Banking on seeds of the past, for climate change, for the future: Jayashree B

March 2017:  For over 500 farm families of Kumta, in Dharward district, Karnataka, getting a video conference view of the stage function in another location was a unique experience. More important was the reason they came together – the unique rice variety known as ‘Kagga’ that shimmered in the foreground of the stage.

The occasion was a programme to launch two seed banks as part of a project by Department of Agriculture, Government of Karnataka implemented by MSSRF, University of Agriculture Sciences, Dharwad and University of Agriculture and Horticulture Sciences, Shivamogga. The seed banks in Halkar Hedge and Manikatta will hold ‘Kagga’ – a rice variety to grow in saline soil or submerged.

Sea level rise and increased salinisation of land are adverse climate change effects. Since Kagga can tolerate both these adverse conditions, it is a crop of great importance in context of climate change. Regular rice cannot grow in the same settings as Kagga can.  Representatives from farming communities were present at the venue in Kumta, as well as in their own villages. Government and University and MSSRF representatives spoke on the significance of the initiative.

The problem of salinity is likely to affect the entire coastal regions of India. In Karnataka alone, it is estimated that about 29,000 hectares of land may be affected due to sea level rise over the next few decades. In this context, conservation of landraces becomes important. These landraces have been nurtured over generations by farming communities for specific qualities to suit local requirements. However with access to high-yielding varieties, many of these seeds are not being cultivated.

Traditional landraces are store houses of genetic variability, resilient to climate change, and adapted to local soil and cultivation practices. Many are sources of genes for high nutritional values, resistance to insects, diseases, salinity and drought tolerance. However, systematic plant breeding efforts are still required with many landraces since they have relatively poor yields compared to hybrids. When farmers switch to high yielding varieties, traditional varieties get lost.  It is important to have combined conservation as well as economic value to maintain agrobiodiversity.

A seed bank helps serve as a store of different seeds as an emergency supply for the farming community besides helping to conserve local varieties and biodiversity. The village Seed Banks will help distribute saline tolerant Kagga Paddy to farmers of two villages and work with the community to ensure quality seed of farmers’ varieties. Subsequently, the project aims to help register Kagga rice and other valuable traditional varieties. Participatory on-farm trials will be held along with prawn or crab cultivation in the brackish water lands (‘Ghazani’) to improve farmers’ incomes.

The Ghazani lands may become wasteland, without local community participation. This is why farm families of Dharwad have a major role in conservation – not only in conservation of seed but also in the conservation of the earth.