The Govt’s decision to abruptly remove 10-year-old seed varieties from the market may do more harm than good. It must phase them out gradually and earn farmers’ trust
The Government is about to make a terrible mistake with its seed policy. The Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers’ Welfare has decided to withdraw certified/notified varieties of seeds that are older than 10 years from the market. The Government system, backed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), cancelled the indent of seed producers, who have requested for popular varieties between 10-15 years old.
Several small and medium seed companies across the country obtain breeder seeds from ICAR every year and take up the production of foundation seeds and certified seeds to distribute them to the farmers. Older varieties, between 10 and 15 years, are still very popular among the farmers. In fact, they demand varieties that are older than 25 years, too, because of their adaptability, resilience and high-yielding capabilities under adverse conditions. The sudden disappearance of the seeds from the market will rob the farmers of freedom, their right to choose the seeds he/she wants to grow and the market of laissez-faire principles. Besides, this conservative policy decision may also cause extreme chaos among the farming community, disrupt the seed economy and impact crop production negatively.
Any sound agriculturist will tell you that diversity breeds resilience, delivering both higher yields and immunity for the plants from diseases and pests. This can be achieved through breeding and introduction of newer varieties to maintain pace with natural evolution among pests and pathogens. With time, older varieties need replacement as they become vulnerable to biotic and abiotic factors. Seeds bred for disease resistance may lose those traits as pests/diseases keep evolving, depending on agro-climatic conditions, among other things. This results in decreased efficiency of the seed or requirements of more crop protection or artificial boosters to maintain sustained yields. So when it comes to science, the Government is making an objective decision, a scientific one.
But a one size fits all approach does not work in the farm sector. And why should it? The category of the Indian farmer is occupied by many — starting from the forest-dwelling Santhal farmers of Jharkhand to the progressive cereal farmers from Punjab, the Gond farmers growing corn in central India, the Assamese farmer cultivating paddy in the fields of North-East, the desert farmers of Ladakh and Thar and the coastal farmers from Kerala. The list can go on and on.
The Indian farmers are a diverse group with different qualities and limitation but have one common requirement of certified/superior seeds. While farmers in Punjab are very progressive and quick to adapt to newer schemes and seeds, the Gond farmers of Madhya Pradesh may not even know about the many Government schemes and seeds, given they are remotely located.
It can be concluded from historical evidence based on the spread of Green Revolution in India that there are three groups — Core areas, covering Punjab, Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu; periphery, covering eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Karnataka, Kerala; and remote, covering North-Eastern and hilly States, Goa and Puducherry — when it comes to the spread of technological innovation in agriculture.
The time of adaptation or even a variety being accepted by one zone differs to a great degree. After the commercialisation of a variety, it may take around one to three years for it to be widely accepted by core areas such as Punjab and Haryana. For the same variety to trickle down to eastern Uttar Pradesh, it may take another three to four years and for it to reach remote areas like Jharkhand, six to eight years. By the time farmers across these zones gain confidence in the variety and raise demands, the 10-year period is already over.
Old is gold, there is no better adherent to this adage than Indian farmers. General consensus on a good seed is built on how it performed last year or when some farmers get higher yields or less disease. The approach to buying seeds is very conservative. Mostly, varieties that have proved themselves over a season or two in the region are sold. Smaller farmers do not gamble with new varieties. Medium/large farms may experiment with newer varieties but it takes two to three seasons before the intended advantage is delivered.
Farmers need to trust a variety before they adopt it. And given the climatic variations and water scarcity, it may take a longer time for the seed to perform ideally. Hence, the time of adaptation increases, depending on the area.
The harshest truth of the seed world is that its economy is based on the choices made by the farmers. The market is driven by demand and is based not only on science but farmers’ intuition. They trust their logic over and above the Government/seed retailer or the labelling. To cultivate demand for a particular variety of seed, therefore, may take ten years or more. In India, the saturation point may be reached way beyond the 25-30 year period. There are many examples. PBW-343 (1996), WH-147 (1978) in wheat, Varuna (1976) for mustard, Pusa Basmati 1 (1989), Govind (1989) in paddy among others are still the farmers’ favorites and they have continuously given yields and performed optimally. If suddenly they are removed from the market, with no alternative to the farmers, this may lead to discontentment among the agrarian community.
This will also encourage black marketing, hoarding of trusted varieties as the farmers will not gamble. Besides, it may give birth to a shadow seed economy. Instead of aiding the farmers, the Government may well push them to act complicitly with black marketers. The rural economy will suffer and the seed economy along with the markets will see a decline, which may translate to a decrease in crop production.
But the Government can still steer the moment towards creating a positive impact. It may begin by allowing varieties till 15 years to be produced through the ICAR system. Then, it should do a detailed study to get an estimate of market penetration of new varieties and understand market trends to bring transformative changes. This policy needs to be reviewed on a case-to-case basis.
While less popular varieties can be phased out after 10-12 years, more popular varieties may continue up to 20-22 years. Preparing for the replacement drive of a variety of seed, the Government can use digital media to showcase efficiency, using farmer-friendly videos in regional
languages and live crop demonstrations.
This campaign can be strengthened by efforts of Krishi mitra/village-level agriculture officers. The Government can supply new varieties to the farmers directly so that they can sow them in small patches in their region. Once the farmers see the new varieties perform better, they will develop trust for new seeds and, thus, natural demand can be created. The Government must not only make the best use of scientific principles but also keep in mind economic forces of demand as for many farmers, old seed is still gold.
(The writer is Programme Director for Policy and Outreach at the National Seed Association of India)
Writer: Ajoy Kumar
Courtesy: The Pioneer