Saving India’s heirloom seeds

How Sangita Sharma of Annadana and Dr Prabhakar Rao of Hariyalee Seeds are saving India’s heirloom produce and educating people to eat what is in season

Updated - May 02, 2019 11:35 am IST

Published - April 26, 2019 06:19 pm IST

Assam Giant Sunflower seeds at Annadana

Assam Giant Sunflower seeds at Annadana

Every year, hundreds of native varieties of crops go extinct, replaced by corporate-produced hybrids. But the tide is slowly shifting, thanks to seed banks and people like Dr Vandana Shiva of Navdanya — the spokesperson for biodiversity who recently launched the ‘Poison-Free Food & Farming by 2030’ campaign. This week, learn how to save seeds at home from these two Bengaluru-based organisations.


Sangita Sharma, Annadana

When Neeraj Kakkar, founder of Paper Boat, was struggling to find a farm that grew black carrots, it was this seed farm in Bengaluru that supplied the beverage brand over a tonne of the prized produce. He went on to create kaanji, a traditional fermented drink prepared in North India during the winters. “It is zingy, pungent and a super probiotic,” says Sangita Sharma, Founding Trustee and Chairperson of Annadana Soil and Seed Savers, where the drink is prepared in-house and served to visitors when in season.

Since 2009, when Annadana’s seed bank was set up, they have conserved over 800 heritage crop varieties, with a focus on vegetables. “We multiply semi-tropical and tropical seeds, as we are based in these regions,” says Sharma, who believes varietal purity is the need of the hour. “We safeguard not just what is indigenous (green gram, gourds, pepper, paddy, turmeric), but also the diversity of the world. Most of what’s on your plate, like tomatoes, potatoes and wheat, did not originate in India.”

“It’s important to educate people to eat what’s in season. Seeds belong to our farmers and conserving them helps us create everything in-house,” says Sharma. So how does their seed bank work? Farmers and experts maintain the non-hybrid, non-GMO genetic stock. After the monsoon each year, a seed catalogue is released to garden enthusiasts and rural/urban farmers. “Over a million packets of vegetable seeds have been distributed throughout India at no cost. Starter seeds are provided to support farmers facing natural disasters such as tsunamis, floods and drought,” adds Sharma, who donated over five lakh packs to the Kerala and Kodagu flood victims. Seed production farms and seed banks have also been set up by her for State Horticulture farms in Karnataka and Meghalaya. For farm visits and workshops, visit .

Produce from Hariyalee Seeds

Produce from Hariyalee Seeds

Dr Prabhakar Rao, Hariyalee Seeds

If you went to the market a 100 years ago, you could choose from 544 cabbage varieties, 480 types of peas, nearly 408 tomato species and over 341 pumpkins and squashes, says agriculturist Dr Prabhakar Rao. We’ve lost nearly all the vegetable varieties kept alive by dedicated farmers and seed savers for decades, simply because our generation has failed to recognise the importance of seeds, he says. “We are all aware of the loss of biodiversity among animals, birds and trees. But I am yet to see a ‘Save the Vegetable’ campaign,” says the scientist, who set up Hariyalee Seeds in 2011 after working at the Seed Savers Exchange in the US.


In the past six years, Dr Rao has managed to successfully multiply over 142 varieties of indigenous vegetables. But what is ‘seed making’? “When I collect seeds from remote areas, the numbers are few and sometimes it’s just one seed. At my farm, they are tested for their ability to grow, produce plants that are identical to the mother plant, environmental stability, etc. Once the process is over, they are either preserved or cultivated to yield more seeds,” says the geneticist, who has been collecting seeds from across the globe for over 25 years. Among his collection, the Bangladesi brinjal, Poona kakadi, Magadi tomato, Moldavian balm and white okra top the list of endangered heirloom seeds. For workshop details, visit .

In Noida...

- Aparna Rajagopal
Founder, Beejom

Seed saving is a science and we try to use only indigenous seeds, so that we can save and propagate them year after year. They are sturdy, resilient and consistent in their yield. I recently saved 1.5 kg of seeds of a unique swan-shaped bottle gourd variety. I started with four seeds, and managed to increase it in just one season. All serious farmers have to carefully cultivate and create bulk quantities for themselves.

In Chennai...

“The reception of heritage/heirloom grains is  welcoming. Everyone is suddenly aware, and realise this is a healthier option. As part of our seed saving, they are traditionally stored in mud pots and go into a line field every nine months, so that the seeds are viable. The seedlings are either transplanted into a main field or allowed to grow where they are, before being harvested and stored.“ Jayanthi Somasundaram, Spirit of the Earth

In Karnakata...

"We are an organic family farm and small-scale seed producer. We sell open pollinated traditional and heirloom seeds on our website farm store ( ). At present, we are the only single-origin certified organic seed producer in India. We also offer free growing guides, companion planting instructions, and seasonal calendars for aspiring farmers and gardening enthusiasts online. The diverse varieties of seeds we are offering support the biodiversity in plants needed in an organic garden or a farm. These include salad greens, heirloom tomatoes and peppers, traditional Indian vegetables and greens, herbs, flowers, trees, shrubs and farm grains. We are releasing 30 more varieties this monsoon – beans, tomatoes, chilli, okra, gourds, squash, cucumber, pumpkins, basil, flowers and herbs. All our seeds go through viability and germination tests before they are ready for sale. They are designed, packed and shipped from our farm in rural Karnataka."  Anjali Rudraraju, Yarroway Farm

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