Indian farmers once cultivated as many as 110,000 distinct varieties of rice. Tragically, after fifty years of ‘Green Revolution’ agricultural development, the country has lost nearly 90% of its traditional, locally-adapted varieties. Alarmed by this massive erosion of agro-biodiversity, ecologist Dr. Debal Deb set out to help conserve the remaining seed diversity before it vanished forever.
In 1995 Deb began in earnest to gather and document traditional rice seeds from farmers throughout eastern India. Two years later Deb and his organization, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies (CIS), decided to create the first non-governmental rice seed bank for farmers, Vrihi (Sanskrit name of “rice”).
Vrihi was established to collect, save and distribute heirloom rice varieties, and to encourage the non-commercial exchange of seeds among local farmers. After nearly 20 years, Vrihi is now “the largest folk rice seed bank in eastern India”, with over 940 endangered varieties in its collection, each with important characteristics selected by farmers for hundreds of years. Vrihi’s collection includes varieties that are naturally high-yielding, drought or flood tolerant, or that can withstand high levels of soil salinity from coastal flooding: precisely the characteristics needed to maintain food security in the context of climate change.
In addition to the Vrihi seed bank, CIS has established a conservation farm, Basudha, to help conserve their collection of seeds in situ, that is, to grow out each of the hundreds of varieties of rice every season, as well as to demonstrate the efficacy of traditional ecological farming practices. Basudha (‘Earth Mother’ in Bengali) also serves as an interdisciplinary research farm where sophisticated ecological studies are conducted to evaluate the differences between chemical versus ecological farming systems.
Part of Basudha’s research is devoted to protecting indigenous crop genetic material from being patented by seed corporations like Monsanto. They do this by scientifically documenting dozens of properties for each traditional seed variety, and then publishing and copyrighting the information in the name of the community of farmers who donated the seeds to the seed bank. By doing this, the unique properties of each seed become “prior public knowledge” that cannot be patented. Dr. Deb describes this as something like ‘copyleft’ for farmers and researchers, and copyright against corporations, preventing private interests from claiming the exclusive right to profit from the genetic material documented by CIS.
In 2014 CIS launched a separate Biotechnology Laboratory for Conservation to scale up this important work (to protect it from possible sabotage the laboratory’s location has not been disclosed). Taken together, Vrihi, Basudha and the laboratory are helping to ensure food security, promote sustainable agriculture, and protect local food sovereignty against the corporate control of food systems around the world.
Learn more about these inspiring initiatives by listening to Local Bites Episode 5, “Seeds of Resilience, Seeds of Sovereignty”, or by watching one of these short films by Jason Taylor of The Source Project: “The Farmer, the Architect and the Scientist” and “Food Web Theory“.