They need less water, no fertilizer and hardly any care or attention

Climate change has spawned debate as well as initiatives such as planting saplings, cultivating kitchen gardens, household energy conservation and so on.

At the grassroots level, a few farmers are doing their bit to preserve traditional and local varieties of seeds.

“These farmers are commonly called ‘Custodian farmers’. They preserve traditional seeds and make sure that they don’t disappear amongst the variety of hybrid seeds available in the market which farmers prefer because of the promise of high yield,” says M. Palanisamy, Programme Director, Rainfed Farming Development Programme at the Dhan Foundation in Madurai.

The need to preserve traditional and local varieties of seeds that are gradually disappearing is all the more because they do not need much water or chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow. They can withstand the rigors of climate change and its harsh side effects.

True to the term ‘custodian farmer,’ R. Jeyaraman from Adhirangam in Tiruvarur has preserved 63 types of traditional paddy. “These traditional paddy varieties, unlike the ones used at present, do not need much water,” he explains.

Mr. Jeyaraman has distributed the paddy varieties to farmers from Kerala, Karnataka, Orissa and West Bengal. Among the paddy varieties he has preserved are seeds that need only 60 to 180 days to grow.

“Another factor that most farmers today struggle with is that their crops need constant care and attention, especially before harvest. What they don’t realize is that many of these traditional varieties need only a short span of time to grow and can be harvested easily,” Mr. Jeyaraman says.

While hybrid varieties enjoy brisk demand, the promise of high yield often diverts attention from the side effects.

“When rainfall is extremely scanty, it is impossible to plant most new varieties of seeds,” A.P. Alagarsamy from Pallapatti in Dindigul district points out.

With climate change affecting the conditions under which these farmers are forced to work, the need for such traditional varieties which can withstand harsh climatic conditions is growing.

“Traditional varieties of paddy that can withstand floods for as long as a month and torrential rain are the kind of seeds we need to preserve,” said Syed Ghani Khan, a farmer from Mandya in Karnataka.

“With traditional paddy types from Thailand, Burma and Indonesia, I hope to preserve many more traditional seeds through cross pollination,” he adds.

Hybrid seeds and the other varieties that are distributed also have a shorter lifespan that results in the quantity of yield gradually decreasing as years go by.

“Seeds from the hybrid crops cannot be sown directly. The farmer is forced to go back to the centres after his crop is harvested to buy the seeds again and has no control over the price,” says Mr. Palanisamy.

Jegannath Raja from Rajapalayam district has preserved and aggressively marketed two varieties of mango — ‘Mohandas’ and ‘Potllama.’

“The two traditional varieties are fast disappearing and I managed to preserve them and spread awareness of how these varieties can be used to generate income in rain-starved areas since they do not need much water to grow,” says Mr. Jegannath.

He has preserved over 2,000 traditional varieties of fruit, though not all are income-generating.

“While I have preserved a number of seeds to safeguard them, I encourage farmers to buy only a few varieties that are traditional and promise high yield,” he says.

With the importance of preservation and conservation of these traditional and indigenous seeds, there is a need for live genetic resources or nurseries to facilitate studies and spread awareness among farmers.

“Farmers should set apart a portion of their land for cultivation of traditional seeds. With live genetic resources, or maintaining nurseries rather than seeds, it will be easier for farmers to choose varieties and see the benefits for themselves,” said R. Adinarayanan, a faculty member at the Tata Dhan Academy.

The farmers were recently honoured at the Madurai Symposium 2013, organized by the Dhan Academy, and given the ‘Custodian Farmer’ awards for their contribution to biodiversity conservation.

“God has given us the resources we are using now and it is our duty to conserve them and pass them on to posterity,” says Mr. Syed Ghani.