On an acre of plot at Siddanahundi in T. Narsipur taluk of Mysuru district, Srinivasmurthy S.R. is busy preparing the land and nursery for paddy seed production. The demand for Jeerige Sanna variety and a few other desi, or indigenous varieties, has soared. Srinivasmurthy has to boost production to meet the growing demand for paddy seeds.
In the neighbouring district of Mandya, Syed Ghani Khan has cultivated 1,350 varieties of paddy on his plot in Kirugavalu in Malavalli taluk to cater to demand from local farmers for indigenous paddy varieties. Apart from meeting the requirements of farmers, Ghani Khan also has to ensure supplies to a seed producing company. He has reserved five acres exclusively for paddy seed cultivation.
Silent shift towards indigenous varieties
These are just two instances of farmers switching to seed production of indigenous crop varieties, be it paddy, vegetables, millets, or pulses. Such efforts from farmers have gained traction in recent years in what could be billed as a silent revolution in the making.
At a time when multinational companies with deep pockets have patented technologies and monopolise the market with hybrid seeds of various crops, a section of farmers has broken free from the clutches of the market, and are ploughing a lonely furrow by producing heirloom seeds and propagating them among fellow cultivators.
These are not one-off or isolated initiatives. The number of farmers and farmer seed producers’ collectives is on the rise in the Mysuru-Mandya-Chamarajanagar belt, as also the rest of Karnataka.
Lower production cost
In most cases, such endeavours began as an effort to minimise the cost of agricultural production, and were supported by NGOs. But along the way, farmers were consumed by the fire of conserving crop diversity around them, which was disappearing under the onslaught of hybrid monoculture.
‘’Paddy varieties that were cultivated locally, which we grew up consuming, were increasingly difficult to come by, and were on the verge of extinction due to the onslaught of the hybrid seeds,’’ says Srinivasmurthy.
The need to reduce agricultural cost was also coupled with the imperatives of developing seeds that could resist moisture stress and survive in local climatic conditions. And the experiments – encouraged and promoted by like-minded individuals and NGOs – that began on small swathes of agricultural plots, seem to have made positive gains over the years.
‘’Apart from promoting indigenous crop varieties, the farmers are also conserving seed diversity. From food cultivators, farmers are forming collectives that are emerging as repositories of seed varieties,’’ said Manju of Sahaja Samruddha, which started as a people’s movement for sharing knowledge and exchange of seeds to safeguard crop or agrobiodiversity.
The tribe is growing
From a handful of farmers at inception 23 years ago, the organisation now has a network of over 700 farmers who insist on using heirloom seeds, and eschew the hybrid varieties.
“But, out of them, about 60 farmers are seed producers who help in propagating the indigenous crops and encourage building a community seed bank,” according to G. Krishnaprasad, one of the founders of Sahaja Samruddha, which supports farmers’ groups and provides market linkages.
The enthusiasm of the new generation of farmers in conservation of indigenous crop varieties and seeds has spanned a cottage industry in seed production with the emergence of different farmer groups.
From cultivating paddy to producing paddy and vegetable seeds that are patent-free, farmers’ efforts are also backed by a growing demand in urban areas for organic agricultural produce.
Hulikadu is one such collective of seed producers based in H.D. Kote in Mysuru district. All organic vegetable cultivators in the region were brought under one roof and were registered as Hulikadu Farmers’ Producers’ Company. Efforts are on to supply vegetables to major organic retailers in and around Mysuru.
‘’The whole purpose of the movement is to propagate desi varieties of crops and distribute seeds to farmers. These seeds are patent-free. Unlike companies, which put profit over communities, we insist that farmers save some seeds and distribute them to other seed producers, and propagate their use,’’ said Srinivasmurthy who has a collection of 250 varieties of paddy in his farm.
New variety of rice, venturing into vegetable seeds
The journey of Bore Gowda of Shivahalli in Mandya to the world of seed conservation and production began more than 15 years ago. He, in fact, ended up breeding a new variety of paddy, which he named Siddasanna – after his father Sidde Gowda and mother Sannamma. Siddasanna is today cultivated by over 2,000 farmers.
Not all farmers are into paddy or millet seed production. A few have ventured into producing vegetable seeds as well.
Lokesh of Kollegal took up production of tomato seeds. His confidence of an assured price for seeds got a boost when he reaped a profit despite tomato prices crashing in the market recently. He has embarked on production of other exotic crops, including red maize. His venture inspired five other small farmers to take to seed production.
Keshav of Mysuru has a plot of land at Yelwal on the outskirts of the city where he has taken up producing seeds of rare varieties of tomatoes, including the black variety, apart from 20 types of chillies. Kalappa of Periyapatana cultivates and produces seeds of nearly 100 varieties of crops and vegetables, and has market linkages through Sahaja Samruddha.
Seed cultivation is less vulnerable to price fluctuation in market
For farmers who suffer crop loss due to vagaries of nature or don’t get assured returns due to fluctuations in the market price, seed production is something of an anchor that helps them tide through difficult times.
But seed production long ceased to be in the farmers’ domain as companies took over production, patented the technology, and flooded the market with hybrid varieties, forcing farmers to opt for them, adding to the cost of agriculture production.
However, the steady decline in agricultural income and rise in cost of cultivation has forced a section of farmers to revert to seed production, and they are now reaping a dividend.
“But seed production is not everybody’s cup of tea,” explains Krishnaprasad. It is akin to ‘’higher studies’’.
‘’Seed production requires lot of patience. It is labour-intensive, and the gestation period is longer. Not notwithstanding the downside, many farmers are opting for the seed production route to eke out a slice of the profit which otherwise goes to MNCs or private companies,” he added.
The growing awareness among farmers to retrieve ‘seed sovereignty’, and the demand for organically cultivated and chemical-free food are other factors that have given a boost to setting up of more farmers’ producers’ company, Krishnaprasad said.
Among the seed producers linked with Sahaja Samruddha, farmers not only produce different varieties of rice and millets, but also pulses. They boost production depending on the demand.
The emerging trend found an echo in the final resolution passed during the 5th Kisan Swaraj Sammelan held in Mysuru in November 2022. The sammelan recognised the systemic failures in the agriculture sector, the erosion of farmers’ self-sufficiency, and called for restoration of farmers’ legal rights over seeds.
But for the movement to sustain, it requires consumers to shift to organic and indigenous varieties of crops, so as to fuel greater demand for them and help revive agricultural diversity through changes in their purchase behaviour.
Greater awareness among consumers
That there is a perceptible change in consumer behaviour towards all things organic is evident in the response to a slew of tuber melas, jack fruit melas, and millet melas that take place in Mysuru and other cities frequently.
A part of it is also fuelled by the growing awareness on the early onset of lifestyle diseases, like diabetes, abetted by lack of physical activity, to neutralise which a change in dietary habit is gaining ground.
So, a small initiative at the grassroots by farmers’ collectives is not only democratizing seed production and conserving the genetic wealth, but is also adding diversity to the food and dietary pattern, and stimulating demand for food like millets that are making a comeback on the plate of consumers