India is one of the world’s largest and oldest agricultur- al societies. India is classified as one among the 12 mega- diversity centers of the world, as it is epicenter of bio-diversi- ty to many significant species of crops, animals and livestock. The key part of biological diversity is agricultural biodiversity – the genetic resources for food and agriculture evolved over thousands of years selected by nature and humans for vari- ous situations and uses. The migrating and trading between populations in the region and across also led to introduction of new species and varieties, which were subsequently adapted to local conditions and bred with local varieties. Farmers constantly evolved agro-biodiversity, which they owned and successfully used and managed their resources for generations to come. The rich agro-biodiversity in India always acted as an important buffer for farmers to constantly evolve, adapt and develop great diversity of tools and strate- gies to cope with climatic adversities and successfully provid- ed populations with innumerable ways for their subsistence and survival and development.
The push for intensive agriculture models that rely on monocultures has changed our food and farming systems as they used to exist, the world-over and particularly in India, quite a bit in the past few decades. Where human beings have discovered and evolved thousands of food plants on this planet (around 2000 plant species have been domesti- cated and cultivated by humans for food), the largest con- sumption of foods now is only of around 30 food plants. In fact, it is estimated that only 9 food plants provide over 75% of the total calories consumed by humans. Just three grains rice, wheat and corn provide nearly 60% of human food supply. Furthermore, we continually rely on fewer and fewer varieties of those 30 plants and on individual varieties which are less and less genetically diverse. More than a lakh vari- eties of rice, 5000 varieties of Sorghum, 1000 varieties of mango, 27 breeds of cattle, 40 breeds of sheep, 18 breeds of poultry and several thousands of varieties of various other crops which used to be grown across the country are also under threat now.
The erosion of genetic diversity of rice in India is a clas- sic example. While some estimates project that there used to be around two lakh varieties of rice cultivated in India, other estimates project a figure of around 1,40,000 different geno- types of rice. Indian gene banks have 86,330 accessions of rice. This is the case of just one crop with tens of thousands of varieties almost all of which were evolved by farmers them- selves; this is indeed an impressive heritage to be proud of. However, today the genetic diversity of most rice cultivated in India today rests on just around 30 varieties, with 85% of the rice production coming from only 10 varieties. It is ironic that even as rice as a crop lost much of its varietal diversity, policies around rice as the main crop around which the national food security has been built in India meant that Rice has been a
factor for marginalization of other food crops including many millets like little millet, finger millet etc.
The Green Revolution had its emphasis on two grains (wheat and rice), as they were amenable to some technolo- gy-tweaking and higher input provision like water and chem- ical fertilizers; policy makers equated food security for every- one in this country with these grains. Rice and wheat thus re- ceived great support in the policy-makers’ quest to increase food production and productivity in the country and the food production system became centralized and skewed towards particular pockets in the country. The Green Revolution pock- ets became monocultures of these two crops and needless to say, this also meant more markets for the farm machinery, chemical fertilizer and synthetic pesticides industries. Today, these Green Revolution belts are bearing the ecological, eco- nomic, social and cultural impacts of such a monoculture. Same is the case with oilseeds, pulses etc.
In the rainfed areas of the country, the entry of rice and wheat through the PDS (Public Distribution System which came to embody the government’s concept of food security, unfortunately) disrupted not only the local food cultures but led to neglect of local ‘coarse’ grains and farming systems de- signed around such grains. The excessive support to rice and wheat led to a decline in the diversity of food crops around the country.
In commercial crops also such monoculturing has dis- rupted the local farming systems. India is known for quality cotton textile production from ancient Indus valley days. The skewed technological and policy changes driven by industry and businesses in input production and cotton processing had profound implications for all the other players. For exam- ple,
the introduction of saw gin in the last century led to intro- duction of American Cottons which completely replaced the locally suitable and adopted desi varieties. The next big change was came H-4, the world’s first hybrid cotton in 1970. As cotton has a high heterosis farmers quickly adopted the hybrid cot- tons. As the farmers have to buy the hybrid seed for every sow- ing, it created a perpetual market for the indus- try. Even though world over, improved varieties whose seed can be reused are used, India went fully for hybrid cotton. These American Cot- tons have brought in their own set of pest and disease prob- lems like the most dreaded American Bollworm. This led to high pesticide use in production, by mid nineties cotton was consuming about 55% of total pesticide use in the country. Pests developed resistance and initial pesticides were re- placed by more toxic pesticides and pests developed resis- tance to these pesticides as well.
The increasing pesticide use has caused high environ- mental damage. The increasing costs of cultivation has led to severe indebtedness among cotton farmers and from late 1990s the cotton farmers suicides have become a regular phenomenon in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and parts of Madhya Pradesh. In 2002, Bt cotton was intro- duced and today 90% of the cotton area is under it. While there is universal acceptance on monocultures leading to ecological problems, we are heading towards monoculturing genes. The mad promotion of the crop increased the area drastically and more than half the area cotton is grown is not suitable for it. On one hand it is replacing the existing crops in the region and also frequent crop failures are pushing farmers into huge losses.
In addition Genetically Modified crops have brought in their own set of additional risks in the form of biosafety. Apart from
all other concerns, GM contamination of the existing diversity is serious particularly in countries like India which has rich di- versity in those crops. In a situation where Intellectual Property Rights exists the implications are much larger. The recent epi- sode of Bt Bikeneri Narma’s with drawl after reports of con- tamination is a classical example to under- stand what is in offing. A committee appointed by ICAR has clearly stated that the contamination occurred either by out crossing or admix- tures and chances of accidental contamina- tion are minimal. Thankfully the desi cottons are saved because of their diploid nature and natural barrier to cross with tetraploid American cottons which are largely transgenic today in India. Learning from these experiences India should have a clearer cropping pattern and crop improvement policy based on agro-ecological situations, encourage and support insitu conservation of the existing diversity, regulate the Genetically Modified crops to ensure biosafety by implementing clearer liability and redressal mechanisms as agreed upon during the Convention on Biodiversity.