Old seeds for new

A recently-held seed innovation conference that brought together academic institutions from India, UK and Germany, reinforced the importance of native seeds and natural farming for Indian agriculture

September 18, 2017 04:09 pm | Updated 04:09 pm IST

Over 23 farmers from seven states, including policy makers, government officials, and researchers came together for a round-table conference to promote sustainable methods of seed innovation using traditional technology by Indian farmers.

The conference was conducted as part of a collaboration among the Max Planck Institute, Leeds University and The Art of Living at the latter’s international centre in the city.

The conference marked the end of a research project conducted by the participating institutions, which featured Mrinalini Kochupillai, Senior Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition; Natalie Kopytko and Gregory Radick from Leeds University; Pitambar Shrestha, Regional Coordinator of LI-BIRD, Nepal; Kishore Kumar Sharma from Assam Agricultural University;and Suman Sahai, Chairperson of the Gene Campaign.

One of the highlights of the conference was the exploration of the theme of seed innovation keeping in mind the condition of the Indian farmers, over 90% of whom cultivate on less than two hectares of land. The need to buy expensive seeds, which usually require fertilizers and other inputs, deeply contributes to their debt cycle.

“Innovation does not just happen in a laboratory, but also in the farm, as the farmers has an understanding of the crop beyond its physical properties,” said Suman, speaking at the conference.

The conference also noted that so far, research on agricultural techniques has primarily been conducted on large landholdings in water-rich regions. And so it has failed to produce the same results on marginal landholdings in rain-fed regions.

Natural farming techniques that use less water, enrich the soil with nutrients, cost less than chemical farming and are based on preservation of the indigenous seed benefit marginal farmers, who dominate the agricultural sector in India. The finding was further corroborated by a 11-month research project by The Art of Living, Max Planck and Leeds University.

“Given the huge agri-biodiversity of India, if the marginal farmer can be promoted to the status of an innovator, then India can export seeds as a technology to the whole world,” observed Mrinalini.

“Native seeds have more nutrition, taste and variety and can withstand erratic climates. These, naturally, are of more benefit to marginal farmers,” added Yash Mishra, a Chattisgarh-based farmer.

The conference also addressed the significant role played by governments in this regard and was reinforced by the views of Sanjay Khattal, Director, National Seeds Corporation.

“The government will explore possibilities of supporting the promotion of indigenous seed innovation,” he said.

“The takeaway here would be that in view of the centralized plant breeding efforts pertaining to hybrid and GMO varieties suited to irrigated lands reaching a plateau now, it is imperative that rain-fed agriculture that constitutes 44% of the arable land in India should be given priority,” said Prabhakar Rao, Trustee, Sri Sri Institute of Agricultural Sciences and Technology Trust. “Only indigenous seeds are suitable for cultivation in rain-fed areas and farmers who know these varieties so well should be participating in their improvement and breeding programmes.”

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