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Native seeds are key to food security

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Native seeds are key to food security

For better agricultural performance, focus must be on inculcating better farming practices. Farmers must be encouraged to return to zero-budget farming, where they use their own desi seeds

In recent years, enlightened Indian farmers have begun to rethink the suitability of farming practices that involve injecting poison into the earth via fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides, and create problems of soil fertility, soil texture, soil preservation and erosion. There is a pervasive sentiment that unless the current system of intensive and uncontrolled use of chemical inputs is reversed, soil quality will worsen and our centuries-old agricultural biodiversity will be lost forever.

Chemical inputs have permeated our food-chain with deleterious impact on public health, which have not been adequately studied scientifically. But the cumulative loss due to growing expenditure on public health, insecticide resistance, crop-loss, bird-loss, pollution of ground water and pollinator decline runs into billions of dollars.

Indian farming practices improve soil humus and use its fertility to grow myriad crops on the same field; synthetic fertilisers cause hardening of soil and alkalinity. We need to return to zero-budget farming where farmers use their own ‘desi’ seeds, protect our seed autonomy by relying on grains saved from the last harvest and resist pressure to use corporate seeds. Corporate-dependence is behind farmer suicides in the BT cotton belt. We must also question why an India, that declared food self-sufficiency decades ago, is importing wheat, pulses, oilseeds and chemical fertilisers.

Bharatiya Krishak Samaj (BKS), India’s largest farmer organisation, is demanding a new policy on Seeds and Intellectual Property Rights. In the run up to World Soil Day (December 5), practicing farmers under the aegis of the BKS insisted that farmers have the first right on seeds, which the Government must recognise as paramount and ensure that all seeds remain in the hands of farmers. They must also have all rights to breed, sell, exchange and buy seeds.

The Plant Variety Protection and Farmer’s Rights Act must be strengthened to protect breeder rights, but farmers should not be forced to register their native varieties. On no account should multinational corporations be given breeder rights over farmer-evolved native varieties of seed. In fact, seeds should remain under the Essential Commodities Act, as over 60 per cent of Indian livelihood depends on them.

The Government should not permit patents over seeds, but should strengthen Article 3 (J) of the Patent Act, 1970, and multinational corporations that transgress Article 3 (J) and extract royalties from farmers by falsely claiming patents should be fined heavily and debarred from doing business in India. No patents should be granted on genetic resources, which should remain freely exchangeable by farmers. No patent should be given on genetic information and native traits, or on varieties or traits stemming from traditional/classical breeding, regardless of whether they are in older or newly-bred varieties. Farmers should be legally granted rights over seeds, in perpetuity.

 Farmers across the country are expressing alarm at the staggering loss of biodiversity; India once hosted over two lakh species of rice, but today grows barely 2,000 varieties. This loss is non-quantifiable; when pests or disease strike a crop, often the solution is found from the genetic material of wild strains of the plant. Hence, it is imperative that the Government sponsor moves to conserve India’s rich biodiversity heritage across States.

 India comprises 17 agro-climate zones; seed banks jointly owned by farmers and Government should store the native varieties of the respective area and provide seeds to local farmers at affordable prices. In fact, the Centre could consider expanding the Pradhan Mantri Paramparagat Krishi Yojana (PMPKY) to include participatory seed breeding with organic farmers, agriculture universities and regional agriculture departments. Each zone should have several decentralised breeding centres to multiply and breed native varieties.

There is growing realisation that climate change is disrupting our agricultural produce. Only native seeds, that have proven resilient in the face of droughts, floods, climate change, can make our farms climate-proof; the seeds can also be sold through co-operative societies.

Dr Krishan Bir Chaudhary, president, Bharatiya Krishak Samaj, and former chairman, State Farms Corporation of India, suggests that seed banks, compost units, cow shelters and processing units for seed and other farm produce should be set up in each village and block, to decrease dependence on multinational corporations and their chemical inputs. At a meeting of the Niti Aayog expert committee on agriculture, Chaudhary proposed that the Prime Minister’s promise to double farm incomes by 2022 can be realised if the minimum support price (MSP) is converted into a reserve price, duly notified by the Government, below which produce cannot be sold. Currently, farmers are forced to sell much below the MSP.

Having witnessed the spectacular failure of Bt Cotton, India’s first Genetically Modified crop, the Centre should immediately ban Bt cotton seeds as they have failed to decrease pesticide use or increase production. They are directly responsible for unmanageable debt and 3.10 lakh farmer suicides in India since 1995, as admitted by Dr KR Kranthi, former director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur.

Indeed, the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare should accept the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Science and Technology Report 301 on “GM crop and its environmental effect” 2017, and ban GM crops. It must promote safer, more effective and sustainable alternatives to Bt Cotton to ensure conservation of biodiversity by documenting and protecting indigenous varieties and organic producers. Herbicide Tolerant (HT) seeds and the HT GMO Mustard should be banned forthwith and never allowed to be commercialised.

India must increase efforts to conserve its genomic integrity and ensure that GM crops do not intrude in centres of origin of any species, such as mustard, brinjal, sugarcane, rice, and others. On no account should the Government allow new genetic engineering technologies such as Oligonnucleotide directed mutagenesis (ODM), Zinc Finger nuclease, CRISPR/Cas, in India.

Further, all information and patents related to the development of any new GMO, including raw data, should be made accessible to the public and independent scientists to analyse for at least one year. Any GM research being funded with public money must disclose all technology, genes and other raw data to the public.

Above all, in the light of the recent pesticide-related deaths in Maharashtra, Round-up and Basta must be banned immediately, in all forms. The Centre should consider creating an authority to check contamination and genetic pollution and impose costs under the polluter pays principle, and criminally prosecute genetic polluters for destruction of biodiversity and spreading poison on Indian fields. A beginning can be made by taking cognisance of Monsanto’s contamination of cotton fields from Maharashtra to Andhra Pradesh.

(The writer is a political analyst and independent researcher) 

 
 
 
 
 
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