Indian Farmers Save Rice Varieties Seed By Seed

Seed heroes are protecting the future of India’s precious rice.

Aug 25, 2020


Indian Farmers Save Rice Varieties Seed By Seed | Seed heroes are protecting the future of India’s precious rice.

Indians have been cultivating rice for thousands of years. A basic crop, India is one of the leading producers of rice in the world. Along with potatoes, lentils, and millet, rice is also a staple Indian food, especially in the south.

Although the yields are increasing due to the growth of hybrid varieties, a few farmers are pushing for a return of the local varieties. Adapted over millennia, these lost seeds can withstand climate change, provide food security, and reconnect farmers to their traditions.

Some 50 years ago, every Indian village was growing over a dozen varieties of rice. The seeds were precious, having been passed down from generation to generation, according to The Guardian. They were often gifted and traded among relatives and friends.

These seeds were specific to the particular region’s climate and soil. Some could tolerate drought, while others grew in water as deep as 12 feet. According to a documentary from Down to Earth no other cereal is as resilient of rice and can survive in such a range of growing conditions; in Kerala, there are paddies below sea level and on 10,000-feet terraces in Kashmir.

Debal Deb, a plant scientist who became a farmer, told The Guardian that there used to be 100,000 varieties of rice, or landraces, including a rice that tastes like mango and a black rice with medicinal properties. Today, with the introduction of hybrid varieties, there are less than 6,000 landraces with fewer being grown every year.

Local farmers are losing touch with their traditional farming wisdom, often shunning tradition for progress. They may be gaining a higher yield, but the hybrid rice they now grow often perishes in harsh weather such as cyclones, soaring temperatures, and droughts. With climate change, weather conditions in India are becoming more erratic more often.

Firmly believing in the importance of reconnecting farmers with local rice seed varieties, Deb cultivates some 920 varieties on his 2 1/2-acre farm in Niyamgiri Hills in the eastern province of Odisha. He started a seed bank which he named Vrihi, which means “rice” in Sanskrit.

He asks locals to bring him rare rice seeds which he grows and then redistributes in 2-pound packets. He hands the packets out on condition that the farmer brings back rice as proof that he grew the seeds. He also asks the farmers to give seed packets from their crop to other rice growers in the area.

Unlike the hybrid seeds which cannot self-pollinate, must be purchased every year, and require the expense of fertilizers, landrace seeds are free, hardy,  and can often withstand pestilence.

Organic farmer and women’s activist Sabarmatee, along with her father Radha Mohan, are also determined to keep rice landraces vibrant. In a 1989 Down to Earth documentary, they bought a degraded plot of land with no top soil in Odisha province and called it Sambhav, which means “possible” or “manifested” in Hindi.

They used organic techniques to create a 90-acre food forest of which two acres are paddy land. Employing the system of rice intensification (SRI) method, which relies on rainwater ponds to irrigate the paddies, they cultivated 497 varieties of rice in one year.

Both Deb and Sabarmatee are visionaries who teach a renewed appreciation for growing the local rice varieties that were harvested in a specific region for millennia. Not only are they reconnecting locals with their rich heritage, seed by seed they are trying to avert a food crisis.

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Nicole is an editor, blogger and author who has recently left her urban life in order to be more connected with nature. In her spare time, she’s outdoors hiking in the forest, mountain biking or tending to her new permaculture garden.