By Hugh Finlay
Since the 1960s the Indian government strongly encouraged the use Western farming methods, such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and hybrid grains, to produce higher yields for India’s expanding population. However some people have started to realize that these methods damage the land in various ways. One of these people is Jayaraman, an ex-farmer in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
After witnessing farmers falling into debt due to decreased yields caused by adverse weather conditions, Jayaraman decided to campaign for a return to traditional seeds, which are most resistant to these local weather conditions. He sees this as vital to dealing with unpredictable weather and therefore making sure farmers continue to prosper. He has preserved over 150 rice varieties which show themselves to be more resistant to disease and pests, and are more able to deal with droughts and floods than the hybrid varieties. As he puts it “Hybrid varieties need more water, fertilizers and pesticides. They are just not sustainable in this region. We should go back to traditional varieties that are suited to this soil, that can withstand these conditions. It is the only way farmers can make a decent living.” Also he strongly encourages the farmers to farm organically.
A number of groups in India are now campaigning for a return to traditional farming methods. A spokesman for one of these organizations, the Center for Indian Knowledge Systems, said “Particularly for coastal regions such as this, you need varieties that can handle the higher salinity of the soil and groundwater, and are resistant to drought. You need a large and diverse genetic pool to preserve these qualities.” So, for instance, when the 2004 tsunami hit the Nagapattinam region of India, only traditional varieties of rice could be grown, because of the high salinity of the groundwater and the soil.
60% of India's population get their income from agriculture, but they have been suffering badly from lower yields caused by the adverse weather conditions. The debt caused has prompted many thousands of farmers to commit suicide. Apart from the fact that indigenous varieties of crops need less water, the farmers who decide to farm organically, do not have to spend money on chemical pesticides and fertilizers. And a market for organic food is developing among the urban middle class of India.
Although the Indian government's policy continues to support the use of Western agricultural methods, 10 Indian states are now following pro-organic policies. As a result, many thousands of Indian farmers are now cultivating indigenous varieties of rice and grains.
India has 100,000 varieties of native rice. As Senthil Kumar, a campaigner for organic farming put it "We have such a wealth of traditional grains, pulses and native cattle that benefited farmers for centuries. They are too valuable to lose."