Is that bhindi going extinct? Ask the seed preservers
Botanical heritage enthusiasts are searching the country for seeds that are no longer widely used, like giant okra or yellow tomato, and preserving and planting them.Updated: Sep 18, 2020, 20:11 IST
“Nobody thinks of vegetables as endangered,” says Prabhakar Rao. “When you go to the market, you’re buying tomatoes, bhindi, potatoes. Who will believe there is a problem? That is the problem for me.”
Rao is an architect and agriculturist with a PhD in genetics and plant breeding. And he’s one of India’s few but dedicated seed preservers. Their mission is to ensure that we never run out of, for instance, the purple bhindi or yellow tomato. So these botanical heritage enthusiasts search the country for seeds that are no longer widely used, and preserve and plant them.
“My aim is to reach the urban gardener,” says Rao, who set up Hariyalee Seeds in 2011, after returning from a stint with the International Seed Savers’ Exchange in the United States. “If I give a farmer a purple bhindi, he can grow it but he wouldn’t get a price for it because the urban consumer doesn’t know about the purple bhindi. Once you get urban gardeners and farmers to grow these varieties, post and share photos of them on social media, then you are creating awareness and generating demand.”
Diversity extinction is something that also preoccupies Sangita Sharma. “There are about 200 varieties of native crops going extinct as we speak, and all it takes to prevent this is the right archive of seeds saved in community seed banks in the right agro-climatic regions across India.”
Sharma is the founding trustee of Annadana Soil and Seed Savers, a Bengaluru-based non-profit started in 2001. It is now a food forest spread across 2 acres in Bangalore and 24 acres in the Western Ghats, home to seed production farms, offices, drying work stations and of course the repository, which holds over 1,000 varieties of indigenous seeds, with a focus on vegetables.
There are 54 varieties of tomato alone, and seeds procured from Assam for the rare and coveted giant okra, whose stem can grow to a height of 17 ft. The seeds are sourced from farmers who maintain non-hybrid, non-GMO genetic stock. “The older generations usually know of the varieties that are dwindling or disappearing. You’d be surprised at what you’d find in their stores of seeds,” Sharma says.
Kong Sangma, an 84-year-old from the Garo Hills, for instance, gave Annadana seeds for a unique red brinjal and red chillies that grow up to 1 ft long. “The seeds had been preserved beneath her mattress, wrapped in old rags,” Sharma says. But that’s the thing about seeds. They are robust… life’s gift to life.”
Annadana releases a new seed catalogue that is distributed each year to urban and rural farmers who have subscribed. Prices start at Rs 100 per gm of seeds. “We do not supply in bulk as we are seed conservers and not a seed corporation. Farmers / urban gardeners can multiply their own seeds and become food and seed-autonomous,” she says. The regular seeds saved up come in handy too and in times of distress such as after the Kerala and Kodagu floods of 2019, lakhs of packets of seeds were donated to farmers in those areas. Farmers get trained first and thereafter seeds are donated.
In Odisha, meanwhile, retired schoolteacher Natabar Sarangi, 87, co-founded a group called Rajendra Desi Chasa Gabesana Kendra (the Rajendra Indigenous Agriculture Research Centre). It has preserved, multiplied and distributed close to 700 varieties of indigenous paddy over 25 years. “Research has shown that India once possessed about 1.1 lakh landraces of rice with diverse and valuable properties. After the Green Revolution, when a few high-yielding varieties were introduced, a huge majority of the landraces vanished from farmers’ collections.”
While Sarangi doesn’t have a community seed bank system, he keeps the cycle going by growing the varieties, in tiny patches, on the research centre’s 3.5-acre farm, and distributing seeds to farmers.
“He’s a pioneer in organic farming in the state, having started in 1998,” says Surendra Natha Ghoda, assistant agriculture officer for Niali block, Cuttack, Odisha. “Under his training and guidance many local paddy farmers are now motivated to take up organic farming.”