In today’s world, if one had to make a shopping list for buying vegetables, you would say –
Beans – half a kilo
Cucumber – half a kilo
Carrots – one kilo
Capsicum – quarter kilo and so on.
This is because there usually is just one variety of any vegetable available in the market. It is indeed an exception to find, say, three colours of capsicum or two kinds of beans.
But if you went to the market 100 years ago, you might have seen hundreds of varieties of cabbage, peas, tomatoes, pumpkins and sweet-corn to choose from!
The July edition of 2011, National Geographic magazine carried this info-graphic that succinctly captures the gravity of the situation.
In 1983 the Rural Advancement Foundation International conducted a study on the kind of biodiversity that existed in 1903. What you can see from the slide is, that in just 80 years, we had lost 93% of all the vegetable varieties that existed.
That was in 1983. If we did the same study today, we would find that we have lost 99% of the biodiversity amongst vegetables.
For thousands of years, dedicated farmers and seed keepers created and preserved tens of thousands of varieties of vegetables. In just 100 years we have lost nearly all of them.
What has changed in the past 100 years? Till just a century ago, passionate farmers selected the best plants in the fields to create seed for the next season. There was never a business model in the multiplication of seeds. If the Seed Keeper shared just a seed with a farmer, that farmer could make any number of seeds from it, and grow the same vegetable season after season. In effect, every farmer was a Seed Keeper who preserved seeds for posterity.
Somewhere after the Green Revolution of the 60s, it was felt seed production could be a profitable business model. But to sustain this business model, it required farmers return to the seed company every season to buy new seed.
Selling indigenous seed that belonged to the Seed Keepers could never be a sustainable business model because farmers could buy it once and then multiply it themselves at the end of the season.
To ensure that a sustainable business model was established in the seed industry, companies started to make seeds from which the farmer could not make seed for the next season. That started the era of the hybrid and GMO seeds. Today almost all the seeds sold by seed companies to vegetable farmers are hybrid or GMO.
In the past 50 years, farmers have lost the tradition of saving seeds almost completely. It is the norm today for farmers to buy seed every season for growing vegetables.
I remember the late 70s when I was completing my doctoral studies in agriculture. I belonged to the lineage of Dr M.S. Swaminathan and Dr Norman Borloug, who created the Green Revolution. It was my generation of agricultural scientists who promoted industrial agriculture. We were the ones who persuaded farmers to adopt chemical farming. We were the ones who told farmers do put urea and D.A.P.
We were the ones who told farmers to use hybrid seeds. We needed to create national food security and to give due credit I do believe that our generation of scientists achieved that.
But somewhere deep inside there was a small voice within me that kept asking me if we were doing the right thing. That small voice kept asking me if this was a sustainable model for agriculture even after I left the field to pursue a career in landscape architecture.
During the course of my career, I had many opportunities to travel to the remotest parts of the planet. One of the things that I particularly enjoyed doing on these trips, was to spend time with the older generation of farmers. I used to discuss with them about the kind of vegetables they grew during their times, and how times have changed.
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Surprisingly, many of these farmers actually retained a few seeds of the ancient indigenous native vegetable varieties with them. Understanding my passion to preserve these ancient varieties, they shared with me a few of their seeds.
And so, for 25 years, I collected indigenous seeds from many parts of India and far-flung corners of the Earth. As a part of the Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit organization based in the US, I shared these seeds with many other Seed Keepers across the world.
When I returned to India in 2011, I decided to become a full-time Seed Keeper. I collected nearly 540 varieties of indigenous native vegetable seeds that were on the brink of extinction.
At Hariyalee Seeds farms, just on the outskirts of Bengaluru, I started testing these varieties for genetic stability and environmental suitability.
At Hariyalee Seeds, you will find, 19 varieties of 23 tomatoes, 24 varieties of capsicum and chillies, six varieties of brinjals, five types of Okras, 11 varieties of Basils, 15 varieties of edible lettuces and mustards and many more wonderful vegetables that you and I need to protect for posterity.
Over the past six years, I managed to successfully multiply about 142 varieties of indigenous vegetables that anyone can grow in India.
Over the past two years, all these vegetable varieties have been made available to friends, farmers, and urban gardeners. Hundreds of people have enjoyed the experience of growing these vegetables with their own hands. Many farmers have used these exotic indigenous vegetables to generate a high-income revenue stream.
In fact, there was one farmer who grew a variety of cherry tomato with multiple colour variations that looked like candy. He was able to sell this variety at Rs.300 per kilo.
In a world where a farmer is happy to get Rs.20 per kilo for tomato in the best of times, selling tomatoes at Rs.300 a kilo sounds like a dream too good to be true.
Another advantage of growing indigenous vegetable seeds is that they are incredibly hardy and easy to grow. This is because native vegetable seeds have been selected by nature over thousands of years and had learnt to survive under the harshest of conditions.
While growing these exotic indigenous seeds can be an enjoyable pastime for home gardeners, they are at the same time making an extraordinary contribution to the genetic biodiversity of vegetables on this planet.
It doesn’t matter if the vegetable is growing in a pot on your balcony, in your kitchen garden, or in a farmers’ field in some remote part of India. The fact is that we are giving a chance for that vegetable variety to remain with us for posterity.
We are in effect, becoming modern-day Seed Keepers.
I am sure that in each one of you, at this very moment, there is this desire, to be a part of this movement to preserve these ancient indigenous seeds for posterity. Let’s all join hands to revive the Golden Age of The Seed Keepers!