By Merril Diniz:
In 2008, British journalist Andrew Malone took a trip to Maharashtra to investigate a phenomenon that had come to be known as the “GM genocide“. What he saw was pretty disturbing. Thousands of farmers were committing suicide and they blamed their crop failure on the “magic seeds”. These genetically modified (GM) were being sold by a multinational corporation at 10$ for 100 gm.
Though the farmers could have purchased a thousand times more traditional seeds for less, they bought the bait – lured by promises of a bumper harvest and the fact that these GM crops did not need pesticides.
They were also told by GM salesmen that they would need to purchase new seeds (from the same corporation) every season, since these were not reusable (courtesy the terminator technology aka suicide seeds). According to Malone, traditional varieties of seeds were banned from many government seed banks, to help promote the uptake of GM seeds.
Sadly, farmers around the world are still falling for this old GM sales gimmick. But a group of women farmers in Odisha know better and they are working hard to uphold “seed sovereignty”, a global movement that’s reclaiming the right of a farmer to save and exchange diverse seeds with other farmers. The practice of saving seeds and exchanging them with other farmers is but natural, and has been around for centuries. But the onset of “seed manufacturing” corporations looking to monopolise the seed market has posed a serious threat to the rich diversity of crops that have been cultivated for centuries.
The “seed guardians” from Odisha comprise smallholder women farmers who own less than 2-3 hectares of land. Their aim is to conserve over 25 types of seeds across fibre and food crops (includes cereals, oilseeds, pulses, cash crops, fruits, vegetables, and flowers) and produce food the organic way.
Nabita Goud is one such seed guardian who was trained by Chetna Organic, an organisation, which promotes sustainable agriculture through a three-year project, which equipped farmers like her with better knowledge and skills in farming and ‘seed saving’.
As part of her training, Nabida and her fellow farmers attended a seed festival in Andhra Pradesh, where they had an opportunity to exchange best practices with farmers from Andhra. They were encouraged to grow black gram, red gram and paddy – staples in the daily diet – alongside crops that were grown purely for their livelihood.
When Nabida and her fellow farmers returned from the seed festival, they formed small groups that grew very focused on the conservation process. Their task was to identify a range of local seeds, collect them, catalogue them and store them in a seed bank, essentially a small room where neatly-labelled earthen pots and stoppered glass bottles contain a variety of seeds.
If you quiz the farmers on why saving seeds has become such a priority for them, they share that this practice brings down the seed cost. Instead of buying seeds, they can borrow one kilo of seeds from the seed bank in exchange for one and a half kilos of seeds post the harvest. They also seem to understand the value of producing healthier, safer produce, and since organic seeds are also harder to find in the market, the seed banks play a critical role in facilitating organic farming.
Nabida is now not only a certified-organic farmer recognised by the Fairtrade organisation, she is also a Seed Custodian, someone who has assumed a leadership role in the community and trains others. She also manages the Maa Lankeshwari seed bank in her village Bhimdanga. But most impressive is the fact that on her one hectare land, she grows cotton in one half, and millets and paddy in the other half, and with this, is able to sustain her family of eight, including three school going children!
Nabida and her band of superheroes are not alone. Environmental activist Vandana Shiva and her organisation Navdanya, a network of seed keepers and organic producers, have played a major role in conserving organic seeds. Shiva has also led female farmers in standing up to corporations looking to create a monopoly in the seed market. In 2013, Shiva, in fact, predicted that India’s women farmers are the future of Indian agriculture and it looks like she wasn’t off the mark. Women farmers, today, are playing leadership roles and approaching farming with a long-time vision that will benefit future generations and the environment we live in.