Deb, a plant scientist turned
farmer, is on a mission not just to reintroduce the lost varieties but
to improve agriculture for an age of climate change and scarcity. He is
cultivating 920 rice varieties on just 2.5 acres in a forested area of
the Niyamgiri hills, where the indigenous people last year managed to
drive out the giant mining company Vedanta.
His seed bank, Vrihi, the Sanskrit word
for rice, is growing fast as people bring rare seed to him. He grows it
and then distributes it in 1kg packets. "Farmers take the seeds on
condition they bring some back," he says. "They must return 2kg as proof
they have cultivated it. Most give 1kg to other farmers so the cycle
continues. In three years in Orissa, 2,000 farmers have received the
seeds and 350 varieties have been distributed."
These are not just "heritage" varieties
grown for the sake of growing them, he says, they are vital for food
security, culture and biodiversity. Landraces perform better in marginal
environmental conditions than modern cultivars produced by selective
breeding. Knowledge and availability of landraces will become
increasingly important, he says, as climate change shifts rainfall
patterns and makes extreme temperatures a more regular occurrence, and
as modern agriculture comes to rely on ever fewer varieties and so
becomes susceptible to large crop losses.
Deb's search for rice varieties began
nearly 20 years ago in remote areas of West Bengal largely populated by
indigenous people. These marginal areas, often dismissed as backward by
urban and political elites, were home to many landraces, because farmers
were mostly too poor to buy the agrochemicals needed to grow modern rice
The genetic variety and the quality of
what they grew amazed him. "The landraces have been developed by unknown
farmers over centuries. They are all based on careful observation of
their properties. One of the main problems for marginal farmers is
"We have developed two varieties of
drought-tolerant seeds. In addition, we have six varieties of
salt-tolerant rice which we have reintroduced into the Sunderbans. They
were the only varieties to survive when cyclone Aila struck the region
in May 2009.
Deb, who was a Fulbright scholar and who
has done post-doctoral ecology work at the University of California at
Berkeley, is not impressed by GM science or hybrid rice growing.
"Companies are spending billions on 'gene mining', or seeking specific
genes. Yet after 60 years they still do not have one which can withstand
a drought or flooding or sea water. But all of these characteristics are
available in the landraces. I have varieties of rice that can grow and
live for months in 12ft-deep water. There are varieties with amazing
medicinal properties. The tribals know about certain dark-grained rice
that give high levels of antioxidants and can prevent cancers."
He prefers a living seed bank where
varieties are grown every year. "The Indian seed bank has 65,000
varieties, but 90% of them are dead and will not germinate … They are
useful for big companies because the genes are still good, but they are
useless on a farm. I have a living seed bank.
"High-yielding crop varieties have
resulted in the loss of numerous landraces possessing important genes.
With the rapid disappearance of folk varieties, farmers have become
entirely dependent on commercial seed suppliers for their crop. Seeds
used to be a precious gift to relatives and friends. Because crop seeds
were traditionally to be belong to the community, there was no scope for
commercial appropriation," he says.
Deb accuses large seed companies of trying
to steal landraces. "They seem very interested in one, a three-grain
rice. We have the last variety. We also have the last double grain rices.
I was offered 15,000 rupees [$240] for just a handful. I just kicked the
man out. Another man tried to steal some and a third tried bribes. One
company man disguised himself as a farmer. I kicked him out, too."
He now keeps the rice seeds locked in a
safe house, and the varieties are identified only by a number. "If they
got hold of, say, three-grain rice, they would make millions. Would they
share the benefits with the community who developed it? I doubt it. They
would patent it. Once it became a proprietorial variety no one else
would be allowed to save it. You would have to buy it each year.
"The collective knowledge about rice
growing and diversity is still there but only in places which have not
been industrialised. In a natural forest you can still find people who
know hundreds of medicinal plants. But in a monocultural forest, people
simply do not know the uses of plants. The diversity is lost. The
collective memory is becoming eroded. People are being educated to think
that anything traditional is bad."
He blames India's green revolution for the
loss of genetic diversity and biodiversity. The development in the 1960s
and 70s of new high-yield varieties of grain which needed synthetic
fertilisers, pesticides and more water is popularly said to have ended
famines, but for Deb it was an ecological and cultural disaster for
which we are paying now.
He trains farmers and battles what he
calls "developmentality", a mental "virus" of the modern world which he
says has produced a collective mindlessness in India's elite and led to
the crisis in rural India. He calls for a zero-growth economy and a new
appreciation of how indigenous societies around the world have
interacted with nature.
"I have nothing. I live by a
bit of teaching. I have no institution behind me and I am limited only
by the small amount of land that I have and the little money I have for
research. My goal is to set up a living seed bank in every state in
India and to train scientists as para-conservationists, so we can
propagate and document all the landraces."
[The original title
"India's rice warrior battles to build living seed bank as climate chaos
looms" is edited to give it a face that has a bit more regional relevance]