Thursday, October 18, 2007

Agricultural biodiversity conservation in West Bengal

I was fortunate to spend about ten days visiting with farmer, activist and interdisciplinary scholar par excellence Debal Deb at his agricultural biodiversity research station, situated among the expansive rice paddies of rural West Bengal.

Debal started this research station (named Basudha, Bengali for “Earth Mother”) in 2002 in order to conduct in situ conservation experiments with rice varieties. One of the baneful consequences of industrial agriculture is its erosive effect on crop biodiversity. Before the advent of “modern” agriculture, India had an estimated 65,000 unique varieties of rice under cultivation. This number has now dwindled to a few thousand.

HYV rice monoculture.

West Bengal alone historically was home to some 5,500 varieties. Now there are only 542, and with only a tiny handful of exceptions, they are all grown in one singular location: Debal’s farm.

The story that unfolded for me during my stay at Basudha was of the decimation of folk agriculture as it has been practiced for 10,000 years. Folk crops such as the surviving rice varieties in Basudha’s test plots evolved over generations in response to local ecological and climatic conditions, as well as in response to the preferences of farmers who bred different varieties for a panoply of desired characteristics: taste, resistance to pests, drought and floods, aroma, appearance, nutritional quality, medicinal properties, the yields of grain or straw, etc.

Farmers saved seeds and traded these with other farmers at annual gatherings and festivals. The different varietals were regarded with a high degree of respect and accorded much value – seeds were often considered sacred resources.

But sadly, owing to the “modernization” of agriculture, few farmers today place such high value on sacred genetic resources. Debal began his in situ rice biodiversity conservation project by collecting seeds of whatever folk varieties remained from around the region and redistributing them to farmers for free, so that the farmers’ fields would serve as the research and conservation stations.

Debal didn’t have a farm of his own at the time – so he strategized to have other farmers plant out the varieties for him. But he underestimated the narrowing effect that market culture has had on farmers’ mentality – because he gave the seeds away for free, many of the farmers didn’t value them. When he visited one farmer to whom he had given an exceptionally rare variety, he found that not only had the farmer not planted the seeds, he had left them unprotected and they were eaten by rats. The implication: that particular variety of rice has vanished from the earth, forever.

Folk traditions that were widely practiced until just a few generations ago, such as valuing seeds in non-monetary terms and freely sharing resources, have been sacrificed under market culture. Since Debal gives his seeds away for free, he runs the risk of their not being appropriately valued; whereas, if a farmer takes out a huge loan to buy Monsanto’s HYV seeds and they fail to produce a satisfactory yield (or fail altogether, which happens frequently), he blames himself for being a lousy farmer rather than Monsanto for ripping him off.

This is a stark indication of the broader malady that “modern” society faces, whether in India or the US – we have forgotten how or neglected to value things outside of their market prices. If it costs a lot, it must be valuable (like the HYV seeds, which can run 2,000 Rupees, about $50, per kilogram – very costly for an Indian peasant farmer). If something is free or cheap, if it’s value cannot be imputed into the market somehow, then it’s not worth much. (We have yet to put a price on breathable air – but what’s it worth? The market cannot tell us until it has become scarce – by then it will be too late.) This is an economic reductionism of the most insidious kind.

Debal realized that depending upon farmers who were themselves suffering under market myopia and the myriad economic stresses imposed by Big Agriculture to secure rice biodiversity for future generations was a risky proposition. He also new that in situ conservation was crucial, since only this keeps the varieties in vibrant co-evolution with changing ecological and climatic conditions.

In ex situ conservation, or what is practiced in the large government and corporate seed banks, seeds are kept under freeze-dried conditions. This damages the seeds metabolic mechanisms such that they will not germinate if planted. The genetic material, however, remains intact, allowing genes from the saved varieties to be hybridized with viable plants. This process produces the so-called “high-yielding varieties” (HYV) that account for the great majority of crops planted under the regime of industrial ag.

So in a bold move, with very little money of his own and no support from any university, government agency, foundation or NGO, in 2002 Debal bought a small plot of land 250 km northwest of Kolkata and set up an agricultural biodiversity research station to conduct in situ conservation of rice varietals. Thus Basuhda was born.

Debal recruited a group of intrepid young local farmers who were looking to go organic as research staff. In the five years since, they have built a big adobe farmhouse and kitchen / dining area. They have held courses on organic farming, organized workshops and events to oppose the influence of Big Agriculutre in the neighboring villages, held classes on science and ecology with local school kids, and hosted a wide variety of folk art, music and sports festivals.

Debal is confident he has collected every folk variety of rice that still grows anywhere in West Bengal, and several varieties from other locations around India as well. Every year, Debal and his team of farmers/researchers (none of whom have a degree in science or have even been to college) plant out all 542 varieties in 2 meter by 2 meter plots on 1.5 acres of paddy land. As the plants develop, they painstakingly record 35 different phenotypic or morphological characteristics for each variety.

They’re also doing research on a number of techniques that may produce higher yields of rice grains, or result in breeds that can better withstand drought or flooding. Their experiments are showing folk varieties to out-perform Big Agriculture’s so-called high yielding varieties along a number of dimensions. And they are conducting ecological studies of rice ecosystem food webs, observing all the insects, snakes, birds, lizards and other creatures that coexist with the rice.

Their data and conclusions from the various experiments is widely published in the peer-reviewed and popular literature. It is also incorporated into the information commons Debal has set up to protect the rice varieties from biopiracy by corporations like Monsanto. (Monsanto has a habit of taking folk knowledge, patenting it, and selling it back to the people who developed it through the generations for a sizeable profit.)

The accomplishments of the farmer/researchers at Basudha would be impressive coming from a university. But coming from this small plot of land, in the middle-of-nowhere West Bengal (the farm isn’t even connected to the electricity grid, let alone do they have a laboratory), and being produced by a motley group of local peasant farmer-boys led by one wild-eyed, nearly pennyless anti-globalization activist, their work is downright phenomenal. For science of this caliber and relevance to come out of such humble circumstances is nothing short of a miracle.

Basudha is a thriving example of democratic science – science by and for the people. A big reason Debal has no funding (outside of a few private donations from friends here and there) is that getting science like this funded is damn near impossible. You see, Big Science is bosom-buddies with Big Agriculture; and this kind of grassroots, democratic science-for-the-people is not what Monsanto is interested in funding.

Simple technology for a democratic science: a bamboo microscope. These were recently featured in an article in Nature.

Those tobacco companies didn’t pay their scientists big bucks to prove that smoking is bad for you – they were interested in data that told the opposite story. Just the same, to promote agricultural methods that put power over food security into the hands of small farmers is not in Monsanto’s strategic portfolio. There are no profits to be made for Big Ag if farmers save seeds and trade freely them amongst each other, and if the varieties they’ve developed over generations have no need for synthetic fertilizers or chemical protection from pests.

* * *

At night we sat around an oil lantern made from the bodies and scraps of old tin cans and listened to the distant shouting, banging and booming coming from the surrounding villages. The ruckus was the villagers’ efforts to drive away the herds of wild elephants that migrate through this area every year. As you might guess, elephants can do incredible damage to a farm. In fact, my ecological economist buddy from Kolkata studies this very phenomenon – crop and property damage done by wild mega-fauna. Elephants eating your rice and trampling your garden, rhinos knocking over your privy, tigers absconding with your toddler, that kind of thing.

At Basudha, we listened as the villagers raised the dead in effort to scare the elephants away from their grain storage huts and back into the forest. The booms were concussion grenades supplied by the government forest service – “scientific forest and wildlife management,” they call it.

This is a relatively new problem, and one for which the “scientific management” of the forest service is mostly to blame. This area used to be covered in diverse forest. Back then, the forest provided plenty of fodder, so the elephants never needed to raid the villages for food. But that diverse forest was razed to make way for eucalyptus plantations. Now there’s no fodder, and the villages have elephant problems.

But the fiber industry? They’re very happy. Eucalyptus is a cash cow in this sense – it grows fast, provides good fiber for the industry, and even allows the forest service to claim that it is practicing reforestation. A win for corporations and the government, and a big lose for the villagers, the elephants, and the untold numbers of other species that have been extirpated with the removal of the diverse forest ecosystem.


Jeremy said...

Nice report. Many thanks for sharing your observations. Deb is doing great work, but I do wonder, here: how other farmers and researchers can best make use of his efforts. As you say, conservation depends on the value farmers give to a variety. So how is the value of the landraces to be increased?

Josh said...

That's a really important question, and I don't know the answer. But I suspect it will have something to do with providing farmers with a counter-example to the economic and ecological ruin they're experiencing under industrial ag. Promoting a self-reliant model for bio-diverse organic ag and showing the possibilities for solvency in home economics will perhaps accentuate the need for valuation of folk crop varieties.

Debal said...

Thank you very much Josh, for giving a perceptive description of my work and drawing attention to a crucial problem.
"Promoting a self-reliant model for bio-diverse organic ag and showing the possibilities for solvency in home economics will perhaps accentuate the need for valuation of folk crop varieties." Yes, that's what I am doing: Demonstrating the superior performance of the folk crop (not just rice) varieties on zero agrochemical inputs. And slowly, farmers are breaking out of their TINA syndrome; Today, over 600 farmers in the State have re-adopted folk varieties. I know this is a miniscule number, but it proves the potential.

Anonymous said...

I am to visit Basudha a unique farm developed by Dr Debal Deb, the renowned ecologist.I have been trying to learn science and sustainable development from him for the last 8 years or so.Anybody who has visited his farm will have to praise his folk rice conservation(546 no now) and free distribution and eco friendly structures. His book on SEEDS OF TRADITION SEEDS OF FUTURE,2005 is worth mentioning.Impressed by his work I have started conserving folk rice organically in a Govt farm of Agricultural Training Centre since 2002. I have taken the varieties from him.At present I have 97 folk varieties. I am able to show the potentialities folk rice varieties among the farmers.Actually we were not taught the science behind organic farming,potentialities of folk varieties at the university. I learn it anew from Debal Deb.With the passage of time rice becomes DAUGHTER to me.
In spite of tremendous fund crunch he has done a commendable job and I think it is very rare in the world.As he works for the environment and poor farmers he is hardly recognized by the
institution but people will stand by his side.
Anupam Paul
Agril Development Officer
Agril Training Centre
Nadia, West Bengal,India

smdcosta said...

Nice post. Do you have an address and phone number for Deb. I am in W.B and would like to contact him.


durlave said...

Dear Sir/ Madam,
Good Morning.

Basis of Environment friendly crop-based Balanced Fertilizer Rcommendation for Crops:

Integrated organic and inorganic fertilization is needed to
increase the yield of crops. Fertilizer policy
is initiated based on the longterm experimental findings,
practical experience and observations.Fertilizer
recommendation for any crop is made depending on soil,
plant analytical results, yield of, reach
desired goal checked-climate,plant population,pest and
disease control measures,the critical values of
specific crop soil in specific areas.More at

Thanking You
Krishibid Durlave Roy
R and D MANAGER and International Executive

Anupam said...

In view of Mr D Roy's Comment I would like to add that the IAASTD in April 2008 has commented that industrial agriculture can not feed the world any longer.There are a lot of instances that organic farming gives higher out put that industrial agriculture.Threre is no question of integration.However,the subject of sustainable development/agriculture is not in our universities and organic farming cannot be explained in terms the knowledge of organic farming.
In spite of integration etc farmers are getting poor yield by cultivating so called HYVs.But folk rice like Kerala Sundari,Bahurupi etc are giving 4-5ton a ha without any application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.These were not shown to the farmers lest the business of chemicals go down.
Anupam Paul
Agricultural Training Centre