One person's weed, another's medicinal plant

Published: Sunday 15 February 2009

Utility, too, lies in the eyes of the beholder

THERE is a sweet irony in farm labourers earning from harvest and sale of weeds--as medicinal plants to Ayurved practioners. It is not every day that labourers, often landless and among the most vulnerable of India's poor, offer to weed a farmer's field for free or lower their wage rate (See Weeds of fortune).

No, this need not be paraded as a revolutionary business model that would in one sweep redefine rural development and capitalism. But it is an opportunity to reflect on at least four problems with the direction of agricultural research in India, especially in the Indian Council of Agricultural Reseach.

The council has one institute on weed management and another on medicinal plants. Both work in isolation, in several cases on the same plants. The former is seized with developing powerful chemicals to kill unwanted plants, the other driven to commercially promote plants which are undervalued. If icar transfers a scientist from one to the other, the unfortunate is likely to work for the destruction of what he or she was promoting, or vice versa. For several medicinal plants were once called weeds.

Two, several plants categorized as weeds have good potential as food, though they need not be grown commercially for that. But icar would feel the need for this only when it sees a large project with funds from either the government or a public-private partnership with commercial interests (or the US Department of Agriculture, it's best friend now). All of these large entities are unengaged with food and nutritional priorities of people who can benefit from uncultivated plants.

For another, agronomic practices flogged by icar institutions seldom take into account ecology. A recent study shows weeds assist pollinators, which are critical for crops. They can also be mulched into the soil as green manure. The Punjab agriculture university recently pooh-poohed organic farming in the state because it doesn't have enough organic manure. Perhaps if the university scrutinized the plants it calls weeds, this shortage could be addressed.

The outcome of scientific research is dictated by the motive of the researchers. How India's agricultural research treats weeds--actually, they are uncultivated plants with potential that has not been realized--is dictated by whom it addresses. If its primary concern is promotion of agri-businesses, then it would continue working as it does today. If its job is India's food and nutrition security--and welfare of poor farmers--it would consider getting high on weed.

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