Every day at CEE (Centre for Environment Education) was an education one way or the other. One fascinating tour that I recall was to visit NGOs working in projects related to biodiversity and climate change as part of a national scheme that CEE was coordinating.
I was supposed to cover Chhattisgarh as part of this. My most memorable visit was to an NGO that was collecting local varieties of rice and cataloguing them. It was a small project, maybe only a few lakhs. The NGO had collected rice samples, stuck them to sheets of chart paper and meticulously written down details that they had gathered from the farmers about the cultivation, characteristics, uses etc. Like a school project, but preserving invaluable genetic resources and information. What a variety of rice—different shapes, different sizes; some fronds long and wavy, others densely packed. And for the first time I saw purple and black rice! And the enthusiastic NGO staff explained the traditional use of each type of rice.
It was an eye-opener.
I knew that Chhattisgarh was known as the Rice Bowl of India and had over 20,000 rice varieties. But seeing those modest tin trunks with the samples of rice carefully stored brought this home to me in a way that no amount of reading could have. And with it, the realization that we were fast losing so many varieties–and not only of rice but every crop. And not only in India, but worldwide.
There are many factors responsible for this—unsustainable agricultural practices; industrialization; the focus on a few varieties of crops which are commercially attractive to the exclusion of others; urbanization, etc. According to UN FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization), while over 6,000 plant species have been cultivated for food worldwide, only nine account for the majority of total crop production.With climate change, the need to preserve these varieties is even more urgent than ever before. The varieties that we cultivate today may no longer be viable tomorrow. And we may have to fall back on this preserved crop diversity to feed the world.
The small NGO that I saw in Chhattisgarh was a key in the whole chain. Several NGOs in India have been working towards preserving crop diversity for decades—from Beej Bachao Andolan which started in the Tehri Garhwal, to Vrihi seed bank in East India, to the Navadanya movement.
The international community has set up such seed banks at large scale to preserve and conserve seed varieties. There are over 1700 such banks, the biggest of which is the Seed Vault at Svalbard, Norway. This has the largest collection of the world’s crop diversity. It stores duplicates of seed samples from the world’s crop collections and hence is a back-up in case anything were to happen to any collection anywhere. The geographical location of the Vault ensures the best possible chance for the survival of the seeds— low temperatures, permafrost and thick rock protect the seed samples and ensure they will remain frozen even without power. Deep inside the Arctic Circle, the location is very remote, but still accessible. It is well above sea level, and safe from flooding even in the worst climate change scenario. The vault is 100 metres into the mountain. It can store 4.5 million varieties of crops, with about 500 seeds per variety. As of now, there are more than 10,00,000 samples in the Vault, originating from almost every part of the world.
India too has commissioned an impressive seed preservation facility. In fact, it is the second largest in the world. The stone and wood paneled vault is located in Chang La Pass, Ladakh, and is a joint initiative of the Defence Institute of High Altitude Research and the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources. In this facility, seeds are sealed in specially made three-ply foil packages, placed inside black boxes and stored on shelves. It currently holds olver 10,000 seed samples, and has plans to grow by inviting the international community it use it.
The loss of agricultural biodiversity is less focussed on than the challenges to wild biodiversity. But it can be as
devastating. Feeding the world will be impossible if we don’t act to conserve this now! As per FAO, since the 1900s, some 75 per cent of agricultural plant genetic diversity has already been lost. Seed banks, from local to international,
is one of the ways to do this. Kudos to the farmers, communities, NGOs and institutions which are doing this!