when there is too much water or like the upland rice land races which are fairly drought resistant. Most of the coarse grains or lentils were under pressure though their ability to grow in adverse conditions is well recorded. Improved varieties of French beans, soyabeans, sunflower, etc were imported and grown in place of ragi, rapeseed, or kesar dal but at what cost in the long run. Importance of these traditional crops and land races are being recognised slowly but the pace of growing them is slow as funding in research is limited, while those crops which has interest of MNC, they loosen the purse strings.
Maintaining landraces is a difficult and costly proposition. Every year the land races have to be grown in small plots and harvested and seed stored for the next season. ICAR-NEHR and CAU maintains some land races but for even such institution there are constraints and limitations. There is no possibility of cryo-preservation like the World Seed Vault at Iceland. When even big institutions are handicapped in maintaining the land races, the individual efforts is all the more praise worthy. It indicates their dedication and confidence in their effort. There is however, a need for DNA analysis of these land races as quite a few may have the same genome but were called by different names according to the location.
The move by the BBSM is to free the farmers from the clutches of MNC and they oppose the New Seed Bill, which will enslave the farmers, as no farmer will have the ability to register seeds due to prohibitive fees. The MNC uses the traditional land races to improve upon, though it is a community property and thus they should be responsible for such usage and royalty paid to the community. The TRIPS in seeds is appropriate for commercial farmers which are limited in India but not at all suitable for the subsistence farmers of India and the policy framers must first consider the latter before following the principle of TRIPS. They should take care of our farmers rather than meeting international obligations which will further pauperise our farmers, many going the easy way out of suicide. The technical session during the festival brought out quite a few issues which need further study and exploration.
The presence of quite a number of farmers with the traditional seeds in the Festival, including those from outside the state and from the interior hill areas of the state was very satisfying and despite many of our traditional farmers not being very secularly educated, their traditional knowledge in farming is second to none. Interacting with a few of them was a learning experience as they have knowledge which was handed over generations. Even traditional fruits and medicinal plants have unique properties which need to be explored and those which have the best advantage must be propagated and developed. Many of our local fruits are no longer seen in the market or are sold at a premium. This indicate loss of habitat especially those which grow wild. Even heimang (Rhus chinensis and R.succedanea) which a few decades back was found in every homestead in the valley is hardly seen in the Imphal area and even in rural areas.
The state government needs to come up with an experts committee, realising the importance of preserving the traditional land races of different crops including fruit trees and come up with a framework besides providing guidelines and support to those farmers who are whole-heartily working towards this end. A clear cut policy is the need of the hour, failing which most of the land races will be lost forever. The officials in the department must also be sensitive to the situation but how many are aware of the matter, as even the directors of the concerned state government departments were absent during the festival.