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Regional Seed Systems in the Malnad

Preserving food security the traditional way

Around the world, agribusiness pulls in profit by controlling access to seed, severely limiting the number of varieties sold, and patenting certain genetically modified seeds – all the while claiming to improve food security. Meanwhile, a decentralized but powerful force has been working to make seeds freely available to anyone who can grow them, encourage crop diversity and allow nature to do its work of multiplying the number of seeds available with each harvest. Through the simple act of saving and exchanging seeds, the Malnad women are doing the real work of securing food for the generations to come.

Vegetable diversity on display
Vegetable diversity on display

Imagine an India with 40,000 actively cultivated varieties of rice. Imagine the perfect crop for every micro-climate, soil type, and farming technique. Imagine the country’s greatest natural resource – its agricultural biodiversity – protected in the hands of millions of farmers who supply 100% of their food locally.

This India is not imaginary, just history. Before the Green Revolution, hunger and food insecurity did not exist in the country on the scale it does today, and agriculture was small-scale and highly diverse. Can this India be restored? Maybe – and the secret is in the seeds.

Three years ago, I took a break from my college studies to undertake an internship abroad, in the Malnad region of Karnataka’s Western Ghats. For twelve weeks, I worked for the NGO Vanastree, which seeks to preserve traditional livelihoods, seeds, and sustainable farming practices.

While in India, I absorbed several textbooks’ worth of information and met dozens of inspiring people, but one experience that always stands out in my mind is the Seed Mela (fair) hosted by Vanastree and partner NGOs midway through my internship. In the small town of Yellapur, in the northern part of Uttara Kannada district where Vanastree does most of its work, around 400 women farmers gathered with home-grown vegetables, honey, spices, pickles, and, most important, seeds. All the women were part of local seed exchange groups, whose members meet regularly to trade seeds and farming know-how. They gathered on the floor to hear the leaders among them speak about the connection between global food shortages and the disappearance of small-scale agriculture, and the grave importance of preserving both traditional knowledge and traditional seeds before they drown in the coming tide of industrial agriculture.

The women listened, then began moving around the room to examine what each village group had to share. The excitement was palpable. To an outsider, the act of looking at vegetables and seeds may have seemed insignificant, but from the viewpoint of food security, it was momentous. In fact, it was a miracle it happened at all, considering the isolation of these mountain communities. During the monsoon season, many roads are impassable, and the rest of the year, few causes are important enough for them to sacrifice an entire day’s work. Contact with the outside world – whether from outside visitors, television or radio – is very limited. This seclusion is responsible for keeping traditional livelihoods relatively intact in the Malnad. But, globalizing forces are having their effects. The social and economic structure that has always been built on agriculture is changing. Cash crops are taking over in place of vegetables, pulses and grains.

It is in response to these forces that women farmers and home gardeners in the Malnad are taking seed saving and exchange to a new level, building their groups and mobilizing them to document the agricultural biodiversity in the region. Another effect of the Malnad’s pocketed geography is the endless ecological niches it creates – each garden had a new and unusual crop variety to share. Many seeds that change hands contain the genetic code that have the potential to bring to a new community, a crop that had never been grown successfully before.

This agricultural biodiversity is another aspect that make Seed Melas like the Malnad so unique. Walking around the room that afternoon, I soon lost track of the varieties I counted: Eggplants in multiple sizes, colors and shapes, from small white eggs to deep purple baseball bats. The local tuber staples, Dioscorea, Amorphophallus and Colocasia (kesu in Kannada), each species with several variations. A plethora of okra, greens, cucumbers, gourds, bananas, and chilies. And vegetables are just the beginning; the women also brought honey, eggs, milk, ghee, cocum butter, spices, pickles and other value-added foods. Then, of course, there are the grains – black gram, green gram, cowpea and ragi.

Who are these women? Many are home gardeners, with plots of land barely larger than their modest homes. Some have larger pieces of land, and grow a few crops for sale at the markets in the nearest village. A few are farmers with acres of paddy or areca orchards, but who, unlike their husbands, recognize the unsustainability of this type of agriculture and wish to focus on growing food for the local community. Their seed saving groups are structured as collectives, without a hierarchy or political goals, motivated by the simple desire to preserve traditional seeds and farming methods. Loose connections to regional NGOs allow for occasional contact with other groups at melas like the one I attended, but they don’t need much direction to do what they have done for thousands of years. In their clay pots, dried gourds and paper envelopes, they keep a vast seed bank that is more secure than the most high-tech facilities in industrialized nations. Among the hundreds of women involved, there are thousands of copies of their crops’ genetic code, stored much like the internet stores data on servers spread around the world.

Unfortunately, much like the internet, this landscape-wide library of genetic information lacks a complete catalog. The Malnad region is bursting with agricultural biodiversity, but no one knows precisely how many varieties are being grown and what characteristics they possess. There are many reasons for this – the difficulty of travelling between villages and rural outposts on poorly maintained roads, a weariness towards outsiders, and even some fear that once the secret gets out about what is grown there, big agribusiness agents will attempt to mine the region of its biological gold. There’s also the nature of the plants themselves – a new variety achieved one season may be lost the next. Even more worrisome, however, is the gradual loss of ancient varieties that have been passed on from generation to generation. As urbanization erodes, available farmland and the pressure to grow cash crops such as betelnut and cotton rises, pockets of locally driven agriculture are threatened.

Enter the NGOs. Despite the odds, Vanastree has put on a Seed Mela roughly every two years for the past decade. Thanks to funds from various foundations, a solid volunteer network, and partnerships with other organizations like TEED (Tribals Educational and Environmental Development trust), which helped put on the Seed Mela in Yellapur. GREEN Foundation, based in Bangalore, is another organization in the region that encourages small-scale agriculture and builds community seed banks.

An artistic display of grains, spices, and vegetables at Yellapur Seed Mela
An artistic display of grains, spices, and vegetables at Yellapur Seed Mela

The Foundation is also developing an online seed catalog as a way of documenting Karnataka’s agricultural biodiversity.

My internship with Vanastree allowed me to assist with this type of data collection, attending field trips to farms and home gardens across the region and then assembling files back in the office that listed each variety and its characteristics, such as water tolerance, need for sun, and the life span of its seeds – anywhere from a year to five.

Around the world, agribusiness pulls in profit by controlling access to seed, severely limiting the number of varieties sold, and patenting certain genetically modified seeds – all while claiming to improve food security. Meanwhile, a decentralized but powerful force has been working to make seeds freely available to anyone who can grow them, encourage crop diversity and allow nature to do its work of multiplying the number of seeds available with each harvest. Through the simple act of saving and exchanging seeds, the women I met while in India are doing the real work of securing food for the generations to come.

Tuula Rebhahn
Eugene, 0R 97404, USA
E-mail: tuula11@gmail.com
http://tuulips.wordpress.com