How technology contributes to conservation of seed biodiversity

How different kinds of technologies — both modern and indigenous — are contributing to the conservation of seed biodiversity, especially in India

The Doomsday Vault, or the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, is located over 350 feet inside a mountain on Spitsbergen Island in Norway, and is home to over 4,30,000 specimens of seeds from around the world.

It reportedly holds space for over 4.5 million seed samples and exists as a safety net in the face of global crises. It is also among the largest seed banks in the world, a list that also includes Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank Project in Wakehurst, England; Navdanya in Uttarakhand, India; and Vavilov Research Institute in Russia.

The seeds in Svalbard are supposedly stored in heat-sealed, three-ply foil packets under a temperature of -18°C (-0.4 °F). They are set to last nearly a thousand years (the most important among them, such as the grains).

Even as the world is making attempts to prevent loss of such biodiversity, agricultural movements such as the Green Revolution in India, which brought in high-yielding seed varieties for higher, short-term yields, have also resulted in a substantial loss of biodiversity.

As food traveller and raconteur Rakesh Raghunathan pointed out at a recent culinary workshop on temple food, “If we had to have a new variety of indigenous rice each day, it would take 500 years to taste each one. There are nearly 2,50,000 varieties of rice native to India. But many of them have been lost.”

“The takeaway here would be that in view of the centralised plant-breeding efforts pertaining to hybrid and GMO varieties suited to irrigated lands reaching a plateau now, it is imperative that rain-fed agriculture, that constitutes 44% of the arable land in India, should be given priority,” said Prabhakar Rao, Trustee, Sri Sri Institute of Agricultural Sciences and Technology Trust (SSIAST) at a recent seed innovation conference hosted at the Art of Living International Centre in Bengaluru.

“There are two aspects to seed preservation — the biological or cultural, which prevents loss of diversity, and the economic, which benefits the poor farmer. Local seeds are of more value to farmers because they are better adapted to local conditions and are more pest-resistant. The seeds from the Green Revolution wiped out this diversity for short-term gains. Mono-cropping practices that followed the revolution also made these crops more vulnerable to pests, as they gradually grew more resistant to pesticides,” adds Ajay Tannirkulam, co-founder of Hyperworks Imaging, which works in solving green field problems in the perishable food ecosystem.

Organisations like the CIKS (Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems) have been working to identify and preserve traditional seeds and encouraging farmers to conserve and cultivate them. They are currently conserving over 130 varieties of paddy and over 50 varieties of vegetables.

“Indigenous seeds are very few in number, though there is a variety. If someone wants to cultivate an indigenous variety on a large scale, the seeds have to be multiplied in large numbers through cultivation. When it comes to paddy, for instance, there is a new method of cultivation called System of Rice Intensification (SRI), which is being used to produce more indigenous varieties. Unlike the traditional forms of cultivation, it requires fewer seeds (only 2 or 3 kilos per acre),” says Dr K Vijayalakshmi, research director at CIKS. Though SRI is used in conventional farming, CIKS is developing the technique using organic methods of cultivation.

The actual preservation of the seeds for cultivation involves native technology to suit the infrastructure and the prevalent conditions in rural regions, where agriculture is practised. It depends on the kind of seeds, the quality of seeds and the variety of seeds, according to a study published by CIKS titled ‘Seed Storage Techniques: A Primer’.

“This involves storing seeds in bowls made of plates and ropes of hay or straw, plastered with mud and cow dung. The seeds are mixed with cow dung ash, charcoal ash and dried neem leaves,” explains Chanchal Biswas, a farmer associated with SSIAST.

The study published by CIKS also discusses the various indigenous and modern structures used to store the seeds. Indigenous structures include Kodambae (stone-and-wood structures), Thoombarai (made of acacia wood) and Kalangiyam (made of brick and concrete). And modern structures include Pukka Kothi (made of burnt bricks and cement) and Gharelu Theka (made with metal sheets and bamboo posts).

People are now recognising the need to balance traditional varieties and high-yielding crops, points out Tannirkulam. “And people are willing to pay the higher price. The growing middle-class in India has created a demand for traditional varieties.” But, Vijayalakshmi observes: “It is not easy for farmers to cater to this demand because there need to be more seeds for them to meet the demand. And organic shops have huge margins which take away from the farmer’s income.”

This is where technology plays an even more important role, especially through digital marketing. “Once farmers get into online marketing, their recurring costs are cut down, since they don’t have to pay retailers any more,” says Tannirkulam.

As Mrinalini Kochupillai, Senior Research Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for Innovation and Competition, said at the seed conference: “Given the huge agri-biodiversity of India, if the marginal farmer can be promoted to the status of an innovator, then India can export seeds as a technology to the whole world.”