Conserving genetic purity of 750 varieties of rice with limited resources like a small piece of land and no workforce is a major challenge. Debal Deb tells Jyotika Sood how he manages this genetic treasure
Does it require extensive planning?
Of course. Every year, it takes us several days and nights to map and allocate appropriate plots to all the 750-odd varieties before transplanting the seedlings. Even though rice is a self-pollinating crop, there is always the risk of cross-pollination. To avoid this, I surround each variety with the ones with different flowering dates. Then I eliminate the off-type plants within each population at different life stages of the plant, based on their basal leaf sheath colour, presence or absence of awn, grain colour and size. Based on matching these characteristics for eight years, I am confident that my method has obviated the likelihood of genetic intermixing. Thus, all the seeds we distribute to farmers are of 100 per cent genetically pure lineage, except some occasional, undetected, mutations.
How do you ensure that your collection of seeds is not sold or exploited by industry?
I am not in a position to answer that. When I started this rather dilettantish venture, I hoped that someone more competent in rice genetics and agronomy would come forward and relieve me of this enormous task of saving and maintaining the genetic wealth. I still hope someone, some organisation will take the torch from my hands someday before I die. It’s not just a matter of accession, but also of keeping all the varieties alive in situ, every year, maintain their genetic purity, and distribute the seeds free of cost to needy farmers, and train them in seed saving techniques, which are unfortunately getting forgotten very rapidly.
You distribute these seeds among farmers. What if they deceive you?
I have firm faith in indigenous farmers. They are willing to grow these varieties for their intrinsic, aesthetic and cultural values, not for quantitative gains. They will remain the custodians of the treasure which I have created with their help. However, to save this treasure, I have also applied for registration of some landraces with the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Acts and hope to secure intellectual property rights (IPR) in the name of farmers’ communities. I also tried to secure the IPR of the knowledge of the folk rice varieties by publishing a book in 2000, and conferring its copyright on Vrihi. But I know I can’t vouch for the absolute protection from bio-piracy. I will surely be hurt, and will protest if any part of the heirloom falls in wrong hands.
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