"Farmers' wisdom must be on paper in era of patents"

Published: Wednesday 15 April 2009

M P NayarAt a time when fast food reigns, one hardly thinks of cherishing a local Indian delicacy and conserving a local plant variety. M P Nayar, former director of the Botanical Survey of India who currently heads the government Task Force on Agro-biodiversity Hotspots recently completed mapping these hotspots. P R J Pradeep talks to him

On the difference between agro-biodiversity hotspots and biodiversity hotspots:

Biodiversity hotspots are about endemic plant or animal species whose habitats are fragile or threatened with destruction. Here, the wild is in focus.

A similar diversity of crops is also found in human habitats. A large number of crop species and their variants constitute our food basket. Humankind becomes poorer with the loss of each crop variety. The term agro-biodiversity as described in the Plants Variety and the Farmers' Rights Act 2001 reflects this realization. Agro-biodiversity hotspots are the regions where crop species and their variants nurture human beings and are being nurtured by the human society. I am not sure if any other country has made an endeavour to map these ecosystems.

On conserving crop diversity in India:

Crop diversity has evolved through centuries and has built in the wisdom of seasonal climatic changes and appropriate food needs. About 166 crop varieties originated in India. For instance, the varieties of rice with different flavour, taste and use in various regions of India is amazingly large.

But with recent trends of changing food habits and lifestyles, some of our local landraces have lost appeal. On the pretext that India is not self-sufficient in food production, commercial breeders are pushing their products. The green revolution, which stressed on the cultivation of high-yielding varieties, also led to the loss of local varieties. That is why M S Swaminathan, one of the founders of the green revolution, now advocates evergreen revolution stressing the need for conserving local races of crops.

These are our insurance against gene erosion. To facilitate their conservation, there is a need to document native landraces and prepare an inventory of the crop varieties in the country. We may also need to prepare a red data book of cultivated plants in India--comparable to iucn's red data book on endangered fauna.

By 2050, India's population will outstrip that of China with an estimated population of 1,628 million. We will have about 800 million livestock occupying the same land area. This would take a toll on our vegetation resulting in extinction of landraces and species. Hence, planning for the nation's food security, where traditional farmers and native agro-biodiversity get their due is essential.

On agro-biodiversity hotspots in India:

We have identified 22 regions that have high genetic diversity of each crop. Some of these are the Gangetic Delta, Eastern Himalayas, Khasi-Garo Hills, Chhotanagpur, Bastar, Koraput, Kathiawar, Konkan and Malabar. These are tribal-dominated regions. Wild relatives of cereals, millets, pulses, certain vegetables and their primitive cultivars are still cultivated in these areas. In each community, these plants have specific usage. But with modernization, such traditional knowledge is disappearing and so is the seeds.

On farmers' rights:

So far, any scientist or institution could make modifications to an existing seed variety and claim the credit for a new plant variety. They seldom owned up from where they got the initial seed or the plant material. Now they will have to spell out the rightful owners.

The act also has the provision for monetary support, up to Rs 10 lakh to farmers or communities who conserve their seed heirloom.

On patent regimes:

The patent regime under the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants which is followed worldwide, keeps breeders' interests above that of farmers. To succeed in the present-day patent and trade regimes, farmers must know their economic interests. They must have documentary proof of their knowledge.

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