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Editorial – Cultivating farm biodiversity

Biodiversity is the backbone of ecological and human security. It is the basis of survival of most small farmers. It directly sustains the lives and livelihoods of over 70% of India’s population. Even today, agricultural biodiversity is concentrated in regions where small farms still predominate.

In India, the genetic diversity within each species is mind-boggling – one species of rice has diversified into at least 50,000 distinct varieties, and one species of mango into over 1,000 varieties.

Local agrobiodiversity is closely linked with the lives, livelihoods and the culture of the rural communities. Rural communities have been conserving and enriching genetic resources of many crops to meet their nutritional, health and livelihood needs, indirectly contributing to the ecological security of the communities.

Family farmers are intrinsically linked to their communities and landscapes, transmitting knowledge, skills, practices and technologies from generation to generation. Family farmers are, often by default, custodians of biodiversity. This especially holds true for those living in poverty, as building resilient farming systems is the most logical choice for them. (Gine Zwart, Sarah Doornbos and Willy Douma).

Biodiversity based farming is advantageous to small farmers for many reasons. High-diversity farming is generally more labor-intensive than being capital intensive, depends on farmers knowledge and often the only way of farming under fragile and resource poor conditions, where small farmers predominate. However, much of the diversity is lost owing to unsustainable models of development, globalised agriculture, negligence of traditional agricultural practices, demographic changes, destructive policies etc.

Smallholder farmers have depended on the evolutionary service of biodiversity for hundreds of years. Developing new varieties, which is now being considered as the prerogative of the research personnel, has been happening on farmers fields through natural and artificial selection. Small farmers and most importantly women have been a part of this co-evolutionary process. These farmers fields as ‘evolutionary gardens’ have been serving as living gene banks. (Maryam Rahmanian).

Once again, efforts are being made to help communities gain access and control over their seeds. Local communities are increasingly participating in developing improved varieties, thereby gaining control over the seeds they produce. Community level seed banks are being promoted and strengthened. For instance, in Nepal around 1195 accessions of local crops and varieties are conserved in the Community Seed Banks (Pitambar Shrestha and Sajal Sthapit).

Respecting, protecting, and building on traditional knowledge is key to conserving local agro biodiversity. Since women are the most important torchbearers of this traditional knowledge and food tradition, they are also the carriers of the agro biodiversity tradition. The women of the Deccan region have shown that being the seed keepers, they not only conserve seeds, but also decide on the mix and quantity of seeds to be planted at planting time. A win-win system – the women’s way of farming supports biodiversity, and biodiversity supports their way of farming (P V Satheesh).

Communities are going back to biodiversity based farming to cope with climate change conditions. Farmers are increasingly realizing that diversification strengthens the resilience of agriculture and reduces vulnerability. Farmers in Kumbharwadi in Maharashtra who adhered to biodiversity concept could beat food shortages during low rainfall years by growing around 24 varieties of crops (Eshwer Kale and Marcella D’souza)

Joining hands

As already said, biodiversity is the backbone of ecological and human security. If this is true, then its conservation is everyone’s responsibility. While small farmers are providing these services to the humanity for free, it is unfair to expect small farmers alone to bear the burden of conserving biodiversity. Small farmers cannot do it alone: they need allies.

Creating awareness and building capacity of all sections of society is necessary to handle various issues of biodiversity conservation. Only an awakened and mobilized public opinion can bring environment friendly policies into being. One fine example is the case of dalit women of Deccan, who with the support of the Deccan Development Society and the Millet Network of India succeeded in including millets firmly in India’s public food system.

While small farmers have been providing environmental services at no cost, the national governments have done little to support such small farmers. Rather, they have been promoting or facilitating, a wide range of actions that undermine diversity and threaten farm livelihoods. Such actions and policies are only forcing small farmers to leave their lands. By eliminating the environmental services provided by family farmers, we are only pushing the humanity into deep vulnerabilities. Its time for us to pause, think and share responsibility for the cultivation of agricultural biodiversity.