CSE’s organic experiment: Challenge starts with procuring right seeds

Local shops and India’s premier research institute failed to provide organic seeds of vegetable

By Vineet Kumar
Published: Monday 14 November 2022
The long, fruitless search of organic seeds: 1st step of CSE’s natural farming experiment reveals sourcing challenges Photo: CSE
Demo organic / natural faming plots situated at Anil Agarwal Environmental Training Institute’s campus in Nimli village in Alwar district, Rajasthan. Photo: CSE Demo organic / natural faming plots situated at Anil Agarwal Environmental Training Institute’s campus in Nimli village in Alwar district, Rajasthan. Photo: CSE

Chemicals in food harms human health and the environment in various ways and the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), Delhi-based think tank, has been flagging this for a long time now. 

There is an urgent need of providing all necessary support to scale up organic / natural farming in India, the non-profit has highlighted. 

The organisation recently started an important work of capacity building of state’s agriculture extension officials on organic / natural farming, in partnership with the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, Hyderabad. 

Seeing is believing. So, the two organisations conducted a live demonstration of organic / natural farming at CSE’s Anil Agarwal Environmental Training Institute’s campus in Nimli village, Alwar district, Rajasthan. Alwar is located in the northern plain, including Aravallis in the hot, semi-arid agro ecological sub-region.  

The idea was to have first-hand experience, monitor and document the results of the demonstration plot. 

It is also imperative to understand the conditions and challenges the farmers face while trying to transition to chemical-free farming. 

We can safely say that farming is a gamble. There are so many uncertainties in a farmer’s life. Which crop to grow? Will the selected crop fetch a good price in the market? 

Then there are weather uncertainties and crop losses. Whether seeds, fertilisers and pesticides purchased from the market or received from the agriculture department will work is another concern. 

The moment we, the researchers of CSE, put ourselves in the farmers’ shoes and started working on the 0.25 acre demo plot, we were also met with the same questions.

We started planning for our demo plot in August 2022. The journey since then has been filled with excitement, joy, fears and real-life challenges.  

Kalpatharu model: Fulfilling desires 

We opted for a staggered vegetable production model known as Kalpatharu model. Kalpatharu is a mythological divine tree, which fulfills all desires. 

This model involves growing a variety of vegetables on the same farm. It aims for continuous supply of various types of vegetables, fulfilling nutritional requirements for families and providing a daily income to farmers through regular harvest. 

The farmer’s  selection of crops for their farm is often influenced by factors like crops grown traditionally in their region, technical knowledge of a particular crop, suitability to local agro-climatic conditions and most importantly, the market price. 

Our wish list was to grow a diverse set of vegetables, which could be suitably grown in the local agro-climatic conditions. Vegetables are a very important part of Indian diets and farmers use a huge amount of agro-chemicals on vegetable farms. 

We made a comprehensive list of vegetables that are suitable for the demo region. These are  grown by farmers at present or were grown in the past. 

Out of these crops, we finalised more than 20. These included coriander, fenugreek, bakla (broad beans), garlic, peas, radish, beetroot, turnip, French beans, amaranthus, carrot, spinach, sorrel, lettuce, mint, tomato, brinjal, chilli, cabbage, cauliflower and knol-khol. 

Crop selection was also influenced by the availability of organic seeds. 

Where are the organic seeds?

Having organic seed is the basic requirement of organic / natural farming. We were aware of the challenges in finding organic or traditional seeds, as this issue was repeatedly raised to us during our interactions with organic farmers. 

But we found that the seeds available in the general market and also with the agriculture department were hybrids. We approached almost all the dealers and shops available in our locality for organic seeds and received the same response: No organic seeds were available. 

People associated with the local agriculture department also confirmed that no organic seed is available with them. 

We asked around for other seed shops in nearby towns or cities but to no avail. 

We enquired with a few organic farmers in local regions but they also couldn’t provide us the needed seeds for some reason or the other. They told us that they were also struggling to find organic seeds and often had to travel long distances to gather these seeds.

After an exhaustive but unsuccessful hunt for local seeds in and around the region, we moved our search to Delhi, where the non-profit is headquartered. 

We assumed that someone in the national capital would have the necessary seeds. The historic Roshanara Road, a popular vegetable market in North Delhi, is known as a hub for all types of seeds promoted by private companies. 

We combed the market full of private seed dealers and wholesalers but found nothing in the name of ‘organic seed’. 

Next, we approached the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR), Pusa, New Delhi. It is India’s premier body responsible for coordinating agricultural education and research in India. 

The place designated for sourcing good quality seed is the seed development centre of Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) and the National Seeds Corporation Limited (NSCL)  located in the same campus. 

Not a single organic seed of vegetables was found at either places during our visit.

This was a big disappointment indeed, as the central and state governments are promoting organic / natural farming but their premier research institutes do not have organic seeds. Who else should we expect to keep them? How can we imagine promoting organic / natural farming in our country without providing the organic seeds to farmers? The reality felt too shocking and painful to accept.

But there is always a hope, especially with farmers and farmer-based organisations. The farmer-based Beej Bachao Andolan organisation in Uttarakhand provided us with organic seeds of chilli, tomato, bitter gourd, ridge gourd, pudina and spinach. 

Similarly, Kheti Virasat Mission in Punjab that procure organic seeds from farmers also provided us seeds of coriander, ridge gourd, spinach, carrot, beans, fenugreek, turmeric, mustard, radish, flax seeds, peas and kasuri methi. We also got some seeds from our partner organisation CSA. 

There are also farmer-based seed conservation organisations like Sahaj Samrudha in Karnataka but we wanted to stick to local organic seeds. 

As organic seeds procured by us were from different agro-climatic conditions, we decided to procure open-pollinated seeds from the IARI and NSCL as well. These were chemically treated and so, we washed them properly before using them for sowing at our farm. 

 Seeds procured from different places of Uttarakhand, Punjab, Delhi and South India. Photo: CSE

Only after procuring the seeds could we go ahead with the rest of the procedure. These included preparing the farms, testing the soil, choosing the package of practices and arranging for organic and biofertilisers. 

This is the first in a series of stories documenting CSE’s experiment with natural / organic farming. 

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