How Grassroots Organic Seed Saviors Challenge Monopolies and Promote Sustainable Agriculture

Dehradun: “When I die, I will not leave any gold or currency for my grandchildren. I will leave them organic seeds that I have saved over the years and which they will remember as their grandmother’s heirloom. They should know that this biodiversity is the symbol of our culture, ” said Pranita Hendwe from Maharashtra in a passionate speech at Vasundhara 2021, an event held here on safeguarding biodiversity, organic farming, healthy living. and the livelihoods of farmers.

Leading the discussion, several grassroots farmers recalled their struggle to persuade their families to convert hazardous and chemical conventional farming to environmentally friendly organic farming. The back to basics methodology of the 1960s uses natural organic inputs and biological plant protection measures to grow almost everything from grains to spices, pulses, millets, coarse grains, oilseeds, fruits, vegetables and herbs on regenerated soil.

The COVID-19 pandemic through 2020-2021 affected the livelihoods of millions of people, but it raised awareness of organic foods and herbs as their favorite cuisine during the calamity. In fact, such food became medicine during the difficult days of the spread of the pandemic that kept people inside. Citizens have become aware of building preventive immunity, pollution-free air, a clean environment and healthy living in harmony with nature.

These difficult times have done more for organic farming than any government pressure could have had. E-marketing, multinational online retail chains and mega-department stores quickly jumped on the bandwagon and claimed ownership of organic products to drive sales.

Widow Renuka Sapate from Maharashtra was called ‘crazy’ when she started organic farming on land so much that when she wanted to hire a man to spray her crop with bio-pesticides, all the work stayed away from the “crazy” woman. field.

Skepticism about organic farming stems from a lack of government manpower from small farmers as they convert chemical-infested fields to humus-rich soil over a four-year period.

Having worked for over 10 years, Pranita and Renuka were among hundreds of farmers across the country who deposited in the NGO-run Navdanya biodiversity seed bank hordes of local seed varieties that they saved and saved. developed to fight against the impact of climate change. for dry lands, rainfalls, saline soils, flood zones, livestock feed and fodder. Some resilient varieties of paddy, legumes and millets that had disappeared have been revived in farmers’ fields. But these are community efforts.

Previously, in the public sector, there was a free exchange of genetic material between institutions, but since there was not much awareness of product patents and intellectual property rights (IPRs), some of these varieties have returned to farmers’ fields as private seed monopolies with royalties on sales, a retired agricultural scientist said, requesting anonymity.

Navdanya, for her part, maintains community registers that document seed descriptions based on gastronomic, morphological, agronomic, local and cultural data. These are compiled for exchange and distribution across ecoregions for the benefit of communities, not for non-local commercial benefits.

Vasundhara 2021 event on safeguarding biodiversity, organic farming, healthy lifestyles and farmers’ livelihoods, in Dehradun. Photo: author provided

“This has proven to be a vital compensatory force for the IPR regime and refutes the position that farmers’ varieties are ‘gifts of nature’ that can be freely appropriated for the benefit of corporations. Through solid documentation, the role of farmers as plant breeders is revitalized, strengthening their resistance to seed monopolies and IPR legislation, ” said Vandana Shiva, founder of Navdanya.

Policy changes

With the launch of hybrid and genetically modified seeds in the post-green revolution period, traditional seeds were gradually phased out. The crises in the production of indigenous edible pulses and oilseeds following the change in policy following the liberalization of the economy in the 1990s which gave way to the spread of transgenic cotton and soybeans are prime examples. . Signaling the rapid evolution of an ecosystem, the Seed Bill, which was introduced in 2004 to replace the 1966 Seed Act, undermined the age-old right of farmers to save, exchange, reuse and sell seeds. . After huge protests the draft was changed but differences with industry remain and the revised Seeds Bill, 2019 is on fire.

The same goes for the Pesticide Management Bill, 2020, which is pending in parliament. The bill does not set out accountability or clearly define approval processes. Among other things, there are objections that the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, promoter of pesticides, is given the responsibility of regulating them, in the event of a clear conflict of interest. Again, the differences are not resolved.

Although there is an initiative to encourage organic farming with Prime Minister Narendra Modi reinforcing the intention in his August 15 speech on this year’s Independence Day, there is no real push. policy to encourage grassroots farmers to move away from chemical agriculture, as the stealthy proliferation of unapproved products gather herbicide exhibits. In fact, the pesticide industry has an estimated market of $ 230 billion in India and is expected to grow.

In contrast, the organic market is advancing by leaps and bounds and despite the increase in domestic demand for organic food and drink during the pandemic, only 2.76% of a total net seeded area of ​​141 million hectares in the country has been certified organic, according to the Union. Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare.

Only about 2% of the 140 million landowners are so far covered by the National Organic Production Program (NPOP), the sources said. Domestic sales of organic products are estimated at Rs 4,000-4,350 crore. Sikkim is the only state that became fully organic in 2016.

On the export front, APEDA (Agriculture and Processed Foods Products Export Development Authority) evaluates organic food exports in 2020-2021 at 1,040.95 million dollars (Rs 7,671 crore), processed foods, including soybean meal, taking the lead at 57%, followed by oilseeds (9%) and grains and millets (7%).

Challenges

Despite all the rumors officially made, organic farming is constrained by the complex certification process involving heavy red tape and expensive third-party certification, which is extremely difficult for small and marginal farmers, many of whom are illiterate and few. digitally savvy. The absence of incentives comparable to those of conventional agriculture, the lack of infrastructure and the absence of a distribution network are other disincentives. However, the direct sale of organic products to consumers does not require compulsory certification, but there is no official data available on the share of sales and non-certified areas.

The biggest challenge for organic growers is the destruction of their painstakingly accomplished multi-crop agriculture by the invasion of wild animals who are rapidly losing their forest habitat to degradation and indiscriminate felling of trees to make way for government development projects. Displaced and deprived of food, food and water in declining forests, animals such as Neelgai (blue cow), elephants, wild boars, pigs, monkeys invade farmers’ fields uprooting trees and plants with disastrous and costly results . Governments are not addressing this crucial aspect of agriculture, nor are farmers compensated for their loss.

Some believe that instead of replanting commercial trees, sowing wild berries, tubers and fruit leaf trees in forest areas and reviving water bodies are urgent measures the government must take to reverse the situation. entry of animals into farms and human habitats.

Food activists and environmentalists dismayed by the government’s double plan for compulsory distribution of synthetic fortified cereals as India is rich in nutritious locally grown foods and for the planting of water-hungry oil palms in the northeast with a gestation period of four to five years.

The country should start encouraging traditional oilseeds that can be produced from annual crops of flex, sesame, peanuts, coconut and mustard, instead of feeding consumers soybeans, rice bran. and solvent-extracted palm oil which are not so benign.

A recently published study on “Assessment of Environmental and Socioeconomic Factors Contributing to Fragility Fractures in India” highlights that farmers exposed to pesticides and agrochemicals are prone to developing large and significant fragility fractures. The study recommends further research on the crucial finding.

Shiva is convinced that organic is the only future for India: “Governments operate in waves. But organic is the only system that will conserve resources, protect the livelihoods of small farmers, reduce greenhouse gases, reduce climate vulnerability and provide healthy food. If you ever have an emergency of any kind, be it soil, water, health or climate, only organic can solve it all. ”

For now, it looks like the government is sailing on two boats. On the one hand, it welcomes the growth of organic farming in small and medium-sized farms. On the other hand, it promotes corporate agriculture with its recently introduced reform-oriented agricultural laws. Unless the incentives provided to the seed, fertilizer and pesticide industry are reconfigured to help small producers, organic farming cannot thrive to the point of improving farmers’ incomes and making farming sustainable and the foods that land on our table without toxins.

Gargi Parsai is a senior journalist based in New Delhi. She was Deputy Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu.


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