By Subhojit Goswami

What does it take to travel to the remotest corners of India and identify rare indigenous crops by assessing 56 different morphological characteristics? What does it take to not just conserve more than 1440 last-remaining varieties of rice, but keep them alive by growing them every year on a less than two-acre farmland? Ask Dr. Debal Deb. A scientist, a farmer, and a conservationist, Dr. Deb has been painstakingly working at the intersection of food security and climate resilience—the two most pressing concerns the world over.

“When I started my journey of conservation 25 years ago, there was no work or concern among agriculturists or agricultural departments towards conserving the remaining landraces of rice, even though we had lost more than 90% of genetic diversity of Indian rice by then. I felt compelled, not just as an ecologist or a scientist, but also as a concerned citizen, to save these near-extinct varieties of crops, until some more competent authority takes up the responsibility,” says Dr. Deb, the founder of Vrihi—one of the largest non-governmental seed banks in the world, housing not just rice crops, but also around 20 varieties of millets and different varieties of legumes and vegetables.

Dr. Debal Deb agrees that carrying out the daily activities is a challenge for reasons for more than one. It is only a four-member team, including him, Debdulal Bhattacharya, Mahendra Nauri and Sabita, that has to not only take care of seed collection and plant characterisation, but also work on the 1.7-acre farmland, Basudha, located near Kerandiguda village of Odisha’s Rayagada district. In absence of any governmental or institutional funding, his initiative is starved of resources, both in terms of agricultural land and staff. 

In Basudha, which is a complete antithesis to the kind of agriculture we associate with the Green Revolution, space allotted to each variety of indigenous crop is around 2m x 2m, which is just enough to retain the minimum viable population for maintaining the gene pool of each variety. As Dr. Deb and his team continue to work despite several constraints, they know that they can pin hopes on tribal farmers in southern Odisha, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat and the Northeastern states. “There are thousands of farmers who are conserving indigenous varieties on their own. They are my best hopes and the greatest strengths in this kind of pursuit. They do not go for immediate monetary benefits, but for the intrinsic value of diversity,” says Dr. Deb.

There is a strong sense of certitude and righteousness in Dr. Deb, which perhaps explains his fervent opposition to a mindset rampant in modern farming: a mindset that views seeds as a commodity. “We have collected each of these varieties of rare seeds from farmers, who, in many cases, were the last in the league to be growing them. For thousands of years, unknown indigenous farmers have been developing and growing these varieties.  That’s why seeds have remained a ‘commons’ (natural resources are held in common, and not owned privately) for millennia. Hence, they must not be sold; they must not be commoditised. That’s our philosophy,” Dr. Deb quips. 

Vrihi gives away seeds to farmers for free and, in return, expects them to return some of them to the seed bank after cultivation, and also share those with other farmers, so that the circle of seed exchange expands. So far, more than 17,000 farmers from at least 15 states have directly or indirectly taken seeds from Vrihi. 

This brings us to a more obvious question: does the cultivation of these indigenous varieties ensure nutritional security? An example should suffice. Rice varietiesDudhe Boltaand Baid Dhusuri,have very high iron content—130.9 mg/kg and 150.9 mg/kg, respectively. This is about 20 times higher than what transgenic iron-fortified rice contains, making them an ideal staple for those who have anemia, which is endemic in large parts of the global South. 

In conversation with Dr Debal Deb

Another facet of these indigenous crops is their climate resilience “For the last 25 years, I have been telling that our indigenous varieties of rice are the best bet for adapting to climate extremes,” says Dr. Deb. He narrates his experience of May 2009, when cyclone Aila swept through the coasts of West Bengal and Bangladesh. Thousands of hectares of farmlands in Sundarbans went out of production overnight because of saltwater incursion. Institutions and government agencies could not provide even a single rice variety that could survive in the saline water. In June, the same year, Dr. Deb alone, at his own cost, distributed seeds of four salt-tolerant rice varieties to 20 farmers. “Those were the only farmers who were capable of growing rice and feeding their family,” says Dr. Deb. “So far, our genetic engineers have not been able to develop such crop varieties. Even if we assume that, in future, genetic engineering will develop similar varieties, it would still require investments of millions of dollars, and the seeds will be privatized. Farmers will have to pay through their nose to buy those proprietary seeds. Instead of this, can we not embrace locally known and farmer-owned seeds that come at zero cost?” asks Dr. Deb.

Team Basudha is now working in 10 states of the country, training farmers in rice characterisation methods, and another training in agroecology. In turn, the trained farmers pass on that knowledge to others in their community. The curriculum of the hands-on training in agroecology is jointly designed by Dr. Deb himself and Professor Stephen Gliessman of the University of California – Santa Cruz. This training is for both the uninitiated as well as experts. According to Dr. Deb, it is “totally away and opposed to the mainstream curriculum of agriculture”. Basudha Trust gives certificates to those completing this course, which happens in October every year. This week-long course costs INR 16,000, which includes food, lodging, local transportation and training materials.

This small but driven team is working towards establishing a different view of development where we put community before profit and biodiversity before bottom-line. Let’s stand by them.

Dr. Deb can be reached at [email protected].