The Sustainable Seed Innovations Project: Prong 1-Revival of Traditional Ecological Knowledge Based Farming Systems (Part I)

Photo credit: Ruchi Jain

We’re pleased to bring to you the sixth post in the blog post series on The Sustainable Seed Innovations Project that we had launched last month.  In the last post, Mrinalini Kochupillai, Project co-investigator and lead author of the Position Paper had given a compact description of the state of affairs that makes a three pronged approach for promoting sustainable seed innovations, necessary. This two-part post gives a description and thoroughly researched explanation and rationale of the first prong. Here goes Part I:

Prong 1- Revival of Traditional Ecological Knowledge Based Farming Systems: Traditional Knowledge through the Lens of Modern Scientific Research (Part I)

 Julia Köningera*, Jasper Matthiessenb*, Mrinalini Kochupillaic, Prabhakar Raod#

With Nirmala Sitharaman, (currently Minister of Finance, GoI) mentioning ‘Zero Budget Natural Farming’ (ZBNF) in the Budget 2019, our post on Prong 1 of the means of promoting Sustainable Seed Innovations in India is right on time! ZBNF is currently practiced in many parts of India and is known under various names including Suresh Palekar’s Zero Budget Spiritual Farming (SPNF), Sri Sri Natural Farming (SSNF), or just Natural Farming (attributed to Masanobu Fukuoka – A Japanese Farmer (1913-2008)). Our post below highlights how some of the key components (products and processes) and insights of Zero Budget Natural Farming as practiced in India, whose principles are sourced, in significant part from ancient Indian such as Vrikshayurveda and Krishi Paraashar, are increasingly confirmed by modern science. We hope that this post will generate interest (and healthy debate) among academics engaged with agriculture, traditional knowledge, plant breeding and soil sciences.

From the perspective of intellectual property rights that this blog, as well as this (SSI 2.0) research, are closely connected, it is noteworthy that neither traditional knowledge per se nor farmers’ seed innovations (including not just new kinds of seeds, but also methods of seed storage, soil management etc.) based on such traditional knowledge are adequately or appropriately protected by current pigeon holes of ‘narrow’ intellectual property protection regimes (see also the background post here for details). In order to (i) promote the use of traditional knowledge based sustainable farming systems, including the use of indigenous seeds and associated soil management technologies prescribed therein, and (ii) to promote research and innovation on and with them, measures other than “IP-Narrow” are necessary. For this, keep track of Prongs 2 and 3 of the SSI 2.0 recommendations (Education, DLT/Blockchain technologies), coming soon to this space.

TEK in International Law and Business

International conventions, such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), have for long underscored the need to protect biodiversity within the soil (i.e. the soil microbiome) & on the soil (i.e. seed/plant biodiversity). Equally relevant is the recognition and high status given within these conventions to (a) the valuable role played by traditional knowledge & associated systems, practices, & innovations, in maintaining this biodiversity, & using it in a sustainable manner, and (ii) generating social and economic benefits (“benefit sharing”) for the people preserving and using this knowledge. The CBD, therefore, encourages international “cooperation for the development & use of technologies, including indigenous and traditional technologies, in pursuance of the objectives of the Convention”.

Particularly relevant from a business perspective is the exponentially growing popularity of Ayurveda and of products and services derived therefrom, including among European populations.[2] This growing popularity within Europe (and beyond) of products and services based in Ayurveda, and the expanding consumer trust in this system of knowledge, makes a strong economic and business case for the adoption of scientifically validated business models rooted in this traditional, time tested knowledge system, and for the reintroduction of farming systems that are based on this knowledge, into the mainstream. The original philosophy as well as the emerging scientific evidence recommending more widespread use of such farming systems are therefore worth looking into.

The Philosophy of Traditional Ecological Knowledge

Traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and associated farming systems can be considered a holistic approach to farming that promotes and enhances the health and diversity of agro-ecosystems, and facilitates complex and beneficial interactions between biodiversity, biological cycles and soil biological activities. TEK based farming systems visualize human beings (and animals, such as cattle) as being a part of nature and consequently aims for co-existence and co-evolution of entities that benefit from each other through ecosystem services (synergies within the ecosystem). TEK evolves experimentally and has an evolutionary character that verifies the knowledge season after season and is handed down from one generation to the next. In other words, these systems evolve in harmony with local socio-cultural realities and in accordance with local site conditions. Consequently, they are deeply embedded in local (often unique) cultural, natural, social and economic practices and circumstances. This essentially means that TEK based farming systems evolve independently in various parts of the world, and while they follow basic principles of nature, they do not follow any uniform ‘recipe’ that is flatly applicable in all regions of the world. Just like personalized medicine, therefore, traditional agricultural practices are highly localized and region specific.

Nonetheless, as noted, TEK systems do follow certain basic principles of nature, and work in close collaboration with nature. For example, farmers use the local resources to farm without any external inputs. The principle of minimized loss of energy, water and nutrients contributes to a more efficient use of available resources.Principles, such as the carrying capacity of the ecosystem and enhanced biomass recycling promote long-term sustainability. Resources within the ecosystem are used, for example, to build an irrigation system through deep rooting trees or the harvest of rainwater. In other words, in TEK based farming systems, the aim is not to “tame” nature, but to observe and work with natural cycles. Nature is considered as a teacher. Every farmer, therefore, naturally turns into a researcher and innovator because only through careful observation and consideration of the local ecology, such as climate and soil conditions, can the success of planting activities be ensured.

Accordingly, seeds used in TEK based farming systems are also locally selected, multiplied, saved, improved and exchanged. Indeed, seed keeping lies at the heart of traditional agriculture, and has evolved over centuries, with farmers saving seed with desirable traits such as hardiness, yield and adaption to local soils and climates. Seed keeping, when combined with spontaneous natural mutations, resulted in an astounding diversity of seeds and planting materials which are locally adapted, genetically non-uniform, variable and heterogenous. In India seed keeping activities prove a rying to capture  The high adaptability and hardiness exhibited by these diverse varieties allows for low cost and low input farming. Further, TEK systems also provide teachings on methods of increasing seed germination rates through various seed preparations (in India called Angara preparation or Beejamrut).

* First Authors of Prong 1

a Master’s student, Sustainable Resource Management, Technical University of Munich

b Research Coordinator, Art of Living Foundation, Europe

c Lecturer and Research Associate, Technical University of Munich, School of Governance; Lead author, SSI 2.0 Position Paper for the GoI.

d Trustee, Sri Sri Institute for Agricultural Sciences and Technology Trust (SSIAST)

# Senior Author, Trustee and Senior Natural Farming Trainer, Sri Sri Institute for Agricultural Sciences and Technology Trust.

Please click here to view the version of this two part post with full references.

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