Women in the Center of Crop Diversity & Food Security

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Women farmers displaying indigenous seeds that they save at a community seed bank in Karnataka.
Women farmers displaying indigenous seeds that they save at a community seed bank in Karnataka.
Blog entry by Rucha Chitnis, India Program Director, who is traveling in Southern India to research women farmers’ green traditional knowledge systems for farming, seed saving and managing their natural resources.
Let’s start from the very beginning.  And some might say that it all began with the seeds. Seed, a symbol of fertility and perpetuity, of culture and sustenance in India, is also becoming a symbol of self-reliance and a key resource to preserve the biodiversity of indigenous crops on small farms across the country.In Southern India, GREEN Foundation, a community-based organization that works with small and marginalized farmers, including tribals and Dalits, in semi-arid regions of Karnataka, has immersed itself in this challenge of promoting the conservation of indigenous seeds among farmers since 1996.
 
During my visit to the Foundation, I learn that women farmers are in the center of their seed conservation efforts due to their gendered roles as the primary seedkeepers in India.  The Foundation began its work with five women farmers and a handful of indigenous seeds. “When we began talking to the farmers, we realized that traditional varieties of seeds had almost disappeared. Without seeds what we were attempting to do would be a non-starter,” notes Dr. Vanaja Ramprasad, founder and a seed conservationist.
The Foundation believes that women farmers also hold the key to preserving the biodiversity of the crops and their knowledge systems of seed saving and mixed and natural farming are vast, which need to be documented and promoted.  Dr. Vanaja shares an example of an elderly woman farmer, who identified nearly 80 varieties of greens in her field, as well as their uses for medicinal and nutrition needs. “Her knowledge was phenomenal,” she says. “When it comes to food security, women play a key role in identifying food that is available. In lean seasons, they trek to the nearby forests, and they are able to identify roots and tubers for their food requirements and medicinal plants.”
Dr. Vanaja Ramprasad, founder of the GREEN Foundation
Dr. Vanaja Ramprasad, founder of the GREEN Foundation

 

This intimate knowledge of women, believes Dr. Ramprasad is often undermined by the scientific community and biotechnology companies who promote agro-technologies, which might not be appropriate for rural communities, and especially for the economically disadvantaged farmers. Dr. Ramprasad shares that some of the greens on the farms, which poor farmers in India subsist on during lean periods, might be considered as weeds by some agro-companies, which are eliminated by herbicides.

The Foundation programs promote the conservation of agro-biodiversity, ecological farming practices, seed conservation and creation of community-managed seed banks.   Seed conservation has been in the center of the programmatic efforts of the Foundation. Their research and analysis showed that India’s Green Revolution in the 1960s eroded the diversity of indigenous seeds with the introduction of the high yielding varieties of seeds and pervasive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.  As farmers moved away from the practice of saving and exchanging seeds with their neighbors and families to buying the HYV seeds from the market, their own indigenous knowledge systems related to farming and seed saving became slowly irrelevant in the face of industrial agriculture.

 Gene bank of indigenous seeds set up by the GREEN Foundation
Gene bank of indigenous seeds set up by the GREEN Foundation

 

“India is a land that had over 100,000 varieties of rice,” she says, but now only a few popular varieties are sold in urban markets. The Green Revolution also focused on intensive cultivation of rice and wheat and ignored other indigenous varieties of crops, like millets–considered to be a vital source of nutrition in rural India.  The Foundation encourages women farmers to save indigenous varieties of millets, which are ideal crops to grow in arid and semi-arid areas as some varieties are drought-resistant and require little water for irrigation, compared to rice and other cash crops. As small-scale and marginalized women farmers largely depend on the rain for their irrigation needs, millets are an important source of food security in areas where recurring droughts or dwindling and unreliable rainfall cause stress among farmers.

“In many ways, we have to rekindle the pride that the farmers have in their traditional farming systems,” says K. P Suresh, Associate Director of the Foundation. He believes that the traditional role women play in seed selection, seed conservation, and seed treatment to prevent the crop from developing unhealthy, are critical and need to be documented and promoted.  Seeds also symbolize the cultural heritage of communities across India, and they are an integral part of many rituals, ceremonies and festivals.  And seed conservationists, like Dr. Ramprasad, affirm that the practice of seed saving has been a cornerstone of farming traditions that made agriculture, itself, a way of life.