by Ashish Kothari | 25 Oct 1994

Ashish Kothari

As in other parts of the world, India's agricultural genetic heritage is under seige. The push to “modernise” and “industrialise” India's rural landscape has already taken a heavy toll on plant and animal diversity. In fact, the worse might be yet to come. Yet community organisations, independent farmers and NGOs are struggling at the local level to document, conserve and revive biodiversity in innovative farming systems throughout the vast country. Mr. Ashish Kothari of Kalpavrish, an environmental action group based in Delhi, kindly prepared an overview of what is going on for Seedling readers.


Like many large tropical countries, India is characterised by a complex mosaic of distinct agro-ecosystems, differentiated by their climatic, soil, geological, vegetational, and other natural features. A recent classification by the National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning distinguishes 20 broad agro-ecological zones, separated by natural features and crop growing periods. Each of these agro-ecological zones is in turn comprised of myriad micro-habitats. It is within this diversity of habitats that an amazing variety of crops and livestock has been developed over the millennia of Indian farming.

The Indian region is in fact one of the world's eight centres of crop plant origin, identified as such by the Russian scientist N.I. Vavilov. At least 166 crop species and 320 wild relatives of crops have originated here, according to Dr. R.S. Rana, Director of India's National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources. But it is the genetic diversity within each species which is even more mind-boggling. To give some examples, one species of rice has diversified into at least 50,000 distinct varieties, and one species of mango into over 1,000 varieties ranging from the size of a peanut to a small pumpkin.

India perhaps also has the world's largest diversity of livestock, with some 26 breeds of cattle, 40 of sheep, 20 of goats, and 18 of poultry. All the world's eight buffalo breeds are found here.

Why this diversity?

Over generations, Indian farmers have continuously adapted and modified the rich genetic material available to them from nature. The diversity of crops and livestock is not only accidental, nor is it purely natural; it is more the outcome of thousands of years of deliberate selection, planned exposure to a range of natural conditions, field-level cross-breeding, and other manipulations which farmers have tried out. In other words, a single species of rice collected from the wild some time in the distant past, has diversified into 50,000 varieties as a result of the ingenuity and innovative skills of farming communities (a fact that the modern seed industry always conveniently sidesteps, and that the non-discerning consumer is ignorant of).

But why in the first place did Indian farmers do this? One obvious answer is that different crop varieties and livestock breeds were adapted to diverse local conditions of growth and survival that were available in the country.

However, adaptation to localised environments has been only one mechanism or reason for diversification. What is even more striking is the use of a large diversity of the same crop within a single village, and sometimes within the same field. Many tribal villages in the hills of northeast India, with paddy cultivation similar to the Southeast Asian region, have been known to grow over 20 rice varieties within a single year in their terraced fields. One recently sampled village in the state of Nagal was found to have 70 varieties! The diversity was spread over both time (seasonal) and space (geographical), both vertical and horizontal layers within the same field, and both within and between species. Even the much maligned and misunderstood systems of shifting cultivation in northeast India encouraged the use of a large diversity of crops.

More than mere physical adaptation, a host of economic, cultural, religious, and survival factors have played a role in this diversification. For instance, Perreira notes amongst the Warli tribals of the west Indian state of Maharashtra a great diversity of rice grown for different water and soil needs, varying maturity periods, resistance to different diseases, and various cultural events. Several varieties of rice and other crops were grown in many parts of India just for their use during festivals, marriages, or other auspicious occasions; several others were grown for their taste, colour, or smell; yet others for their pesticidal or soil-fertilisation characteristics.

The stability of a biodiverse agriculture is perhaps its most important characteristic, as recorded from many parts of the world. This is wonderfully illustrated by a once-common practice of the Garhwal Himalaya, the baranaja. Literally meaning “12 grains”, this practice involves the sowing of a mixture of crops into a single plot of land. Kidney beans, black gram, green gram, horsegram, amaranthus, finger millet, barnyard millet, and other crops are grown in a manner which helps to obtain optimal and sustained yields. Since maturity periods of these crops vary, different crops are harvested at different times, helping to retain soil moisture, and providing a constant supply of food. Fertility is continuously recharged by the use of leguminous plants like pulses. According to some assessments, baranaja gives a higher overall productivity (apart from meeting diverse needs) than if the field was to be converted into a soybean monoculture, which is being propagated by agricultural agencies in the region.

The contours and costs of erosion

The last few decades have seen dramatic changes in Indian agriculture. With the advent of the Green Revolution in the mid-1960s, a handful of laboratory generated varieties have been promoted over vast areas. Given certain inputs such as irrigation and chemical fertilisers and pesticides, these varieties produce high yields. (Thus the somewhat misleading term High Yielding Varieties or HYVs — they 're geared for high output if they receive high input!) It is understandable for farmers who can afford such inputs, or who are offered related bank loans, to take enthusiastically to these varieties. Agricultural schemes have also attempted to homogenise growing conditions, for example by surface irrigation, so that where there was earlier a complex mosaic of diverse micro-habitats, there are now vast stretches of uniform agricultural landscape. Intercropping is replaced by monocropping, a wide diversity of species is replaced by a handful of profitable ones, and the great genetic diversity within the same crop species is replaced by a narrow genetic range of financially lucrative varieties. The net effect of these and other practices has been a massive displacement of indigenous seed varieties, such that in the case of most major crops now, the majority of indigenous cultivars are no longer grown.

There is no available figure for the overall loss of crop diversity in India. Some idea can be gauged by the fact that a handful of HYVs are now grown over 70% of the paddy land and 90% of the wheat land of the country. Some localised studies exist of the loss of traditional varieties. For instance, in the Godavari district of the east Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, an estimated 95% of the rice varieties have been lost. In northeast India, several varieties of sugarcane have given way to a single hybrid variety. Thousands of varieties of rice, cotton, minor millets, pulses, and other crops are no longer in use.

Livestock diversity has also faced a serious threat. It is estimated that 10 (50%) of the goat breeds, five (almost 20%) of the cattle breeds, and 12 (30%) of the sheep breeds are today threatened. According to D.S. Balain, former head of the National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources, the Ongole breed of cattle has already been lost to India, and is reportedly now found only in Brazil where it was imported from India! The Kadaknath breed of hen has almost been pushed to extinction, as have been the Bonpalo and Nilgiri breeds of sheep.

The greatest factor in the loss of domesticated animal diversity has been deliberate cross-breeding with exotics, carried out extensively by the government in order to increase the yields of milk or other animal products. Semen banks have generally stored the semen of exotics. While all kinds livestock are affected, perhaps the worst off is poultry; exotics now make up 80% of the total poulty population, with disastrous effects on indigenous breeds. The current thrust towards export-oriented poultry production is likely to intensify the loss.

This erosion of agricultural biodiversity threatens the long-term stability and sustainability of Indian agriculture itself, in many ways:

•   It erodes the genetic base on which scientists are depending for continuous improvement of crops and livestock. The majority of HYVs themselves have been developed from genetic material taken from traditional varieties and wild relatives of crops. These HYVs, in particular hybrids, are not very long-living: they tend to lose their viability and productivity, or become increasingly susceptible to pest/disease attacks, within a few years. This necessitates the infusion of fresh genetic material, which is again obtained from existing traditional varieties or wild plants. But then the introduction of these HYVs is itself a major cause of the erosion of traditional crop diversity. As has been said, modern agriculture is somewhat akin to building the roof of a house by taking the bricks from the walls.

•   The failure of a single HYV crop due to any natural calamity is a crippling blow for a farmer who has no other crop to fall back on, as was the case in traditional agriculture. And since the same variety may now be grown over thousands of hectares, its failure entails suffering and destitution for a vast number of farmers. Some degree of security against such eventualities can be artificially achieved by expensive measures like protective irrigation, subsidies, and credit schemes, but such measures are expensive and prone to failure. For the country as a whole too, the increasing reliance on a narrow genetic range of crops represents a high-risk proposition.

•   Both the above features result in an increasing dependence of the farmer on the industry-dominated market and the government. Virtually everything that is required for farming, except land and labour, is now obtained from outside: seeds, irrigation, fertilisers, pesticides, credit. And despite huge subsidies on these inputs, as also support prices and the like, an increasing number of farmers are facing the economic treadmill, spending more and more to achieve the same output.

•   Several other effects of the Green Revolution have brought insecurity in the lives of farmers. For instance, the traditional paddy field provided not only rice but also fish, frogs, and other elements of biodiversity which were an important part of the diet of several communities, especially tribals. Modern paddy fields, which require large amounts of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, are devoid of much of this biodiversity, with a resultant loss of nutrition for farmers.

The frightening implications of the erosion of domesticated diversity are only now dawning on the agricultural establishment, though they have been apparent for years to a large number of community organisations and independent observers.

Elements of hope: reviving biodiversity

A considerable amount of the genetic material which has been grown or bred by farmers may not any longer be available in the field, but has been collected and stored in gene banks and breeding stations. The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, in its network of gene banks, has several hundred thousand accessions. Such ex-situ collections are important, as they are able to store material which may no longer be possible to grow in the field, and as they make available the base material for genetic upgradation of agriculture. But they also suffer from severe limitations: they are very expensive, lack adequate space to store the complete genetic diversity found in agriculture, and suffer loss of viability of stored germplasm. They also freeze evolution, since the environmental conditions which crops are constantly adapting to cannot be recreated in the icy chills of the gene bank.

For this and other reasons cited above, there is no alternative to the conservation and continued use of crop and livestock diversity in-situ, i.e. in the farmers ' fields and the pastoralists ' rangelands. Unfortunately this aspect has been almost completely ignored in governmental programmes, but is finding increasing attention in the work of community organisations and NGOs. Increasingly, farmers are comparing their indigenous biodiverse forms of agriculture with the modern monocultures, and at least some of them are coming to the answer that a revival of the former is preferable to running on the economic treadmill of the latter. The example of Vijay Jardhari, presented in the accompanying box and photo, is just one of several. Vijay himself is part of Navdanya, a large network of farmers, environmentalists, scientists, and concerned individuals which is working in different parts of India to collect and store indigenous crop varieties, evaluate and select those with good performance, and encourage their reuse in farmers ' fields. Then there are the Academy of Development Science and the Indian Society for Rural Gene Banks, working with farmers in Maharashtra to document their rice diversity, set up community gene banks (currently holding over 300 rice varieties from western India), and propagate selected varieties. Some of these varieties have been reported by these groups to be as high-yielding as the modern HYVs. In a highly eroded landscape of the east Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, the Timbuktu Collective is trying out organic farming and has stated a grain bank of indigenous crop varieties. There are thousands of other groups, individual farmers, and networks, which are doing similar revival and protection work (see box next page for some addresses).

The field of rewarding farmers ' contributions to the maintenance and enhancement of biodiversity is relatively new for all countries. In India, a debate has begun on the possibilities of recognising traditional rights over intellectual resources, and generating benefits for the originators and holders of these resources. Srishti, an organisation run by a professor at the Indian Institute of Management, is documenting rural innovations in agriculture and other fields, and helping farmers to obtain adequate returns for these innovations. Their recent move to obtain patents for some of these farmers ' under the U.S. Patent Act has, however, evoked sharp criticism. A number of other possibilities have been suggested by other observers.

The necessity of in-situ conservation of crop and livestock diversity has finally come home to the government too. The National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources (NBAGR), the central agency dealing with livestock diversity, has of late initiated some schemes to encourage farmers and pastoralists to continue or revive their use of purebred breeds. The National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, the NBAGR's crop counterpart, is also exploring possible schemes to encourage on-farm conservation of crop diversity. Its director Dr. R.S. Rana has also expressed interest in taking some of the vast seed collection in the NBPGR gene bank back to villages where farmers may be willing to diversify their cropping. A comprehensive legislation on biodiversity, currently being formulated as a follow-up to the Convention on Biological Diversity, may include measures to check the erosion of agricultural diversity.

Diversity, productivity & livelihood security

The biggest question obviously is: can we feed a growing population with organic, biologically diverse agriculture? Alternatively, can farmers be given livelihood security through diversity? The examples mentioned above, as also many others in India, seem to indicate that there is great potential to increase and sustain food production through a mix of strategies based on revival of diversity. This relates not only to the use of traditional varieties which have shown high productivity, and of new varieties which build upon these without displacing them, but also to the use of agricultural systems which mix grain, fruit, nut, and other sources of nutrition rather than concentrate only on grain production. Thus the rice and fish production system of the Apa Tanis of Arunachal Pradesh in northeast India, or the baranaja system of the Garhwal Himalaya farmers, could provide models for sustainable, highly productive, agricultural techniques.

But the question of providing food security through biodiverse agriculture is also related to larger economic and social issues: where and what kind of incentives and support measures can be devised for such agriculture, what kind of consumer demand can be generated for wholesome organic food, what land-and-water management systems can be evolved so that fertile agricultural lands are not sacrificed for urban or industrial use, how much we can reverse the trend towards converting food cropping lands to short-term cash cropping...

Government agencies and community groups continue to remain subject to an overall agricultural policy which encourages and financially subsidises the destruction of biodiversity. Indeed, the recent thrust towards agro-exports and agro-product processing, under the current government's economic liberalisation and structural adjustment policies (inspired, no doubt, by the IMF and the World Bank), is likely to intensify this destruction. There is a certain homogenising logic to the global market, which demands standardised, easy to package and easy to price goods. Incentives are likely to increase for farmers to grow such produce for export, rather than for achieving localised self-sufficiency, at least in foodgrains.

A fresh threat comes from the increasing pressure to introduce private intellectual property rights (IPRs) on crop varieties. Under the new GATT regime, countries like India are obliged to provide for an “effective sui generis system” of plant variety protection. As has been observed by a number of experts, the term “effective” is likely to be interpreted by the international community as Plant Breeders ' Rights (PBRs) defined under the International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants (called UPOV). These PBRs give industrial breeders exclusive rights to commercially utilise the varieties that they breed, with very weak exemptions granted for farmers to reuse the seed of such varieties. Even before it was necessitated by GATT, India's Agriculture Ministry has already drafted a Plant Varieties Protection (PVR) Act which roughly corresponds to the UPOV text of 1978. The Ministry's text does provide strong exemptions to farmers, and attempts to create a fund for rewarding the innovative work done by them. However, in the face of the destructive forces which the PVR Act may encourage, these measures could well be undermined. Here, for instance, is one possible implication: commercial seed breeders will find it expensive not only to breed new varieties but also to pass the stringent tests required for PVR applications. They will therefore be much more keen to push a handful of widely adaptable seeds, which can get them back adequate profits, rather than develop a diversity of seeds which are suited to a diversity of micro-situations. The same process of displacing local diversity by monocropping, which characterised the Green Revolution, could be greatly strengthened by the proposed PVR Act.

Also at threat will be India's public sector agricultural research efforts. Within the limited confines of the Green Revolution, these efforts have served India well, and have completely demolished the myth that private profits are essential incentives for creativity. However, with the private sector coming in with a bang, encouraged by the liberalisation policies and lured by the promise of the PVR legislation, public sector research will take a back seat. This is unfortunate, for recently the public sector too has begun to take ecological and social concerns into consideration, and there were genuine chances of integrating diversity concerns in as well. Reorienting agricultural research is eminently possible, if the new policies do not derail this new direction. In the words of eminent rice scientist Dr. R.H. Richharia, former director of the Madhya Pradesh Rice Research Institute, and one of the few persons within the establishment to oppose the entry of exotic rice varieties into the country:

The traditional agricultural systems and sciences as practised in India and South East Asia have been to a great deal subverted in the past 25 years. The rice farmer who has a proud history of plant breeding and scientific eco-specific cultivation is today turned into a cog in the wheel of the agricultural'sector ' where his fund of knowledge is considered only 'tradition '....It is vital that the application of science to rice agriculture and effective control of rice agriculture should remain in the hands of rice farmers...

Unless the new economic policies and the proposed changes in legal regimes governing agriculture are challenged with concerted action, concerns related to biodiversity, sustainability, and equity will remain subordinated to the lure of profit. It is in this context that the efforts of mass movements and activist groups gain critical importance. The Beej Bachao Abhiyan (Save the Seed Campaign) in the Himalaya, the farmers movement in Karnataka represented by the Karnataka Rajya Ryoth Sangha (famous for its anti-Cargill demonstrations), the forces struggling against the new economic policies and against the imposition of the GATT regime in India (despite their tendency to exaggerate and distort the essentially destructive nature of these trends), and a host of other popular struggles are critical components of a move towards a more sustainable agricultural future. So are the increasing number of direct producer-consumer links, in which organic biodiverse farmers set up a relationship with urban consumers to provide them wholesome grains at prices which are mutually agreed to.

In all this, even though their work is at a quiet and relatively undramatic scale, it is the thousands of farmers and groups and communities which are reviving or experimenting with crop and livestock diversity, who are providing the final answer. There is no force more powerful that the one which asserts and ensures local self-sufficiency, and helps farmers to rid themselves of the debilitating dependence on industry-dominated markets and elite-dominated governments. That, finally, is the message that Vijay Jardhari and the Beej Bachao Andolan are giving, and that Indian agriculture must heed.


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Carroll, C.R., Vandemeer J.H. and Rosset P. (eds), Agroecology , McGraw-Hill Publishing Co., New York, 1992.

Kothari, A., Conserving Life: Implications of the Biodiversity Convention for India, Kalpavriksh, New Delhi, 1994.

Navdanya, Cultivating Diversity: Biodiversity Conservation and the Politics of the Seed, Report No. 1, Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resources Policy, Dehra Dun, 1993.

Perreira, W., “The Sustainable Lifestyle of the Warlis”, in India International Centre Quarterly, (Special Issue) 19 (1,2), 1992.

Ramakrishnan, P.S., Shifting Agriculture and Sustainable Development: An Interdisciplinary Study from Northeast India, Man and Biosphere Series, Volume 10, UNESCO and Parthenon Publishing Group, 1992.

Sahai, R., “Animal Genetic Resources Scenario of India”, abstract of paper presented at the National Seminar on Animal Genetic Resources and Their Conservation, April 22-23, 1993, Karnal, National Institute of Animal Genetics, National Bureau of Animal Genetic Resources, and Nature Conservators, 1993.

Sahgal, J.L., Mandal, D.K., Mandal, C., and Vedivelu, S., “Agro-ecological Regions of India”, Technical Bulletin, National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi, and Oxford and IBH Pub. Co., 1992.

Ashish Kothari can be contacted at: Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi, India. Tel: (91-11) 33.17.30 (ext. 292). Email: ashish%[email protected]

Author: Ashish Kothari