Innovation Plant Variety Protection Traditional Knowledge

Accomplishing Sustainable Seed Innovations: Why is a Three-Pronged Approach Needed?


After several introductory and background posts, as well as a comprehensive summary of the SSI 1.0 project, we now get to the real substance of the Sustainable Seed Innovation 2.0. From this post onwards, we will be posting spicy pieces of the Position Paper that will go to the Government of India, bit by bit. If you have missed this series of posts so far, now is the time to jump in with your comments and recommendations and contribute to the first of its kind public consultation on a very important issue. In this post, Mrinalini Kochupillai, Project co-investigator and lead author of the Position Paper gives a compact description of the state of affairs that makes a three pronged approach for promoting sustainable seed innovations, necessary. A description and thoroughly researched explanation and rationale of each of the three prongs will follow in forthcoming posts.

Accomplishing Sustainable Seed Innovations: Why is a Three-Pronged Approach needed?

Mrinalini Kochupillai*

With the onset of the ‘Green Revolution’ that brought in high yielding varieties, and modern Mendelian Plant Breeding that brought in F1 hybrids, farmers, including small and marginal farmers the world over, have lost interest and incentive to select, save, resow, improve and share their traditional, indigenous seeds and planting materials. Relying instead on improved seeds that are engineered to perform only on soil treated with chemical fertilizers and pesticides, farmers have also witnessed systematically depleting yields of those (traditional, indigenous) seeds that have not been ‘improved’ or engineered to tolerate such chemical inputs.

It is not surprising, therefore, that more than 75% of the Earth’s plant genetic diversity has been lost. According to some estimates, the loss of indigenous crop diversity and corresponding Native Plant Genetic Resources (NPGRs) has been as high as 97% over the last 100 years. Further, 75% of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animal species, world nutrition is primarily based on a mere 10 crops, of which three, namely, rice, maize and wheat, contribute nearly 60% of the calories and proteins obtained by humans from plants. What is threatened today, therefore, is not ‘food security’, but ‘nutritional security.’

At the same time, according to some studies, non-proprietary germplasm continues to be grown by small farmers worldwide, most of which are located in developing countries, but with a growing number in the developed world also. Globally, an estimated 1.5 to 2.5 billion farmers are small holders who are most likely cultivate and exchange non-proprietary seeds. In fact, of the estimated 570 million farms worldwide, 500 million can be considered small or family farms, 85% of which are less than 2 hectares in size.

Contrary to what may be popularly believed, small and family farms, produce 80% of the world’s food. It is therefore no wonder that the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) identifies small and family farms to be the main contributors to global food security. To the extent that these small farmers can be incentivized to engage with non-proprietary germplasm and diversified agriculture, they can also become the key custodians and contributors to nutritional security. Indeed, small and family farmers that have a greater outlook and control over the happenings on their landholdings, are therefore best suited to conserving, replenishing and improving (agro)biodiversity. In India, many activities are happening to protect endangered varieties, indigenous (Desi) seeds and spread that knowledge. It must be borne in mind, however, that adoption of indigenous/heterogenous seeds is not adequate in itself. Given the fact that such varieties are known to not perform in chemical fertilizer treated soils, a prerequisite to meaningfully ensuring both nutritional and food security, is the revival of soil health via elimination of chemical fertilizer residues.

In fact, reasons supporting incentivization of traditional agriculture, using indigenous, non-uniform, locally suited heterogenous seeds and planting materials stretch beyond food and nutritional security to the very sustainability of agriculture and food production systems worldwide. Latest scientific research challenges the extent to which Mendelian genetics can and ought to be the sole guiding force of agriculture. The relevance of in soil (microbial) diversity, the interaction between soil and plant root microbes, and the processes that optimize the microbial populations to enhance nutrient absorption by plants, has now become a major area of scientific research. This microbial diversity, that is key to maintaining soil health (and therefore for ensuring agricultural sustainability) is severely compromised in conventional, high chemical input agriculture. Accordingly, modern scientific research supports a return to TEK-based farming systems that naturally increase soil microbial diversity by efficient use of natural animal and farm waste, thereby preventing soil pollution, supporting nutrient recycling and to enhancing yields of traditional/indigenous and heterogenous seeds and materials.

Experience shows, however, that when a specific understanding and associated practice has occupied the minds of a people and community for decades, and has also become the most convenient and/or comfortable/’practical’ option (e.g. due to ready and abundant seed availability and the complexity of converting soils from conventional to organic), a shift in approach and attitude does not happen easily or automatically. Systematic efforts are needed to (re)educate and (re)incentivize, not just farmers, but also the entire chain of stakeholders engaged in agriculture, in order to bring about a lasting, sustainable, and peaceful transformation.

Based on the above summary of research findings (SSI 1.0), supported by the findings and recommendations of the expert participants of SSI 1.0, this position paper recommends a three-pronged approach to incentivize and support sustainable seed innovations. The adoption and implementation of these three prongs, supported by continuous research and development efforts are expected to bring socio-economic benefits to small and marginal farmer-innovators engaged in traditional farming using indigenous/heterogenous seeds, environmental benefits for farms and rural communities, and nutritional security and food diversity to consumers. On the whole, the 3-pronged approach is also expected support the development of India’s bio-economy and make India a global provider of high quality, heterogenous agricultural seeds and planting materials.

Forthcoming blog posts describes the rationale, justification and means of implementing the three pronged approach, which comprises of:

  1. Prong 1: Revival of Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) based farming systems
  2. Prong 2: Re-designing educational and extension service curriculums
  3. Prong 3: Re-thinking Incentive Mechanisms: Adoption of Blockchain/DLT supported marketplaces for indigenous seed sharing and sales.

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