Taste of Life: How America introduced new crops in India amid opposition - Hindustan Times
close_game
close_game

Taste of Life: How America introduced new crops in India amid opposition

ByChinmay Damle
Jul 04, 2024 08:06 AM IST

The fear of “foreign” food and the call for self-reliance was important in not letting American seed companies establish their trade easily in India. However, America and several European countries vastly profited from the seed economy in their colonies

The introduction of new crop varieties and farming techniques by the British after the eighteenth century heralded a new stage in agricultural production in India. This not only transformed and reconstituted our relationship with agriculture but also facilitated the commodification and colonization of food.

The Marathi newspaper “Dnyanaprakash”, while reporting the event, commented that the activists had decided to avoid “new” vegetables like the sweet corn and cauliflower that had recently entered local markets because they felt that their cultivation was being forced upon the farmers. (WIKIPEDIA)
The Marathi newspaper “Dnyanaprakash”, while reporting the event, commented that the activists had decided to avoid “new” vegetables like the sweet corn and cauliflower that had recently entered local markets because they felt that their cultivation was being forced upon the farmers. (WIKIPEDIA)

On December 17, 1916, at a small assembly held near Belbaug Chowk in Poona, Congress workers appealed to their countrymen to boycott “foreign” goods. While such boycotts were a norm and part of the “Swadeshi” movement, the inclusion of “European and American seeds and crops” in the list of articles that were to be shunned was a first. The Marathi newspaper “Dnyanaprakash”, while reporting the event, commented that the activists had decided to avoid “new” vegetables like the sweet corn and cauliflower that had recently entered local markets because they felt that their cultivation was being forced upon the farmers.

The British rulers, after the rebellion of 1857, were burdened with the responsibility of feeding Indian and British soldiers. They also had to make their countrymen “feel at home”. As a result, agrarian reforms were undertaken, under which new crops were introduced or widely cultivated. For a large part of their rule, the British did not forbid the Americans from being a part of the seed and crop trade.

As soon as the East India Company found itself free from the danger of annihilation in the wars of the eighteenth century, it turned its attention to the improvement of the cotton trade. In 1813, the first American cotton expert was dispatched to India. In the next two decades, cotton seed was introduced in the Bombay Presidency from all parts of the world. American planters were brought to the country to conduct various experiments in all three Presidencies, Poona being the major centre.

Poona was the seat of the government during the rainy season and was the resort of many rich Bombay families. All who could leave Bombay during the rainy season took up their residence at Poona. The cantonment at Poona had grown into a town, adorned with churches, laid out in elegant streets, which were enclosed with hedges of the milk bush, or the prickle pear, with English houses, surrounded with beautiful gardens which were enclosed with hedges, and yielded nearly every European vegetable, and every kind of tropical fruit.

The American government looked at Poona as a booming market for its seeds. After successfully capturing the cottonseed market, it ventured into marketing flower and vegetable seeds in Poona and elsewhere in the late nineteenth century.

There were two distinct seasons in Poona for the growth of vegetables peculiar to each other – the rainy season and the winter season. In “A Manual of Gardening for Western India”, Robert Riddell advised planting cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, celery, and beet in July. The seeds for the rainy season were sown in June or July, and those for the cold weather in October. Generally, the supply of seeds from Europe for both these seasons was obtained in one lot in April or May where the climatic conditions, such as those at Poona, Bangalore, and places in North India, allowed seeds to be kept without deterioration for sowing in October. In Bombay, the hot and moist weather in the rainy season affected the seeds, and they lost their germinating power to a great extent. Hence the supply in Bombay had to be obtained in two lots, one in May for the rainy season and the other in October for the cold season. Since it was not economical to send the supply of seeds to Bombay for the winter sowing from Europe separately, the lot was usually saved at Poona and was sent to Bombay after the rainy season was over.

In December 1914, American Consul James O Lainz wrote from Karachi that an opening existed in India for garden and vegetable seeds. According to him, there was a fair demand for seeds in many places throughout the year. A considerable shortage was being felt in western India, and seed was being obtained from the government gardens at Lucknow (flowers) and Saharanpur (vegetables). Lainz wrote that American firms who desired to enter the Indian market should address these gardens.

In the early twentieth century, representatives of British seed houses had started visiting India in January to look after the spring trade. American seed companies, too, sent their representatives around the same time to cities like Bombay, Poona, Madras, Lucknow, and Saharanpur to compete with their British counterparts. Both offered very low prices to get a foothold in the market.

In his letter, Lainz mentioned that Poona was one of the chief garden centres in India. This compelled American companies to concentrate on the market in Poona. The Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce for a brief time contemplated posting a permanent representative at Poona. This move was important considering America’s involvement with the experimental farms in the city.

American maize arrived in Poona as a famine food grain in 1898. The seed of American maize was sown in the cold weather next year in a small plot in the Ganeshkhind garden. The produce of this plot was resown in the monsoon of 1900, together with other American varieties received from Kanpur. The varieties included both sugar corn (maize grown in gardens and used as vegetables) and field corn.

Even though the yield of the field maize crop was much better than the indigenous varieties, sugar corn failed both concerning the quantity of the crop and in quality of the grain. While in America, it was prized as a vegetable for its tenderness and sweetness, when grown in India it lost its sweet taste. The Superintendent of the Empress Gardens, Poona, wrote in his report that he anticipated great difficulty in selling and popularizing the sweet corns on account of their insipid taste.

In 1900, groundnut seeds imported from the USA were distributed to farmers in Poona, Karad, Patan, Khed, Junnar, and Haveli. Experiments carried out by agricultural chemists in Poona proved that some of the imported varieties contained as much as 6% more oil than the “indigenous” variety. It was also largely resistant to the “Tikka” disease that had created havoc in the Bombay Presidency in the late nineteenth century.

In 1906, three varieties of sweet potatoes – Nansemond, New Jersey, and Virginia - were received at Poona through the Inspector General of Agriculture from America. The Agricultural Department found that these imported varieties (all white) were much more prolific than the indigenous ones.

The American sweet potatoes were of a pearly white colour and when cooked became yellowish. The Deccan sweet potatoes were red. The colour was attractive and the natives did not take to any other variety easily than the red. The Deccan white variety of sweet potatoes, which was similar to the local red variety in every respect, except the colour, was not readily disposed of although it was sold much cheaper.

However, the opportunity afforded by the industrial exhibition at Ahmedabad was availed by the agricultural department for exhibiting agricultural products from Poona. American sweet potatoes, sweet and field corn varieties of maize, soybeans, and other cereals and pulses were exhibited by the Poona Farm. The farmers from Gujarat especially appreciated the sweet potatoes and sweet corn. Maize and sweet potatoes exhibited were freely distributed among the cultivators.

Subsequently, new jowar, wheat, and rice varieties were introduced to India. The introduction of new crops was not without opposition. Native farmers often employed men to go out at night and root up the American and European seedlings in the experimental farms. The fear of “foreign” food and the call for self-reliance was important in not letting American seed companies establish their trade easily in India. However, America and several European countries vastly profited from the seed economy in their colonies.

The tussle between local farmers and capitalist corporations for control over seeds is a grave concern. The success of sustainable food systems depends on the farmer’s right to save, share, and cultivate seeds according to personal and community needs.

SHARE THIS ARTICLE ON
Share this article
SHARE
Story Saved
Live Score
OPEN APP
Saved Articles
Following
My Reads
Sign out
New Delhi 0C
Thursday, July 25, 2024
Start 14 Days Free Trial Subscribe Now
Follow Us On