From Rich Diversity to Narrow Genetic Base in Agriculture

rice farmer

One of the most creative endeavors of farmers all over the world but even more so in tropical countries has been to protect , promote and nurture a diversity of crop varieties. They continued to do so for thousands of years and for well over a hundred generation.

As a result of this , over a period of around five thousand or more years humankind was able to create something very beautiful and even more useful—a collection of hundreds of thousands of varieties, sub-varieties and cultivars of various crops found suitable for various kinds of soil and land, weather and climate, season and place, or cherished for their taste and flavor, scent and aroma, cooking quality and nutrition, yield of grain or fodder, medicinal or other special attributes.

Genuine progress for thousands of years in this particular context led to farming communities becoming very self-reliant in terms of their most important need of diverse kinds of seeds for diverse kinds of land and soil. Within various farming communities there were some who had exceptional talents, creativity, wisdom and aptitude for protecting and nurturing diverse varieties. Such farmers got more respect and their help was often sought. As they grew old they imparted more of their knowledge to others or made a few simple rules so that the protective practices could be followed more easily . Many women in particular were found to be particularly skilled and creative, and also very protective. The practice of selecting more healthy and bountiful plants in each harvest and obtaining seeds from them was carefully followed. If some of the plants were affected by pest or disease, the genetic diversity helped to check the spread. In addition farmers carefully observed the plants that escaped harm, and obtained seeds from them for the next harvest . At the same time as varieties grown naturally in various conditions were protected and improved, varieties found to be growing well in the wild or on margins were also incorporated into the range of cultivated varieties. In this and numerous other ways, integrating and adding to the wisdom of earlier generations, real progress in terms of a rich genetic diversity of crop varieties was ensured. What was achieved was something uniquely beautiful, useful and creative. It was based on the wisdom and contributions of countless farmers of so many generations, women and men, elderly and young.

This progress based on the cooperation and sharing of countless farmers for a few thousand years continued to enrich world farming and food systems. Then about a hundred years back, or perhaps a little sooner or later, a few influential and powerful persons started believing that they knew better than the combined wisdom of farmers of many generations. These few select persons felt that instead of farmers evolving and protecting various crop varieties on their millions of fields, a few select persons would be able to find the most suitable varieties in their labs and experimental fields and then, as these select persons knew best, the varieties found by them should be spread to be grown on fields of farmers over vast areas.

For sometime this absurd notion of replacing or even uprooting one of the most evolved systems of human progress and cooperation, a system based on voluntarism and local talents which ensured the availability of the most important input to all farmers as per their specific needs without any cash expenditure and trouble to anyone , did not carry much interest and being more of a whim did not cause much harm either. But then even more powerful persons and businessmen started realizing that there is a lot of money to be made from this new notion, and this is when the trouble started, as these businessmen also had the money to influence governments.

These rich businessmen argued among themselves that it is precisely because the farming communities tend to be self-reliant in meeting their needs that we cannot make money from them. To make money from them their self-reliance must be broken. What better way of breaking the larger self-reliance than to first break the self-reliance in terms of seeds, as the entire farming basically starts with seeds? When many big businessmen started thinking in these terms then the notion of a few select persons claiming to create more productive varieties appealed to them. Ah! Let us get these select men to give us some varieties which can perhaps be shown to get some higher grains for some time by using some of the surplus chemicals manufactured by us. Let us get all our media friends to shout more and more about the real or imagined higher yield. Then we will have the right conditions to ask our collaborators in the government to concentrate on promoting only these seeds. Hence the self-reliance of farmers in terms of the most basic requirement of seeds will be broken and in addition we will be able to sell loads of surplus chemicals as well. Once this happens the entire sector will get opened to us for the one who controls the seeds controls the rest of the farming as well.

This is the basis of how the modern era in farming started and the green revolution started. At field level its most immediate consequence was that several hundred thousand varieties and sub- varieties and cultivars of crops , the result and the achievements of the efforts of millions and millions of farmers over hundreds of generations, started getting displaced from farms and were eventually lost to farmers. This was repeatedly announced from the housetop as great progress. A lie told a thousand times finds believers. Ultimately several among the new generation of farmers themselves as well as most others started believing this is progress and so businessmen and their official collaborators could justify the concentration of government spending on only this so-called progress. The genuine progress of thousands of years in conserving very rich genetic diversity was forgotten by most, but its great value for breeding was recognized by shrewd businessmen who got these conserved in gene banks from where billionaire multinational companies could obtain these quietly for their narrow profit requirements.

As the genetic diversity on fields dwindled greatly, big businessmen prepared for their second onslaught to reduce this further , using their technology of GM crops and genetic engineering, so that only seeds of a handful of giant corporations would dominate world farming. They would like to use the world media and other collaborators to hail this as the second green revolution.

Before concluding, we will like to give here just one episode on how all these changes took place. There have been several such episodes in various parts of the world.

In early and mid-sixties of the previous century India was making very good progress for improving rice cultivation based on the rich diversity of indigenous rice varieties. Then suddenly pressures started being exerted to abandon this and instead opt for an entirely different program imposed from outside and based on non-indigenous seeds, even though these were suspected to be harmful. On March 15, 1966 Dr. R.H. Richharia, the then director of the Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI) wrote an extremely important letter to the Director General, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Delhi.

“The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) Manila, has been sending a lot of rice experimental material from time to time into this country”, this letter said, “and these are grown in several states. It has come to my notice that most of this material are susceptible to a very peculiar disease, not known to this country so far; it is suspected to be virus”

Having sounded this warning the author of this letter went on to state, “I may point out that in the last Rice Research Workers’ Conference during November 1965, I.R. 9-60 has been recommended as one of the donor parents for hybridization programme in the various rice-growing states. But this material, as has already been reported earlier, has been observed by me at CRRI and two other centres to be infected with the yellowing disease at an early vegetative phase. I may also inform that from some source of information I have learnt that I.R. 9-60 is not only susceptible to Tungru virus, but, also to bacterial blight. As such it is not a desirable material for being used as a donor parent; if used, it may spread diseases where-ever the material is grown. Under these circumstances it would soon be beyond our control.

“That some sort of inoculum of this dreadful disease is getting built up in the country is evident from the fact that Taichung Native I which was not showing the yellowing of leaves in the early vegetative phased of the summer crop of last year, has now exhibited it. Since the Ministry of Food and Agriculture has a huge programme of speedily spreading this variety in the near future, timely action has to be taken against any future catastrophe of the kind being observed now.”

Having sounded these warnings the then Director of CRRI, who was one of the most famous rice-experts in the world made the following recommendation –

a) Wherever rice cultures from IRRI are being grown they should be carefully watched for which instructions have to be issued.
b) Action will have to be taken to withdraw the hybridization programme recommended under item A(2) of the Rice Research Workers Conference involving I.R. 9-60 as the donor parent.
c) Restrictions will have to be imposed against the free import of IRRI rice material by any source other than CRRI.

Unfortunately, however, these warnings and recommendations were ignored by the top authorities, and instead the writer of this letter was pre-maturely retired from his senior post. The pest and disease susceptible varieties were allowed to be spread.

All this proved very harmful for India’s agriculture, and the results become evident all too soon. The massive damage become so worrying that a special task force on rice breeding was constituted of eminent experts in 1979 to examine this issue. These experts met at the CRRI in February. Dr. Richharia was called back from his retirement to head this task force as his advice was considered invaluable. This task report stated clearly and firmly, “Most of the HYVs are derivatives of T(N) 1 or I.R. 8 and, therefore, have the dwarfing gene of dee-geo-woo-gen. This narrow genetic base has created alarming uniformity, causing vulnerability to diseases and pests. Most of the released varieties are not suitable for typical uplands and low lands which together constitute about 75 per cent of the total rice area of the country. To meet these situations, we need to reorient our research programmes and strategies.

“Referring to this problem of narrow genetic base at another place again the task force says, “A cursory look at the pedigree of the different rice varieties released in India reveals that a very narrow germplasm base is involved. It is also noticed that many times the same female parent is involved in the cross combination.”

Thus even though the earlier warnings of Dr. Richharia were now confirmed by the actual experience of about 13 years and supported by the country’s eminent rice-breeders represented in this task-force, these warnings were still ignored to a large extent and the official rice programme/policy centred on exotic dwarf HYVs with a narrow genetic base continued as before.

Bharat Dogra is a veteran journalist and author



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