CHENNAI: While the Green Revolution has been credited, among other things, with furnishing answers to humankind’s pressing need to end drought, it has also been heavily criticised for squandering biodiversity in lieu of high-yielding hybrid varieties. Even as we’ve been reduced to consuming just a handful of rice, pulses and vegetables, the fairly sustained organic farming wave over the past decade has been trying to script a change. More people are going out of their way to learn about indigenous crop variants, more farmers are being able to take that risk and, in the process, there’s an alternative market in the making. Furthering this revolution, on the side of revival, is the Thondaimandalam Foundation and its paddy conversation project. This initiative, started in August 2019, focuses on cultivating, conserving and characterising over 150 indigenous rice varieties.
“Many people claim that they have 20 varieties of paddy, or that they cultivate over a 100 types. But, the problem is, they do not know if these varieties are genetically pure; for they don’t know how to maintain such purity. Earlier, farmers used to have one or two types of rice to raise on their lands. So, there was no risk of cross-pollination. Now, the ‘conservators’ have the ‘quantity over quality’ method; which means, a few years down the line, the seed quality would change. Then, people would argue over who has the right kind of see for a particular variety,” explains Hima Kiran, organic farmer and a trustee of the Foundation, detailing the common problems plaguing the conservation sector. This is where they step in.
Hima and his fellow conservators follow a parameter-based template over a course of three years to ensure that the genetic makeup of a particular indigenous variety is preserved in its true form. Many of them have been trained in genetic characterisation by Dr Debal Deb, an Odisha-based scientist, farmer and founder of the largest folk rice seed bank in eastern India Vrihi Beej Binimoy Kendra. “Those who attended the training are scattered in a few districts; that’s where we are doing this project. Paddy has over 50 genetic characteristics. We study about 35-40 of them — colour of the rice, the horn, grain length and width, leaf angle and much more from seed to post-harvest stage. It is this methodology that he trained us in,” says Hima. This theoretical information has to be tested against the crops in the field. For their project, they have started work on the seed varieties they acquired from Deb and other indigenous ones they managed to source in the Thondaimandalam region. They use this process to raise the paddy and maintain records of the yield. For example, if it’s seeraga samba, anyone will be able to check the yield against their database and determine its genetic purity. That’s what they are working towards.
Risks and records
On his part, Dr Deb is said to be working on a book, documenting the over 1,400 paddy landraces (see box) in his possession. The book would be a peer-reviewed work that offers the genetic characteristics of all these varieties. The Foundation essentially carries his work forward to the field, ensuring that conservation doesn’t stop at the records. “In the next two-three years, if we manage to train 20-30 people, then we’ll be able to raise all 1,400 varieties. This is important because this is where we will be able to find solutions to many problems that might befall us in the future. For example, women are prone to anaemia; they are prescribed iron tablets for it. But, there are rice varieties with a high iron content. In tribal societies, if a woman seems anaemic, she will be given the kanji of that rice. There, it becomes a solution for food security, nutrition security and health; besides being heavily localised. From here, we have moved to the standardisation brought in by corporatisation. From one lakh varieties, we are now working with just 200,” he says.
Beyond this, the biggest risk we face as a modern society is that we have not domesticated any new variety of rice in the past 100 years. “If the future were to bring in a big calamity in the form of climate change or a plant disease, the ‘high-yield’ varieties will not hold. Then, what will we produce for our food? After the tsunami in 2004, salinity in the soil increased in the affected areas. Even then, the department varieties did not work well. It was traditional salt-tolerant varieties that managed to thrive. Debal Deb also contributed to the effort then. Tomorrow, if the government says it is ready to promote traditional varieties, we need the seed and it has to be pure. That’s what we are trying to achieve,” he concludes.
Besides this project, the Foundation has also been working on many others that ensure income generation and livelihood guarantee for villagers. Conservation of waterbodies, native cattle and red sheep and tree plantation drives are also part of their extensive portfolio. All this is hinged on one central principle. “Modernity is a continuum. What was modern when we were in college would be ‘old’ for youngsters today. But, some things live past its era. Instead of dismissing them as old, we have to look at how best we can take it forward to the next generation,” he declares.