Uttarakhand farmers resist genetically modified tide with local seeds

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The Times of India, Upli Nagni, Tehri-Garhwal, India

The words 'seed capital' take on a whole new meaning in the hills of Uttarakhand. Far from the networks of seed corporations, farmers here still do agriculture in the traditional way where they are not only cultivators but also field scientists and seed tinkerers.

Most farmers in the Garhwal and Kumaon hills have never bought commercial seeds. They cultivate their own and share them with other farmers, who repay with their own local seeds or return double the quantity of the borrowed variety from the next crop. This system has preserved seed diversity and quality for centuries.

"You will not be able to count the number of seed varieties we have in our village. People come here to borrow and we give away happily," said Pushpa Devi, who was tilling the soil for planting vegetables in Jhardargaon near Upli Nagni with a younger woman farmer named Hima Meher.

Their village has about 350 varieties of paddy, including dryland ones, 32 of wheat, 220 of kidney beans or rajma, 12 of millets (63 sub-varieties of foxtail millet alone), and 5-7 varieties of each vegetable that grows here.

Jhardargaon is home to farmer leader Vijay Jhardari who leads the Beej Bachao Andolan for preserving traditional seed varieties. He and other farmer leaders are now worried as the promised yields of the newly-approved genetically modified (GM) mustard could give the corporations an upper hand in their David-and-Goliath fight.

"The hills of Uttarakhand have a culture of mixed cropping. Just like you can't eat the same food every day, the soil doesn't like a monopoly of crops. It wants variety. The crop cycle here is what suits the climate and gives the nutrients to soil and people," said Jhardari, adding, "GM technology will ruin the Himalayan ecology." Jhardari is a veteran of Chipko Andolan that aimed to save trees in the 1970s. He started Beej Bachao with other Chipko members. When TOI met him, he was preparing for a festival to commemorate the tree-hugging movement. "We had a slogan for our seed movement: kya hai jungle ke upkar? Mitti, pani aur byar (what are the benefits of forests? Soil, water and air)," he said.

He opposes the intellectual property rights (IPR) corporations' claim on their seeds. "I would say all patents on seeds should be banned. Seed is a common resource for farmers. If farmers lose access to their seeds, they will lose their independence and dignity." Satish Dhar, another activist and Dehradun-based farmer, agreed with Jhardari: "Nature tries to create a seed suited to an area's geography. Local seeds are in harmony with local environment," Jhardari said.

Dayanand with Radish

 

He also added that, "Today, seed accounts for 10-15% of a crop are cost. Farmers can't afford it. It comes with a package of herbicides and crop insurance. It's a nexus and the farmer gets trapped."

Beej Bachao members distrust not only corporations but also agricultural universities and national institutions. "I am not in favour of giving my seeds to the National Gene Bank. Why should we? Will they return those varieties to us when we need them? Will they promise not to share them with companies? I know that they gave some of our millet varieties to leading biscuit companies," said Jhardari.

Jhardari said G B Pant University of Technology and Agriculture, and Vivekananda Parvatiya Krishi Anusandhan Sanstha in Almora had modified their seed varieties but "the new varieties they give haven't worked for most, so people avoid them."

Like Jhardargaon in Garhwal, Gallakot village in the state's Kumaon region is also famous for its seed diversity. A steep hike within sight of Ranikhet hills brings you to the farm of 75-year-old Dayanand Joshi who grows several varieties of mandwa, jhungar or koni (millets), amaranth, a number of dals and vegetables. In 1962, he bred a radish variety that can weigh up to 15kg and tastes better than the commercial variety. His attempt to patent it was thwarted by the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Authority (PPFRA). "They said they don't cover minor crops like radish."

Joshi also cultivates a 100-year-old okra variety. His seeds have travelled to the eastern Himalayas too with visiting farmers from Sikkim and West Bengal. "It's important for us not to give in to pressures from corporations because we farmers have seeds for all seasons and no matter how badly you sow them, they will come up," he said.

The National Biodiversity Authority (NBA) and the Uttarakhand Biodiversity Board have not commented so far on how GM crops will affect agro-biodiversity, especially in ecologically sensitive areas like the Himalayas. Off the record, an official told TOI: "GMOs are prohibited. Communities can take a call. The Cartagena protocol is there, and the state biodiversity board can advise against it."

Farmers want the government to support traditional crops like millets and pulses by including them in the public distribution system (PDS) and the integrated child development services (ICDS). "Our government promised to supply them in PDS but there is no purchase mechanism, while Karnataka is already doing it," said Ajay Rastogi, agriculture expert who works with farmers here. "The minimum support price (MSP) mechanism is for selected crops and it is based on quantity, not quality. If Jhungar has far more protein than wheat, shouldn't it fetch a higher price?"