Promise of Ancient Seeds For India’s Beleaguered Farmers


Ancient seeds have offered new hope to India’s beleaguered farmers.

According to media reports, farmers in the Ganges River delta in Eastern India are using ancient seeds in the hopes of fighting off famine and keeping their crops sustainable in a climate-changed India.

Media reports say in a case study in the Ganges River delta, scientists are distributing these ancient seeds to farmers free of charge. This case study was launched after farmers found that the high yielding modern seeds they had used since the 1960s failed after a massive tropical storm intruded inland and contaminated their farmlands with salty sea water in 2009.

Cyclone Aila crashed into the Bangladesh-India border about four years ago, according to reports. It brought along a giant surge of sea water. The water rammed inland, causing widespread damage.

It destroyed houses and immersed crops under water. It polluted drinking water. It forced people to flee their homes. According to international agencies, the storm is said to have impacted about three million people.

The cyclone also left lasting damage in the fact that it doused farmlands with salt water. When the waters receded, they left salt in the soil. Four years later, according to international agencies, the tragedy is still having a devastating effect on the lives of many people in the country.

Many people do not have enough food. Many lack safe drinking water and many more do not have a means to make a living. Most tragic of all, farmers are having a hard time growing crops because of the salt in the farmland. Four years after this devastation, farmers say growing food is a challenge on these farmlands because of the salt. They say their seeds have failed them.

According to experts, the seeds that failed were the modern variety that the farmers had started using after the so called green revolution of the 1960s. Asish Ghosh, Director of the Kolkata-based Center for Environmental Development, said in a recent interview that growing crops is a challenge because the sea water, after it receded, left salt in the farm soil.

He told reporters recently “farmers cannot have any vegetables growing after Aila because still — still there is salt in the soil.”

According to scientists, densely populated river deltas across the globe have had to face similar challenges as climate change is forcing coastlines to retreat and allowing salt to invade on lands which were once upon a time fertile farmlands.

To adapt to challenges of rising sea levels and powerful storms brought on by climate change, a case study found that ancient seeds, developed more than a hundred years ago were found successful in keeping crops sustainable.

According to media reports, this field study found, for example, that the only variety of rice that will grow in the contaminated Ganges River delta is a salt-tolerant rice variety developed more than a century ago by small-scale farmers. Indian scientists told reporters that there were more than a hundred thousand varieties of rice alone at one time. But according to them, most of those seeds are now lost.

Media reports say that Debal Deb, a scientist and a rice conservator is now in a race against time and determined to save as many traditional seeds as possible. In the last decade, he has traveled across India to salvage what is left of those traditional seeds.

“My own collection, I have more than 200 varieties, some of which can withstand drought and can yield something on zero irrigation, some varieties which can withstand 12-feet deep-water for three months, and the stem will elongate and still give some yield.

And we have at least six varieties of salt-tolerant rice which can withstand seawater intrusion. These are the unique properties which genetic engineers have not yet imagined.”

According to reports, nonprofit organizations are working with farmers to restore these traditional seeds which went out of use because farmers after 1960 started to use high-yielding seeds of the green revolution.

Deb told reporters that governments and agribusiness are just now coming to the recognition of how vital and critical these ancient seeds are to the future of agriculture and feeding billions. He said that in spite of billions of dollars spent on plant breeding and genetic engineering programs, these programs have yet to produce seeds that rival the tolerance of the traditional seeds to extreme weather-related conditions.

He added that the importance of these traditional seeds cannot be overemphasized to the future of agriculture as climate change envelopes the planet.

By Perviz Walji

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