Meet the Seed-Keeper Fighting For Diversity on Our Plates

Meet the Seed-Keeper Fighting For Diversity on Our Plates

Disillusioned with the Green Revolution, this seed-keeper began a quiet movement against industrial seed production, to preserve and share heirloom, indigenous varieties of seeds.

A short drive from the heart of the city, a green oasis glistens under the Bangalore sun. Fresh, naturally grown produce, and ancient seeds, some dating back several hundreds of years, are preserved with care. Hariyalee Seeds, a family-run farm that curates species of endangered, heirloom seeds indigenous to India, focuses on chemical free natural farming. You can pluck heirloom baby tomatoes straight off the vine, and pop them into your mouth, or taste fresh basil leaves without worrying about washing. You can also learn how to protect these plants before they even begin to sprout. And you can order these heirloom varieties of seeds to grow them on your own, too.

Of course, it can be said organic produce is the order of the day. But I find myself asking questions about the vegetables and fruits I buy from my trusted suppliers — I can’t claim to know enough about their seedlines, genetic composition, or breeding secrets. Today, most home-gardeners or small-patch farmers buy seeds from seed suppliers, grow them using compost made out in daily dump bins, and wait for the next season of seed sowing, after harvesting their bounties.

Dr. Prabhakar Rao of Hariyalee Seeds

Dr. Prabhakar Rao of Hariyalee Seeds

But just as recently as a half century ago, saving your own seeds was an imperative part of the farming process. It helped farmers learn about the proper life cycle of crops, understand traits that are best suited to their environment — soil, water, climate — and preserve heritage varieties that would otherwise be lost. Seed savers were the keepers of the good health and well-being of humans, landraces (indigenous species of plants), and in fact, the entire ecosystem.

Dr. Prabhakar Rao, who owns Hariyalee, is a seed-keeper. An agriculturist, his love for plants goes all the way back to watching his father and grandfather grow many varieties of fruits, vegetables, and flowers — learning that plants were precious, and that some of them needed protection. During his undergraduate days, he was introduced to the renowned taxonomist Dr. Cecil Saldanha, and made journeys deep into the Western Ghats with him, learning that biodiversity was at risk because of human greed.

Dr. Rao belonged to the generation that heralded the Green Revolution in India. At a time when food security was a top priority, leaders in the field like Dr. Norman Borlaug, Dr. M.S. Swaminathan and Dr. M. V. Rao taught farmers to adopt intensive industrial agriculture, to grow hybrid seeds, dig bore-wells, use pesticides and fertilisers. Thanks to this movement, plant breeders became the stars of Indian agriculture almost overnight. It was also an era of industrial seed production, and farmers were buying seeds season after season, discarding the age-old tradition of seed-keeping.

Dr. Rao had realised what landraces meant in plant varieties, how native food grains, vegetables, and flowers, contributed to biodiversity, which in turn was crucial for the survival of the planet. It struck him that years down the line, it was very likely that the philosophy they were propagating now could lead to bigger problems. With these unsettling questions dogging his work, he decided to switch paths, and went abroad to study landscape architecture, specialising in environmental landscapes, sustainability, and ecology.

In his career of 25 years, Dr. Rao has worked on projects building sustainable ecologies and environments around the world, from waterfront development in Russia, to Seychelles and the Middle East. On his travels, he talked to the older generation of farmers, about the varieties of crops they grew and the farming practices they followed.

“Today is the age of mono-cropping,” Dr. Rao explains. “You see the same crop stretching hundreds of miles. But some farmers, to my surprise, have saved seeds of the old varieties, some heirloom seeds from indigenous landraces. And some were willing to share a part of that treasure with me. In turn, I shared them with the International Seed Savers exchange, which is a repository to preserve seed varieties that are rapidly on the decline. Other people took some of these seeds to multiply them, give them back, and also to share with other farmers and friends. The idea being that these would grow somewhere on the planet, so that genetic biodiversity can be protected.”

After returning to India in 2011, Dr. Rao set up his farm, Hariyalee, and started collecting seeds again, working closely with over 2 million farmers across the country, teaching them chemical-free agriculture. 

According to Dr. Rao, organic farming, technically a Western import, is not sustainable under Indian conditions, as it requires about 12 to 15 tons of Farm Yard Manure (via composting) to be applied per acre, costing roughly about Rs. 30,000. Further, the cost of getting produce certified as organic is very steep, at about Rs. 60,000 per year. This only spurred his team to promote natural farming, using traditional Vedic methods that employ the use of cow urine and cow manure, to protect plants from pest attacks.

From his travels around the country, he has collected close to 600 seeds of heirloom vegetables, and has begun testing them for genetic stability and environmental suitability. He successfully stabilised 142 varieties so far, selling them online, to a tremendous response.

Blueberry Cherry Tomatoes

Blueberry Cherry Tomatoes

Dr. Rao says, “Most people don’t realise that just over a hundred years ago, we had over 400 varieties of tomatoes, beans, pumpkin, squash, peas, maize, and sweet corn. There simply hasn’t been enough media coverage on the subject. Except for one very powerful article in the 2011 National Geographic, I haven’t seen much at all. Which is why this movement is important: first to create awareness, to make people understand that if we don’t do anything about it, these heirloom varieties will disappear from the planet.”

“Has anyone heard of a Save the Vegetable campaign, like Bhindi Bachao, or Baingan Bachao?” he asks, sharing his work on a TED talk.

In my own little balcony, Lemon Basil flourishes in a small pot, Freckles Lettuce boldly bares its face to the sun, and Yellow Pear Tomato bears tiny, delicious fruit — all from seeds procured at Hariyalee farm. Even if there is much work to be done to protect indigenous species, a taste of a perfectly ripe tomato reminds you that the fruits of the labour are sweet.

Banner image credit: Neil Palmer, Wikimedia.

Ranjini Rao is a mom, writer and teacher based in Bangalore. She runs the food blog, Tadka Pasta, with her partner, and has authored three books in the food literature space. She is passionate about sustainable living and open education.