Diversity of Cultures ~ II – The Statesman
It would be mind-boggling to see the wide variety of grains available in India that are threatened with extinction and funny or disgusting to see the official reaction to the numbers. There were 5,500 varieties of rice in West Bengal and 82,000 (according to the annual report of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi, 2007-08) in all of India. The usual derogatory remarks against these varieties are: “All these varieties were bred by illiterate farmers”, low yielding with most varieties rarely seen in farmers’ fields.
Not only rice, there were 38,612 varieties of wheat, 7,261 varieties of maize, 50,034 varieties of millet and 16,427 varieties of gram, in addition to 3,868 varieties of brinjal, 4,932 varieties of amaranth, 10,988 varieties of arhar, 4,838 varieties of cotton and 61 breeds of cattle. The criticism of “small producers” is attributed to a poor knowledge of the varieties because the notion of yield varies from one context to another. It has been accepted that there are colored varieties of cotton, tree cotton, tree arhar, tree bhindi and colored bhindi. Additionally, dwarf wheat (Triticum spherococcum) was bred and cultivated by farmers in the Indus Valley and is still grown in India. Colored maize is also grown in some pockets of Jharkhand. MP, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and North Eastern States. It was also believed that Gir and Red Sindhi cows gave substantial amounts of A2 milk and were well adapted to the Indian climate, unlike the foreign Holstein and Jersey breeds.
Unfortunately, this enormous diversity has yet to be assessed with respect to its nutritive value, ecological benefits and yield potential in various locations. Newly commercialized modern varieties are released into the market under the name of “quality seed and new variety” under official subsidy programs. Modern varieties, older than 10 years, are not eligible for the subsidy. The question is whether the traditional varieties don’t have these new characteristics that the new varieties have. The breeder of the new modern variety has no answer because the varieties have not yet been evaluated. Instead, there is the institutional constraint of developing new fertilizer-sensitive varieties ignoring the fact that there is no need to incur the seed expense of traditional varieties. Once purchased, they can be grown for generations without any chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Before chemical-intensive agriculture, seeds were exchanged between farmers and no one was deceived. Now the seed has become a commodity. According to historians, Sujata offered rice pudding (payes or rice pudding) made from Kalanamak rice to the fasting Lord Buddha around the 5th century BC. This aromatic rice is still grown in some provinces of Uttar Pradesh. Around 326 BC. AD, when Alexander the Great invaded India, his army is said to have transported Basmati rice for his teacher, Aristotle, to Greece. He coined the name Oruza, from which evolved the scientific name for rice, Oryza sativa. It dates back over 2,000 years and varieties of rice are still being cultivated. Yet farmers today must buy seed for every season for “certified modern” crop varieties.
British records from 1766 showed that traditional rice varieties from the Salem and Thanjavur districts of Tamil Nadu yielded 12 tons per ha and a rice variety, Kirubilliya, from Karnataka also produced 12 tons per ha in 1952. The government India awarded the Krishi Pandit Prize. to the farmer who grew it, but what happened to these traditional high-yielding rice varieties? It is possible that the authorities did not feel motivated to conserve and propagate high yielding varieties (HYV) across the country through multi-location trials. Meanwhile, consecutive droughts, floods or disuse led to their extinction, as evidenced by the Salem and Thanjavur rice varieties. However, a modern rice variety IR 8 which produced 6 tons ha in 1966 was declared HYV. Even today, some traditional rice varieties like Kerala Sundari, Bahurupi and others yield 6 tons per ha without any chemical fertilizer or seed replacement. Several communities over the centuries practiced polyculture and rice was not necessarily the main crop. The Ho community of Paschim Singhbhum district of Jharkhand used to sow short-lived upland rice (aus) with sorghum, black gram, cowpea, pigeon pea and roselle in the highlands. Finger millet was the other combination with short-lived upland rice. In many places, the millet harvest coincides with the transplanting of amon rice. The harvest period for barnyard millets and foxtails is August; September is the harvest month for the early varieties of pearl millet and kodo; October is the month for finger millet, corn and winter rice; November is the harvest month for finger millet, the late variety of Kodo and small millet; December is the harvest period for sorghum and winter rice, while March-April is the harvest period for proso millet.
Apart from these grains, cultivated and wild tubers were used as food from October-February; velvet bean was used from January; dry mahua flowers, mango, tamarind, siali seeds (Bauhinia vahlii) were eaten, jackfruit and several wild fruits were used as staple foods. More than 60 types of edible mushrooms are found in the forests from the onset of the monsoon until October. This gives a picture of how farmers managed food throughout the year through mixed farming under rain-fed agriculture.
Lately, a welcome new program ~ Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY) ~ has been launched to manage water in agricultural fields. It is micro-irrigation with sprinklers and a drip system. Flood irrigation with groundwater is a colossal waste and this micro-irrigation saves water and increases yield.
Currently, there is a sea of irrigated winter rice (monoculture) in many places. Even during the Kharif season, Amun rice is grown with groundwater, given the erratic monsoon rains. However, as was the experience of 2021, a sudden heavy rain, during the later stages of the Kharif season, damaged the rice. This monoculture of modern rice varieties has also replaced all other cereals, although it is seriously threatened. Rice cultivation in the Sundarbans is affected as flash floods have become a common occurrence. However, mountain areas may opt for the cultivation of millet and there is a need to change dietary habits in parallel with the inevitable climate change. However, most Bengalis have changed their eating habits from rice to rice-wheat.
Irrigated boro rice (summer rice) acreage is huge in many states and has replaced pulse and oilseed crops; wheat too. The story of lathyrism is an interesting case of food policy and agricultural input trade. Just before harvesting the winter rice, the seed of Lathyrus (khesari dal or garbanzo or garbanzo; Lathyrus sativus), a crop of tasty legumes is broadcast over the paddy field having adequate moisture. Generally, broadcast planting is the method of sowing seeds by scattering them over the surface of the plowed soil. The legume crop grows well in winter after harvesting Kharif rice without tillage, irrigation or fertilization. Farmers sow seed from their stock from the previous year. The tender twigs of Lathyrus serve as leafy vegetables and fetch a prize. After about three months, farmers harvest a large crop of pulses. Lathyrus, being a legume, enriches the soil with nitrogen-fixing nodules in a natural cycle of restoring soil fertility.
Now comes food policy. During the 1970s there was propaganda around lathyrism; that the legume crop contained a neurotoxin that causes paralysis. A psychosis of fear forced farmers not to grow lathyrus. This was a far cry from what actually happens to someone who develops the symptoms: only if a malnourished man eats nothing but rice and khesari dal for 60 days in a row can he develop the sickness. In reality, one does not consume the same dal every day and anyway, boiled khesari dal is drained of water to ward off toxicity. Doctors were of the opinion that there were no reports of lathyrism over 80 years when many people consumed the dal.
The result of the bad propaganda was that while khesari is still grown, the area under cultivation has drastically decreased. Previously, each block had a large area of khesari and there was no talk of selling fertilizers, pesticides, seeds and pump sets. In contrast, boro rice requires several external inputs, but the psychosis of fear worked well and a large number of farmers turned to boro rice, the consequences of which the country is now facing. Keep in mind that traditional agriculture does not advocate water-intensive boro rice which requires 2,500 liters of water to grow one kg of boro rice. Sustainable agriculture is the adoption of crop conservation and seed distribution which several farmers, farmer organizations and even government farms are adopting because rice varieties such as Kerala Sundari, Bahurupi, Kesabsal Meghadambaru have grain yield 5 to 6 tons per ha without any chemical fertilizer. .
There are many others like a variety of winged paddy which has two or three grains in a single paddy, rice with leaves containing anthocyanins, rice without boiling, black rice with high antioxidants and anthocyanins, nutritious medicinal rice, nutritious colored maize, colored cotton, tree bhindi, bhindi two feet long, most pungent chili pepper, large gourd four feet long, brinjal weighing 800 grams, various millets, uncultivated forest foods and others. It is important that the seeds associated with the various religious rituals that have hitherto existed in the villages are revived.
Indeed, the government adopted the Bio Diversity Act in 2002 to preserve the diversity of our cultures but it is up to society as a whole to support it; isolated initiatives will not work. It needs a country in mission mode with the full support of the government to ensure that traditional varieties of crops are revived with due regard to regional agricultural practices, crop varieties and other criteria to ensure genuine food secure and well nourished in India.