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Reclaiming Culture Through Seeds
Debal Deb’s battle against the erasure of local knowledge
Basudha Farms, Odisha
Feb 11, 2023
India is filled with beauty and contradictions. A megadiversity subcontinent that in no logical rationale should embody a single country. A territory that aggressively rejects homogeneity at every corner, every step. The mosaics that embody this vast country are evident in its cultural, linguistic, religious, and biological diversities. All intertwined, entangled, and in beautiful tension with one another.
It is deep in the hills of Odisha, India, where we met with Debal Deb. To describe Debal, one is confronted with some of the same challenges of trying to describe India. Here is a man who is a farmer and a scientist, an ecologist and an economist, an untrained botanist, a lover of stars, history, and religion, and an atheist. The plurality of disciplines and interests are as vast as the 28 states that make up India.
We met Debal at Basudha (“Earth Mother” in Bengali) farm, a 1.7 acre tribal land entrusted to him by the Kondh community, where he conserves 1,460 varieties of indigenous rice and 30 other crops.
Debal has spent over 30 years preserving indigenous knowledge. Some call him a seed saver, but in any conversation with Debal, one quickly realises that his work is about much more than seed.
It was only 50 years ago that India was home to 110,000 varieties of rice — all different and uniquely adapted to the needs of both people and ecology. Peasant farmers and Indigenous communities cultivated seed varieties with characteristics like drought tolerance, flood tolerance, and salt water tolerance over millennia — seeds carrying nutritional, medicinal, culinary, and cultural properties that go far beyond the comprehension of modern science.
Debal is on a crusade to prove that, despite their great halls and massive bank accounts, the advancements of corporations have been dwarfed by the ingenuity of unnamed, un-credited scientists, otherwise known as traditional farmers — to prove that the only feat of these corporations has been in their ability to consolidate control over agriculture while diminishing and reducing farmer autonomy and sovereignty at every turn. For Debal, rice is a lens to prove that no matter what investment giant agribusiness corporations are making, farmers over millennia have created knowledge systems and cultural practices that far out-perform and outwit any of the hyper-commodified, so-called “scientific” models of industrial agriculture.
Debal’s work is, at its core, a fight against the narratives that negate and erase local and Indigenous knowledge — narratives that claim this knowledge to be backwards.
In our three days at Basudha, we spent countless hours, from morning till midnight debating everything under the sky, from agriculture, to Marxism, to astronomy, to history, to religion, to realpolitik, while eating heirloom varieties of rice, vegetables, local beef, dark chocolate, and drinking local palm toddy and Mahua spirit around a campfire.
Debal hesitantly agreed to do an interview for the benefit of our readers. Here are a few excerpts from our conversations. We hope you find as much value and insight in them as we did.
Why rice? You could be investing your life in saving any crop. And I know that in your collection are other varieties of crops as well. But without a doubt, you have invested so much of your life’s work around the diverse landraces of rice. What is it specifically about rice that captivated your interest?
Well, rice drew my attention first. I first became aware of this massive genocide of the world’s biodiversity through the extinction of thousands of indigenous rice varieties in just a few decades. Then I became aware of the loss of other crops. With about two thirds of humanity eating rice, it is without doubt one of the most important crops in the world.
What do seeds represent to you?
Seed represents culture. All seeds, not just rice. It’s Indigenous communities that carefully selected, bred, and adapted all the varieties of rice we consume today. To me, as an ecologist and scientist, seed is the result of centuries of experience by ancient farmers who created these varieties to suit different climates, cultures, and contexts. To the farmers and Indigenous communities, it is an embodiment of food culture.
So, apart from the agronomic value and human survival value, seeds carry within them hundreds of years of knowledge and culture. Many rice varieties were used for specific religious ceremonies and cultural festivals. In Bengal, for example, there still exists a ceremony to celebrate the son-in-law, who is the most pampered and domesticated member of the household. In olden times, until about 80 years ago, there were two specific rice varieties which were cultivated for this purpose. One of these rice varieties was an aromatic variety freshly harvested a little before this ceremony, and the other was a very soft rice which had special flavours. Both these varieties were cooked for the son-in-law, or jamai, of the household, and therefore were called Jamai Shaal and Jamai Nadu. Today, Bengalis still perform the ceremony, but the varieties themselves have vanished, and all the preparations centering them, meaning that the ceremony has lost all cultural value.
Similarly, there are many varieties which are required for worshipping certain gods and goddesses — varieties often named after the deities themselves. Each of these varieties were cooked on specific occasions with a number of recipes and preparations. So, certain varieties were grown specifically for making idli, others for making dosa, some aromatic varieties were grown to make different types of rice pudding and rice cakes. I have documented around 25 different kinds of rice sweets that used to be made from indigenous varieties in Bengal. Some of those delicacies are no longer made, because the specific rice varieties are no longer cultivated.
These are a few examples of rice not just serving as a source to ensure food security, but also as a critical part of identity that sustained the cultural integrity of original ethnic communities. Many of these communities were known by the types of crops they used to grow. In Mexico, blue corn was one such marker of a particular community or ethnic group. This was the case for many communities across the world.
Therefore, it was not just the agronomic value, but also the cultural value. With the erosion of genetic diversity, not only are we losing critical genetic information, but we’re also losing the cultural context embodied in that variety.
If the farmers lose ownership of seeds and their sovereignty, they lose their knowledge as well. No company can replace it.
In recent years, an iron fortified rice variety was developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) that claims to have the highest concentration of iron possible in rice. It claims to be a “scientific breakthrough” and is being pushed worldwide as the solution to anaemia. Can you elaborate on your thoughts on this “scientific breakthrough”?
This variety that has been developed by IRRI has been in collaboration with another corporation that funded this research. The variety that was developed is named IR68144-2B-2-2-3, which is a GM (Genetically Modified) iron-fortified rice, and is promoted as the solution to anaemia in different countries. In addition to that, the government of India is also promoting another type of iron fortification. It’s not a special variety as such — it’s an ordinary commercial variety that’s distributed in the Indian Public Distribution System (PDS). Now, a company is enlisted to making a powder of that variety by pulverising it. And another company is mixing iron salt (like iron-EDTA or iron phosphate) to blend with the rice powder and then remould it into rice grains. This grain is then distributed in the name of mandatory iron fortification.
The food fortification program of the government of India started last year. And despite protests from food and nutritional activists, the government has already promoted it and made it mandatory, so the consumers have no choice. It has been mandatorily distributed in five states, including West Bengal, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, with more to come. This goes directly into the various programs, including the mid-day meals of school children, and it’s very dangerous in certain cases because any excess iron is fatal to children with thalassemia or sickle cell anaemia. Unknowingly, children all over the country are currently being fed this excess iron. There are already numerous reports of children falling sick soon after consuming fortified rice, in Odisha and Bihar.
In short, there’s no new variety being developed; iron salt is being physically blended into the rice. Nobody knows what the impact of compounds like EDTA will be on human health, especially to children, where it’s being compulsorily blended to all the rice that’s being sold. Thousands of rice mills are being compelled to install these machines, and any that do not are losing their licences. There is no choice. We oppose this not only because it’s bad for health, but because it’s an undemocratic approach to feeding the population. But, even if we assume that there are certain varieties that have high iron content, developed by using genetic engineering, I still do not find any scientific legitimacy to do it because we already have very high iron-content indigenous rices accessible in India, in the hands of Indigenous farmers.
Iron content that matches the GM rice varieties?
In my own laboratory we’ve analysed 550 rice varieties, on which we’ve published two papers. The whole list of these varieties contain not only iron, but copper, zinc, and other micronutrients. And we have identified more than 86 landraces — that is, traditional farmer varieties — which are still being cultivated and contain more than 20 times higher iron content than the GM iron-fortified rice variety developed by IRRI.
So if there is any pocket of the land, or a group of people suffering from anemia, the commonsensical approach is to motivate farmers to cultivate these iron-rich folk varieties in their respective regions and supply the iron-rich rice to the individuals or groups in need of it. This is the logical approach, as it doesn’t involve any massive industrial investment to develop or engineer these already existing varieties. It only requires the political will and the intelligence to do it.
Instead, the government is spending millions of dollars to develop a new variety of rice that is in no way greater than or even equal to the existing iron-rich varieties, and is forcing both producers and consumers to use it. This is a totally unintelligent and non-commonsensical approach. I always say that common sense is very uncommon among policymakers.
So, we already have this diversity, but the larger point is that rice is not only for food security, but also for nutritional security — which many modern agronomists don’t understand. How many bags of rice are produced and how many of these varieties are nutritionally more beneficial than what these genetic engineers produce is a moot point.
You said that some Indigenous varieties are able to produce more than 20 times as much as the GM iron-fortified rice. How are organizations like the IRRI able to promote their variety as “the highest level of iron possible in a grain of rice”?
In Bengali, there’s a proverb that goes, “In a garden of herbs, the jackal becomes a tiger.” So, in this forest of ignorance created by the industrial food system, this jackal of iron-fortified rice becomes a tiger of nutrition security. Most people, especially genetic engineers, are totally ignorant of the iron-rich varieties already in existence. And the ordinary consumers are deceived into believing that there is no such variety either, because they have been trained to listen to the genetic engineers and corporate food “experts”.
The maximum content of iron in the GM iron-fortified rice from IRRI is 8.5 milligram per kilogram, according to what has been published. We have a local variety called Dudhey bolta from Bengal, which contains 131 mg per kg, and Baid dhusuri which is 152 mg per kg. How many times greater iron content is that? 8.9 versus 152.
These are the varieties that are never in discourse. Most rice scientists are simply not interested, nor incentivised by research institutions, to study traditional varieties for their nutraceutical properties (nutritional and pharmaceutical properties). And because mainstream research is not examining or publishing them, people believe that these properties don’t exist in rice. And therefore, the only solution becomes genetic engineering or some industrially iron-fortified rice. That’s the sad reality.
You said that there are around 86 Indigenous rice varieties that are rich in iron nutrients. In the same vein, how many drought tolerant varieties is Basudha conserving?
We have 80 moderately drought tolerant varieties, which require some water, in the form of irrigation or rainfall and can grow on upland farms (meaning lands that even after hours of rain dry up in just an hour because the soil is porous or the land is slopy, so the soil moisture content is very low). And we have 24 varieties which can grow through strict drought, only requiring water two times (at the time of sowing and just before flowering).
We also have [rice varieties with] exactly the opposite property — flood tolerance. We have more than 100 varieties that can grow in lowland, and 18 varieties that can even withstand seasonal floods and grow in deepwater farms — even 10 feet deep — for three months or longer. Additionally, we have 4 varieties that are capable of surviving and growing even when entirely submerged for two weeks.
Similarly, we have 17 varieties that are tolerant to salt water. I have only amplified their capacity so that they can not only withstand saline water, but they can even grow in actual sea water.
These are the amazing properties for which genetic engineers are gene mining. But my point is that all these properties are already in existence in the hands of farmers, who were able to develop these properties without knowing what DNA or enzymes were responsible. They created them centuries and centuries ago and have been the custodians of this genetic diversity, but they are never acknowledged by institutional scientists.
The general understanding of science is that any development of rice has to take place in a western laboratory. There is no recognition of these unnamed, unknown scientists who have created these varieties. That’s my work. Not only to conserve these varieties and recognise them as a gift of these ancient farmers, but to also analyse the unusual properties which are unknown to modern science. We are only adding some new information through science. And what’s fascinating is that these farmers have already achieved (hundreds of years ago) what these genetic engineers are spending millions of dollars trying to achieve. All the properties that these engineers have spent so much money and effort trying to create, are already available in indigenous varieties.
Our problem is that we have already lost more than 96,000 varieties in India since the introduction of the Green Revolution. Therefore, we’re not even sure if some properties that scientists are looking for did not exist earlier. We can only tell from the basis of my own collection, and the collection of other seed savers, that there are so many flood tolerant varieties, drought tolerant varieties and so on. There are countless undocumented varieties that might contain silver, vital micronutrients, vitamin A, vitamin B complex, who knows! I mention silver, because we have discovered and described the only rice variety so far known that contains 15 ppm silver in its grains, which can kill pathogenic microbes in the gut, when one has a gut infection.
Just with my own research, which are all published in international peer reviewed journals, we are confident in saying that the genetic variety of rice and millets are extremely rich in nutrients and other agronomic properties in addition to their deep cultural value. And we are losing these properties very quickly because of the ignorance and negligence of the institutional scientific community. It’s a very sad situation, that none of these varieties will be valued until they receive some kind of barcoding by the Institution.
Can you contrast these indigenous varieties which have different properties for different climates to what it would be like if you planted GM varieties in similar conditions? How would its experience manifest differently in the soil?
So far, there is no GM rice which is tolerant of drought, or salt water or floods. So how can I compare? All commercialised GM crops are only designed either to contain toxins or to consume more herbicides — the company’s own herbicide. That’s the whole design — it doesn’t help the farmer, the consumer, or the environment. It only helps the company itself, because it promotes the sale of herbicides and its proprietary seeds. So it has nothing to do with climate change or the environment. That’s not the objective of these corporations.
Any of the claims by the genetic engineers saying that it is to ensure food security is only a hyperbole, because so far, there has not a single GM crop, whether its cotton or corn or soybean or rice, which has proven to have greater yield than the traditional varieties, or to grow in marginal farms — suffering periodically from drought, floods or sea water incursion. There’s not a single yield enhancing gene yet discovered or incorporated.
This story plays into a larger narrative around the so-called “backwardness” of Indigenous and local varieties of plants not being worth scientific or public interest. So tell us, how did this cultural shift first start and what did it do to Indigenous knowledge and practices?
This is the entire problem with the colonial ideology. The western gaze. Whatever is outside of Europe or America, and what they define as morality and progress and development and science, is the ideal. And anything that doesn’t fit within that model is backward, superstitious, unscientific. And we have inherited exactly that same mode of thinking, despite the fact that over the past 100 years we have accumulated enormous knowledge and documentation in different languages, not just in India but also in China, Arabia, and Africa which proves the scientific acumen of Indigenous societies. And, fortunately, academics including European and American academics themselves have also documented and published them. But hardly anyone reads them. The colonial regime of [maintaining] ignorance continues, so that we don’t care to learn or remember that the agroecological methods, such as multiple cropping developed by peasant farmers, is much higher yielding than the monocrop system in modern agriculture.
Now, FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation) has acknowledged that monocultures should not be practised and multiple cropping is superior. And this recommendation is coming from exactly the same system that even a decade ago dubbed it as unscientific and backward. Similarly, for forest management systems, the animal husbandry system, the fishery system, and all kinds of natural resource management and food production systems, multicultural approaches are finally being recognised by honest scientists. I myself have demonstrated over decades that multiple cropping practices enhance the microbial density in the soil with zero external input, and enhance even the absolute yield compared to any so-called “high yielding” variety in monocultural systems. And all of these findings have been published in peer reviewed journals.
Despite all this, the problem is that our educational systems, the school syllabi, still do not incorporate new discoveries and rediscoveries of these practices. They still hold onto the century-old colonial understanding of modernity which was defined and circumscribed by the same colonial establishment. Until we get out of this line of thinking, and move toward a more community and collective approach towards development, we cannot fully recognise and acknowledge that these systems were made and practised millenia ago.
The first agricultural revolution started 10,000 years ago, and over time, millions of agrarian communities had perfected different kinds of food production systems and models in different agroecological zones, through experiments, empirical experiences of disaster, failures, and so on. Communities have, over generations, perfected these systems, and they have been tested by time. Now, it’s our foolhardiness to apply reductionist and over simplistic approaches, such as monocultures, to understand these complex systems. Once we recognise the value of complexity, there is no way to evade the superiority of these traditional systems. If we prefer to call them unscientific, it is at our own peril, and definitely at the scientists’ peril.
A lot of your work is focused on the conservation of Indigenous knowledge and practices. On one hand, you’ve mentioned that conservation is important to push back against the appropriation of this knowledge by the Monsanto’s and Cargill’s. On the other hand, you’ve expressed that many of the communities you work with have been displaced from these knowledge systems, to the extent that they themselves are no longer able, or incentivised, to incorporate them. What can we do to change consciousness around the value of alternative knowledge systems?
The one liner short answer is to eradicate the entire industrial agricultural system altogether. Then, everything will fall back in place. The long answer confronts how this can be done. You tell any university student, they’ll refuse. You tell most farmers to stop engaging in industrial farming practices, they cannot come out of it even if they want to, because they’re already intricately involved in this system. Many modern farmers are in a debt trap, and it’s impossible for them to even consider shifting because in order to repay their debt, they have to take more loans from banks or moneylenders, and it’s an endless cycle. Why did they take the loan in the first place? To buy seeds and other means of production, the pesticides and fertilisers, tractors and machinery, irrigation systems like pump sets, electricity, diesel.
Much of the knowledge is already lost. Imagine that you suddenly halt all production, and there is no seed corporation, no agribusiness. Even then, most farmers simply cannot go back to their traditional practices because they have already forgotten the art and science of agriculture. Most of them have forgotten how to characterise different seeds to maintain their genetic purity, and many are unable to keep the seeds alive for more than one year. The methods of drying, storing, selecting, breeding, are lost from most communities. The majority of modern farmers are even unable to distinguish between two different varieties of seeds.
Even if we defeat or dismantle the industrial food system, how do we reintroduce these knowledge systems? How do we revive these cultures? These are the big questions. The farmers who are engrossed in the industrial food system are virtually incapable of reviving their own traditional foods because many of their cultures have been driven to extinction. This is not only true for food production, but any kind of production, whether it’s weaving, fishing, pottery, blacksmithing, all the traditional arts and crafts — these millennia-old knowledge systems have been lost. And now all of us are trained to rely on the market supply. Hardly anyone goes for pottery, or bamboo baskets or mats, they all go for plastic buckets, nylon ropes and other synthetics. In the last few decades, this process of erosion, and replacement of everything with synthetics has been spreading rapidly, and it’s very difficult to stop that process.
So what I’ve been trying for over two decades is to bring back some of these practices. To some extent, it’s been successful in some pockets. My only hope is that if some young blood comes over, and if they understand the value of these practices and why they are necessary, not only for posterity but also for its implicit ecological and cultural value, then they may turn the tides, at a point in time when I may not exist. That’s the only hope that drives me. This is definitely very difficult, and I cannot really imagine it ever happening, but we have no other option. The only other option is to accept all this morality in the name of development and commit mass suicide.
You have famously labelled farmers as unnamed scientists, and these indigenous seed varieties as the collective product of their work. This has led to deep conversations around the ethics of selling seeds. What are your views on selling indigenous or open-pollinated seed varieties, which many seed savers worldwide currently do to push back against the rise of GMOs?
I’ve always maintained that selling seeds, in any capacity, for whatever reason, is the appropriation of the knowledge and hard work of the farmers who developed these varieties through careful characterisation, selection, exchange, and breeding over hundreds of years.
When corporations like Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and all the others sell seeds, they take the properties of an indigenous variety and at the very least add “value” and develop new varieties through genetic modification to sell in the market. This practice of adding value to something and making it exclusive through intellectual property, however objectionable and problematic it may be, makes more logical sense than the selling of pure indigenous seed varieties.
The indigenous seed varieties being sold in the market were developed by farming communities, and their proprietorship belongs to the farming community at large. I consider the selling of farmers’ traditional seeds to amass profits to be cheating. Why do we call open-access seed a commons? Seed was always open source. We are all talking about the open source movement – why we shouldn’t have to buy information, or scientific knowledge, or medicines, or code. We talk about how knowledge can’t be privatised, and about the importance of the commons. We are all against Windows and Macintosh and how we’re all in favour of open source softwares and platforms like Linux. But why doesn’t this same thinking apply to seeds?
The problem is, the moment most activists say “corporation”, they identify it as only large corporations like Monsanto and Syngenta, and fail to understand that corporation, by definition, is any company which makes profits. It could be small businesses, as well. They all operate by the same principles. It’s not a question of scale or size, small profits or big profits, the principle is exactly the same all around. All companies have to make profits. If they don’t, they’re out of business. The moment you make profit out of farmers’ traditional knowledge, you are betraying the farmer community, because the knowledge of making pesticides, fertilisers, all of it, organic and inorganic alike, is being usurped from the farmers. And then you’re selling the same knowledge and material to the same communities, in the abstract of course — the buyer is not the same farmer who gave you the variety, but they’re all interconnected. The profit is not made by the farmers, or peasants, or the consumers. The profit is entirely absorbed by the corporation.
Since time immemorial, we have maintained that knowledge cannot be patented, it should not be appropriated for an individual's profit; for it is a common property. Even in the current intellectual property regime, we are all against seed patenting, and patenting at large, unless there’s a real innovation, invention, or some proprietary value that’s been added to the process. Even by these standards, you cannot patent something which was already in existence, used and widely accessible to people. Every rational patent act also says that you cannot patent something that is prior public art. Indigenous seed varieties fall into this category. I’m absolutely for farmers’ rights and farmers’ sovereignty. The moment a company, small or big, patent or no patent — even if it is a farmer producer company — charges a cost to a seed, that company is abrogating the farmers right to access seeds that [the company] did not create.
The seed industry came only in the 1960s. Until then, all over the world, for ten thousand years, there was no seed business at all. Every seed was distributed and exchanged for free between farmers, not only across villages, but also across continents. And that practice was terminated by the introduction of the seed business. This practice of dependency of the farmers for seeds supply has driven the process of forgetting their culture. Because if the farmer is subjected to a system where every year they have to purchase seeds, it becomes totally unimportant and unnecessary to remember the art and science of seed saving. It’s not necessary because every year, they will have to buy seeds again, and in just a few decades, everyone forgets it. The seed business, however small or big, is accentuating and endorsing the same process of community unlearning or community dementia. Suddenly, if we give farmers seeds, as I have been for two decades, what we see is that the majority of modern farmers don’t know how to grow them, where to grow them, when to grow them, or how to save them so they won’t have to buy more the next year.
For instance, I gave a farmer a drought tolerant variety, which requires only minimal irrigation and rainfall, to plant in his drought prone area. But because he flooded his paddy, as he was accustomed to every year, spending excess amounts for pumping and irrigation in the dry land, his production became very low. As the variety was not designed to withstand standing water for over ten days, the farmer killed the crop. Today, many farmers have lost the knowledge of planting and maintaining different varieties as they have grown accustomed to planting only the few varieties promoted by the state.
Similarly, the art of maintaining soil fertility has also been lost. And therefore, farmers have to pump nutrients, whether it is cow dung or bio manure, or chemical pesticides and fertilisers, they have to depend on an external source to fertilise their soil. Now, the same corporations which were selling these chemicals are also selling organic fertilisers, manure, and vermi-compost. This is not just Monsanto or Syngenta, but even the smaller companies here are importing Filipino worms, African worms and selling them to domestic farmers here, making farmers dependent on their supply.
So every single business, whether it is owned by a farming community or by an individual or by a big corporation, is feeding into the same process. They are all abrogating the rights of farmers to openly exchange seeds, eroding their knowledge and practices of maintaining seed purity and their ability to save and exchange these seeds, without depending on an external agency, whether its a government, NGO, bank, or corporation.
You’ve been doing this for around 30 years, and you’ve seen some changes. Maybe not overall, but there are some experiences you’ve had, in your decades of working tirelessly to revive these dying ecosystems, cultures, arts, practices, and knowledge systems, that give you hope. Could you share some of those experiences?
There are very few, but they are very important experiences and they’ve sustained my spirit all these years.
The first is that there are certain pockets of agrarian communities, mostly tribal communities, with whom I have been able to influence a sense of pride in their wealth of agrobiodiversity and the knowledge they carry. For example, I visited the Koraput district in southern Odisha six years ago and convinced the farmers there that I had identified some critically endangered rice varieties. I define critically endangered varieties as varieties that are not grown by more than one farmer/farm in the world. I identified 35 such varieties. There was no question of money, of assuring higher price in the market, or even higher yield, and that it was all about maintaining the genetic purity of these varieties which is not grown anywhere else or by anyone else in the world. I explained to them that just by virtue of them being the last custodians of these varieties, it was a source of pride.
15 farmer volunteers raised their hands and expressed that they would be very proud to maintain these varieties for posterity, and pass the responsibility on to their sons and daughters. Next year, another three farmers came all the way from Koraput to visit me at Basudha, and asked me why I didn’t give them the seeds too. They asked me to go back with them to Koraput, teach them which lands are appropriate, and how to plant them. So I did, and there were three more custodians. As I was happy with just this number, I didn’t approach any new farmers, but they started spreading the word along. Next year, this number increased to 120 farmers. And in the fifth year, 1,470 farmers.
Today, there are over 1,700 farmers in Koraput that have together revived these rice varieties that I never imagined would survive beyond my lifetime. Now, these varieties are no longer critically endangered, because over 1,000 farmers are growing them. This is a great feat — instead of imminent extinction in just six years, the majority of the farmers in that region are growing these. What gives me even more hope is that around 800 of them are maintaining the varieties’ genetic purity, as I taught, or rather, re-taught them their art of characterising and selecting the seeds from one season to the next. Many farmers have even multiplied these same seeds and expanded their cultivation areas for these varieties.
The second story is not just about rice, but we also told many farmers in other districts about indigenous multiple cropping systems, where every farm would grow 20 different crops. So there would be three different types of millets, two different types of rice, vegetables, oil seeds, and so on and so forth, all mixed. This is a thousand-year-old agroforestry practice in Africa and Southeast Asia, which our modern agricultural practices are trying to drive into extinction and replace with monocultures. Thanks to pressure from agricultural institutions, the state, and seed companies, the majority of farmers have shifted to monocultural practices, but a few have held on.
There is an index called the land equivalent ratio which is used by agroecologists to calculate the actual change in yield when compared to monoculture yield. I worked with eight farmers in eight villages that continue to practise agroecology today, on an experiment to track the yield of seven of their crops.
After two years, we established scientifically that the yield-per-unit area for multiple cropping, and the yield per plant, are up to 5.6 times higher than monocultures of any of these 7 crops. This was a very rigorous statistical analysis published in a prestigious Cambridge journal in two issues. My only initial aim for this research was to educate the academic community of how so-called illiterate indigenous farmers have attained what is far outperforming their modern scientific cropping system.
However, when I shared these results with the farmers, to show them what they have achieved even by scientific standards, they were happy and proud of their achievements, and so much so that they expressed they will never shift to monocultures. Unlike other farmers who have gradually shifted to monocultures out of institutional pressure, this group will never, because they are convinced and proud of their practices.
Pride is the main thing. From all my decades of work with Indigenous peoples, in India, America, and Thailand, I have come to understand that pride is the backbone of cultural integrity. Communities that lose pride in their cultural heritage, lose their confidence. And my work is to re-instill a sense of pride into these communities, by helping them re-value the traditional practices and knowledge systems that they have lost to industrial agriculture. These are small changes, but it’s the best I can do as an individual. And they give me the hope and spirit to go on.
This video that talks about how the number of rice varieties in India has plummeted from roughly 100,000 to 7,000 since the 1970’s due to the rise of high-yield crops born from the Green Revolution. Debal explains how the extinct rice varieties don’t just signify a loss of heritage and cultural identity in Indian villages – each lost variety is a small defeat in the battle to preserve biodiversity and genetic variation.
This talk, where Debal shares his experience of rescuing a critically endangered tree from extinction.
This episode of our Hunger for Justice series, where Debal walks us through the story of his seed conservation efforts and the importance of restoring a culture of free exchange and a communitarian ethos as fundamental principles for a sovereign future.
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The interview with Debal Deb was carried out by A Growing Culture. It has been edited for length and clarity.