This article was originally published by the IDRC (Canada) in Using Diversity: Enhancing and Maintaining Genetic Resources On-farm (1997).
Abstract: In the face of massive erosion of crop diversity all over India, some farming communities are attempting to conserve and revive their traditional agricultural systems, characterized by the innovative use of a large range of cropping patterns, cropdiversity over space and time, and cultural practices oriented toward maintaining this diversity.
Part one of this paper describes one such attempt, from the hilly Tehri Garhwal district of Uttar Pradesh (now Uttarakhand). it briefly examines how agricultural development here has caused serious loss of crop diversity and farmer self-sufficiency. It then describes the efforts of the Beej Bachao Andolan, a farmers’ movement, in reviving the use of indigenous crops and cropping systems and encouraging the growth of low-input organic farming.
Part two of the paper analyzes the implications of this case study for India’s agricultural policy. The authors argue that it is possible to combine diversity, productivity, and livelihood security in future agricultural policy. for this, strategies to be followed should emphasize a mix of high-productivity high-diversity approaches, building on indigenous biodiversity and knowledge, transformation of negative repatriation from genebanks, inter-farmer exchange, appropriate returns for wider use of farmers’ knowledge and resources and the protection of critical agro-ecosystems.
The first part of this article is based on Vijay Jardhari’s write-up in Hindi, translated and adapted by Ashish Kothari. The second part is written by Kothari, in consultation with Jardhari. We are grateful to Sarika Bhatia for her help.
Agricultural diversity in Tehri Garhwal
Traditions of prosperity
A few decades back, the tentacles of the Green Revolution started reaching farmers in the Himalayan foothills. Though a number of hill-dwellers have small-holdings, and have taken to employment in the plains, agriculture remains the mainstay of the economy of most of the region’s people. True development in such a situation should have increased the agricultural self-reliance and livelihood security of these people, but the model imposed on the hills has resulted in the opposite. Today, the farmers of these hills are heavily dependent on grains and aid from the plains, to the extent that withdrawal of this support could lead to a famine situation.
However, it was not always like this. A brief historical look will show how prosperous the region’s farmers were. Uttarakhand’s well-known historian, Dr. Shivprasad Dabral, has described Garhwal of a century back as one in which all members of a family participated in agricultural work, had enough to eat, and remained healthy. British officials recorded that though there was little money with Garhwali farmers, they had adequate food from agriculture, clothing and bedding from various plant materials and sheep, and a barter system which brought them salt and other non-local produce. As far back as 1825, the following items were amongst those reported as going from the hills into markets in the plains: grains like wheat, rice, and buckwheat, millets, pulses, sesame, turmeric, saffron, ginger, tree bark, herbs, leather, cloth dyes, red chili, pomegranate, walnut, chilgoza nuts, horse chestnuts, narcotics, ghee, apricot oil, honey, wax, and musk. People would travel down to markets with these products, and return with jaggery, salt, and clothes.
The prosperity appears to have lasted at least till the end of the last century, indeed perhaps till a few decades back. Even now, one can find huge datyas (store-houses of grain) in villages, though there is now much less grain to fill them.
The advanced nature of traditional farming in the region is illustrated by the practice of barahnaja (literally, ’12 seeds’). This is the name of a sophisticated intercropping system of rainfed hill farming. Mandua (finger millets), ramdana (amaranthus), rajma (common beans), ogal (buckwheat), urad (green gram), moong (black gram), naurangi (mix of pulses), gahath (horsegram), bhat (soybean), lobiya (French beans) kheera (cucumber), bhang (cannabis), and other crops, are grown together in a mixture which is finely balanced to optimize productivity and maintenance of soil fertility, and is geared towards meeting diverse household requirements. In such traditional cultivation, farmers had to spend almost nothing on inputs, since seeds, organic fertilizer, and pest control were virtually free. Whenever they realized that conditions were suitable, they would start planting;–now, the first thing farmers do is to head towards the seed shops.
Agricultural progress or decline?
The hills now lack the fragrance of the local paddy varieties. As Antar Singh of Palas village says: “Now, the maand (paddy soup) of the new varieties is disliked not only by us but even by our cattle.” The prosperous farming of barahnaja is being replaced by commercial cropping (soybean and other cash crops), which can feed the ventures of big industrialists (Indian and multinational). Farmers are being brainwashed into believing that traditional crops and cropping patterns like barahnaja are ‘backward’. What we eat and do not eat, what we grow and should not grow, all this is being dictated from ‘above’.
Garhwal’s well-established and sustainable farming systems could not have been easily uprooted; the government machinery had to find subtle (and not-so-subtle) means of breaking the resistance. The main guise used was ‘development’. Agricultural universities were heavily funded for R&D in ‘more productive’ agriculture; the electronic, print, and even oral media were used to the maximum to promote so-called High-Yielding Varieties (HYVs), chemical fertilisers, and pesticides. Farmers were distributed free samples of these inputs, and heavily controlled demonstration plots were cited as examples of their efficacy.
Though initially resistant to the new agriculture, farmers were increasingly lured by the dramatic rises in productivity which some HYVs displayed, when fed with fertilizers and protected by pesticides. Unfortunately, what no one foresaw was the short-term nature of this phenomenon. As free inputs taper off, and productivity begins to stagnate, farmers start realizing that they are trapped in an economic treadmill–running harder and harder to stay in the same place. Meanwhile, however, they have abandoned their traditional seeds and practices, and find themselves dependent on the government and private sector to provide them necessary inputs. They cannot even ignore expensive chemical inputs, since the HYVs are as dependent on them as a newborn child to mother’s milk.
Farming was traditionally an important part of culture–perhaps that is why it was called agriculture. Apart from labor and intelligence, the farmer had to put in very few external inputs; seeds, manure, herbicides, all came from the agricultural system itself. Social practices, rituals, festivals, and relations were intertwined with farming operations. But the new agriculture–or rather, agronomy –is changing the whole value system. Farming is now commerce: make an investment and hope for maximum profits. Cropping for domestic consumption gives way to cropping for the money market. Animal husbandry, once an integral and valued part of agriculture, is relegated to secondary importance, as chemical fertilizers replace dung, machines replace draught power, and the cattle that are kept are seen only as factories for milk or wool or meat production. HYVs yield little fodder, in some cases almost none (e.g. soybean or dwarf wheat), whereas traditional crops like millets fulfilled at least 25% of the fodder needs.
Reviving biodiverse agriculture
The realization that the Green Revolution has become a trap has forced many farmers in Garhwal to seriously reconsider their options, and at least some are turning to their traditional systems for answers. Village elders recall their old seeds and practices; unfortunately, many are simply no longer locally available.
Responding to this crisis around them (and in their own lives), workers of the Chipko Movement have initiated the Beej Bachao Andolan (‘Save the Seed Movement’). Individually, some of them started reusing and conserving indigenous seeds about a decade back, but the Beej Bachao Andolan (BBA) was started in 1990-91.
At the time the BBA began, the Hemvalghati region of Tehri Garhwal had only two to three indigenous rice varieties left in cultivation, and most of the barahnaja fields had been converted to new soybean. BBA workers traveled extensively through Tehri Garhwal and Uttarkashi districts, and found several remote areas where agronomy had not replaced traditional farming. Here, indigenous crop diversity survived. The BBA workers collected these crops and began growing them on an experimental basis in the Hemvalghati region. Today, some 126 varieties of rice, 8 of wheat, 40 of finger millet, 6 of barnyard millet, 110 of kidney beans, 7 of horsegram, 8 of traditional soybean, and 10 of French beans, are being grown. No chemical inputs are being provided. The characteristics of each–growth, resistance, special properties, and so on–are being carefully observed. Varieties with desirable properties, like high productivity and resistance, are being propagated amongst other farmers. Seeds are given to these farmers in return for an equivalent amount of their seeds. Practices like barahnaja are being revived and encouraged in place of the new soybean.
The aim of the BBA is to revive and maintain the prosperity represented by traditional agriculture, in which humans, other animals, and nature can live in some harmony. The earth is considered a mother, from whose breasts humans can drink, and not as an inanimate object to be butchered and exploited. After all, if varieties once disappear, how can they be brought back? It is said that even if seeds disappear from farmers fields, they can be conserved in gene banks. But a seed is alive only on a farm, and the mechanisms of increasing diversity, such as farmer exchange and evolutionary modifications, are possible only when seeds continue to be in active use. Farmers fields are living gene banks.
Apart from Hemvalghati, the BBA is active in a limited way in the Bhagirathi and Balganga valleys of Tehri Garhwal, and in the Rath region of Pauri Garhwal. But though it is succeeding in reviving crop diversity and organic farming, it is also faced with formidable obstacles which have so far limited its spread. Chief amongst these is the present model of development, and the attitudes related to it. Economic and social incentives continue to be geared towards promoting monocultural farming with heavy chemical inputs. Scientists at the Govind Vallabh Pant Agricultural University in Garhwal dismiss the BBA as being ‘emotional’, and lacking a scientific base. However, farmers involved with the BBA reject this view, as they are firmly convinced that organic cultivation with indigenously developed seeds is the only path to self-reliance and prosperity. By now, they also have limited results to back up their claims. These results can be put to scrutiny; the BBA is convinced that its claims will be vindicated if this is done.
Implications for agricultural policy
The unsustainability of the Green Revolution
The analysis of the decline and revival of a biologically diverse, organic, and farmer-centered agriculture in the Tehri Garhwal hills, presented above, is brief and, for reasons of space, necessarily simplistic. But it nevertheless presents elements of a formidable challenge to the current policy of agricultural development in India. This policy, which has remained unchanged in essence since the Green Revolution thrust in the mid-1960′s, emphasizes the intensification of agriculture with a heavy dose of inputs external to the local farming system (chemicals, lab-generated seeds, long-distance irrigation, subsidies and credit, and centralized extension services). The aim is single-fold: to increase grain output, at whatever cost. But while the imperatives of the situation in the 1960s may have forced our agricultural planners towards such a course, and while booming foodgrains output may continue to give this policy an aura of success, we now have three decades of experience to suggest that this success has been built on an increasingly fragile base. Hindsight tells us that this form of agricultural development is simply not sustainable.
The various ecological and social indicators of this unsustainability have been pointed out by many: loss of topsoil and essential soil nutrients which cannot be replaced by chemical fertilizers, waterlogging and salinization of irrigated lands, widespread chemical poisoning of soil, water, and food, rising expenditure on petroleum imports, the financial drain of subsidies, rising regional imbalances and inequities between various agricultural classes, and erosion of the genetic base. In the context of this paper, we will briefly deal with only the last of these.
The Green Revolution has directly led to the widespread loss of the very genetic and biological diversity on which agriculture depends. Unfortunately, there is no available figure of this overall loss in India. Some idea can be gauged by the fact that a handful of HYVs are now grown over 70% of the paddy land and 90% of the wheat land of the country. Some localized studies exist of the loss of traditional varieties. For instance, in the Godavari district of the east Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, an estimated 95% of the rice varieties have been lost. Thousands of varieties of rice, cotton, minor millets, pulses, and other crops are no longer in use. Similar decline has been seen in the case of livestock; it is estimated that 10 (50%) of the goat breeds, five (almost 20%) of the cattle breeds, and 12 (30%) of the sheep breeds are today threatened (Balain 1992).
This erosion of agricultural biodiversity threatens the long-term stability and sustainability of Indian agriculture itself, in many ways:
- It erodes the genetic base on which scientists are depending for continuous improvement of crops and livestock. The majority of HYVs themselves have been developed from genetic material taken from traditional varieties and wild relatives of crops. These HYVs, in particular hybrids, are not very long-living: they tend to lose their viability and productivity, or become increasingly susceptible to pest/disease attacks, within a few years. This necessitates the infusion of fresh genetic material, which is again obtained from existing traditional varieties or wild plants. But then the introduction of these HYVs is itself a major cause of the erosion of traditional crop diversity. As has been said, modern agriculture is somewhat akin to building the roof of a house by taking the bricks from the walls.
- The failure of a single HYV crop due to any natural calamity is a crippling blow for a farmer who has no other crop to fall back on, as was the case in traditional agriculture. And since the same variety may now be grown over thousands of hectares, its failure entails suffering and destitution for a vast number of farmers. Some degree of security against such eventualities can be artificially achieved by expensive measures like protective irrigation, subsidies, and credit schemes, but such measures are expensive and prone to failure. For the country as a whole too, the increasing reliance on a narrow genetic range of crops represents a high-risk proposition.
- Both the above features result in an increasing dependence of the farmer on the industry-dominated market and the government. Virtually everything that is required for farming, except land and labor, is now obtained from outside: seeds, irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, credit. And despite huge subsidies on these inputs, as also support prices and the like, an increasing number of farmers are facing the economic treadmill, spending more and more to achieve the same output.
- Several other effects of the Green Revolution have brought insecurity in the lives of farmers. For instance, the traditional paddy field provided not only rice but also fish, frogs, and other elements of biodiversity which were an important part of the diet of several communities, especially tribals. Modern paddy fields, which require large amounts of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, are devoid of much of this biodiversity, with a resultant loss of nutrition for farmers.
Biodiversity conservation, productivity, and livelihood security
The work of the Beej Bachao Andolan, and of dozens of similar groups and networks across India, shows that there may not be any contradiction between the objectives of productivity, biodiversity conservation, and the economic livelihood of farmers. Indeed, it suggests that these may be inextricably linked, especially if a long-term perspective is taken, and if productivity is redefined to include the overall ability of agriculture to provide the food, fodder, fuel, and other (including cultural) requirements of society. From this point of view, all the varied outputs of biologically diverse farming practices, which fulfill different human needs, add up to the productivity of agriculture. And the longer these outputs can be produced, the more sustainable is the agriculture.
Based on the experience of farmers involved with the BBA, and of farmers from other regions of India, we present below a sketchy outline of how productivity, diversity, and livelihood can be combined in a new agricultural policy:
- A mix of strategies: In the short term, since conditions suitable to biodiverse organic farming may not be available everywhere, a geographical mix of conventional HYV cultivation areas with traditional cropping areas, could be promoted. Typically, the former has been more successful in irrigated plains, while the latter has held out in rainfed plains and hilly, marshy, or otherwise `marginal’ lands. Foodgrains productivity from the former would be needed in the transitional phase to sustainable farming; eventually, however, even Green Revolution areas will need to switch to organic inputs and diversified production patterns. This would include a change from monocultures to the use of diversity within species (e.g. varieties of rice), between crop species (e.g. fish and paddy), and so on. An immediate task would be to encourage the continued use of traditional seed varieties and livestock breeds for domestic consumption, which many farmers even in Green Revolution areas are practicing.
- Building on indigenous biodiversity: Intensified research is needed on indigenous crops and crop varieties, and livestock breeds, for their desirable characteristics like productivity and resistance. The BBA farmers report, for instance, that Thapachini paddy variety, traditionally grown in Garhwal, yields as much as modern HYVs, with much less inputs. The early work of scientist R.H. Richharia on paddy is famous for this focus. Some government and non-governmental agencies have more recently also emphasised this, but a more systematic national policy thrust is lacking. The research will also necessarily have to be site-specific, sensitive to the enormous ecological and social diversity found in India. Most critically, maximum initiative for R&D (including breeding) must be placed in the hands of farmers themselves.
- Transforming economic incentives: A whole host of disincentives to biodiverse, organic farming will have to be withdrawn, and changed to positive incentives. Subsidies for Green Revolution inputs should change to subsidies for organic inputs, at least temporarily during the transitional phase, till organic farming becomes self-sustaining. Bank loan policies and credit systems, extension services, pricing strategies, media promotion, farmers’ training programs, social recognition and economic rewards … all of these, currently geared to promoting the Green Revolution model, should be focused on the new sustainable farming models. As suggested by a number of people, even the Public Distribution System (PDS) should be geared towards promoting the consumption of a variety of foods, rather than only rice and wheat. Several traditional cereals for instance, could be included in the grains picked up and sold through the PDS, thereby providing incentives for their continued cultivation.
- Producer-consumer links: Direct links between farmers and consumers who want safe and diverse food, need to be established. There is increasing concern among urban consumers about the ill-effects of food laden with pesticide residues. This concern could easily be transformed into a willingness to purchase organic food, even if such food is slightly more costly. The Beej Bachao Andolan, for instance, has established such links with Kalpavriksh, a Delhi-based environmental group, which is helping it to market some of the surplus organic produce from the villages BBA is active in.
- Repatriation from genebanks: A considerable diversity of indigenous crops no longer used in farmer’s fields is stored in various gene banks, established by the Indian government or by international agencies. Technically, this material is freely available to farmers. However, most farming communities are not even aware of these banks, and even those that are, rarely have the wherewithal to approach the banks for varietal material. There needs to be an active process of repatriation and distribution of this material, even in its unmodified form (‘unimproved’, to use the biased terminology of formal seed breeders), for farmers to try within new or revived organic cultivation practices. This should include repatriation from international gene banks.
- Farmers’ exchange: Revival of crop diversity can also be facilitated by encouraging across the fence and long-distance exchange and transfers between farmers and farming communities. Such practices, which are age-old and are still the major mechanism by which seed is made available to farmers, are threatened by the moves towards introducing intellectual property rights (IPRs) in plant materials. These moves have to be firmly rejected in any agricultural policy which claims to be sensitive to biodiversity concerns.
- Returns to farmers: Considerable agricultural advances have taken place on the basis of genetic characteristics derived from varieties developed by farmers, or on the basis of farmers’ knowledge. The profits derived from such use have, however, been largely restricted to the formal agricultural sector (governmental and corporate). Ensuring returns to the farming community is an important means of providing incentives for conservation and innovation. These returns can be in cash (germplasm collection fees, royalties, etc.) or in kind (natural resource rights, developmental inputs, seed repatriation, social recognition, etc.), but must be built on the principles of prior informed consent of the farmer/farming community, and mutual agreement between the parties concerned. The Philippines has recently promulgated guidelines on collection and transfer of genetic material, with important provisions for ensuring returns to local communities. Also, a range of Material Transfer Agreements are being proposed in international circles, as contracts between providers and recipients of genetic material. The relevance and suitability of these developments should be analyzed for Indian situations.
- Protecting critical areas: There is an increasing recognition in India of the need for a comprehensive land/water use policy and strategy, in which areas important for conservation are identified and declared off-limits to exploitative use. A concern for agricultural diversity is, however, still missing from this thrust. We would recommend urgent identification of areas in India which still retain indigenous agricultural biodiversity, and their declaration as special conservation areas. Farmers in such areas should be at the center of planning, and be specially targeted to receive incentives, for biodiversity conservation and use.
All these steps will have to be placed within a model of agriculture which has, as its central principles, the following: farmer self-sufficiency, ecological (including genetic) sustainability, socio- economic equity, and cultural pluralism. Unfortunately the new move towards integrating Indian agriculture into the global market, with its attendant thrust towards turning farming into an export-oriented, large-scale, corporate industry, violently militates against these principles–so do developments like the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), and the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (UPOV). On the positive side, there is increasing recognition of in-situ conservation and local community rights in international treaties like the Convention on Biological Diversity, and FAO’s International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources. Within India, agricultural community rights have found a place in the proposed Plant Varieties Protection Act, though the fundamental premise of the Act itself is problematic, as it encourages private monopoly over biodiversity elements. Principles of conservation and of providing returns to communities are included in the proposed biodiversity conservation legislation currently being considered by the Government of India. The bottom line, however, is provided by efforts such as those of the Beej Bachao Andolan; farmers’ own assertion of ecological and economic self-reliance is the strongest base for a sustainable agriculture.
Balain, D.S.,1992. Animal genetic resources for sustainable agriculture In M.S. Swaminathan and S. Jana eds., Biodiversity: implications for global food security. Madras: Macmillan India Limited.