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Struggling Farmers in India Find Promise for the Future in Ancient Seeds

June 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Since a devastating cyclone hit in 2009, farmers in a region of India have struggled with salty soil. With climate change, that problem is likely to worsen. Special correspondent Sam Eaton reports for the NewsHour's ongoing series "Food for 9 Billion," about how some farmers have returned to ancient seeds for better results.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And, next, we resume our weeklong look at food security and how climate change is affecting what we produce and how we eat.

Tonight, special correspondent Sam Eaton reports from India on how farmers are turning to ancient seeds to keep their crops viable in the future.

It’s part of our series “Food for 9 Billion,” in partnership with Public Radio International’s “The World,” Homelands Productions, American Public Media’s Marketplace, and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

SAM EATON: On May 25, 2009, Cyclone Aila slammed into the Ganges River delta on the coast of Bangladesh and India. Hundreds of thousands fled as the storm surge tore through earthen embankments and flooded rice fields with a wall of seawater.

I traveled to Eastern India with ecologist Asish Ghosh to see how the more than four million people living in this vast river delta are adapting to the salty soils the storm left behind. It’s been four years since the cyclone hit. And farmer Raj Krishna Das says growing enough food is still a struggle.

ASISH GHOSH, Director, Center for Environmental Development, Kolkata: So he even cannot have any vegetables growing after Aila because still — still there is salt in the soil.

SAM EATON: This is what climate change looks like for the densely populated river deltas of the world. They hold some of the most productive farmland on the planet. But it’s also some of the most threatened.

ASISH GHOSH: We have lost this amount of land on all sides of the island.

SAM EATON: Today, this delta coastline is retreating more than 600 feet a year, and the salt is encroaching even farther inland. As farmers here adapt to rising sea levels and more powerful storms, they become a case study for how to produce food on a warming planet.

But their solution may come as a surprise. The only thing that will grow in Das’ field today is a salt-tolerant rice variety developed more than a century ago by small-scale farmers just like him.

ASISH GHOSH: He thinks it is one of the biggest resources that he has got. Now it is more precious than gold to him.

SAM EATON: Ghosh’s Center for Environmental Development and other nonprofits are trying to reintroduce these traditional seeds, which became rare after farmers began adopting modern high-yielding varieties in the 1960s, so-called green revolution varieties that could double or even triple their rice harvest given the right conditions and chemical inputs.

But these same seeds were the first to fail after Cyclone Aila doused the soil with saltwater.

ASISH GHOSH: Aila changed everything. He lost his home. He lost his possessions.

SAM EATON: Starting over with only a handful of the old salt-tolerant seeds, farmers like Das have labored for three years to grow enough rice to ward off hunger.

ASISH GHOSH: And now he’s confident he’s got enough seeds to cover his land. So I think the story between the last three years has changed from a story of despair to the story of hope in future.

SAM EATON: But the struggle to survive after the cyclone also offers a stark warning about how much this genetic legacy in agriculture has been lost.

Scientist Debal Deb has spent more than decade traveling across India trying to save what’s left of these traditional seeds. Farmers in India once cultivated more than a hundred thousand distinct varieties of rice alone. Most of those are now lost forever. But here on this small nonprofit seed farm in Eastern India, Deb is propagating nearly 1,000 of them and distributing the seeds free of charge, including the salt-tolerant variety farmers are now growing in the Ganges River Delta.

Deb says many of these seeds are ideally suited to the extreme and unpredictable conditions of the future.

DEBAL DEB, Rice Conservator: My own collection, I have more than 200 varieties, some of which can withstand drought and can yield something on zero irrigation, some varieties which can withstand 12-feet deep-water for three months, and the stem will elongate and still give some yield.

And we have at least six varieties of salt-tolerant rice which can withstand seawater intrusion. These are the unique properties which genetic engineers have not yet imagined.

SAM EATON: Despite the billions of dollars spent by governments and agribusiness on plant breeding programs and genetic engineering, Deb says these programs have yet to create new seeds that can rival the traditional varieties’ tolerance for extreme conditions.

And as global temperatures continue to rise, even the most ardent defenders of the green revolution are now realizing how essential these traditional varieties are for the future of agriculture.

That green revolution began thousands of miles away, in the Philippines, at the International Rice Research Institute. Now scientists here are trying to breed new seeds that will withstand the stresses of climate change. The institute has stored tens of thousands of the world’s traditional rice varieties in its frozen seed vaults as a genetic pallet for future seeds.

But many of these seeds were collected in the 1960s. And after being stored for so long, they may no longer be viable for breeding. That means Debal Deb’s grassroots seed farm back in India may be one of the most valuable genetic resources left. Still, scientists say simply reintroducing old varieties isn’t going to feed the world; they just don’t produce enough.

They’re working to build new varieties using the genetic information embed in the traditional seeds.

M.S. Swaminathan is considered the father of India’s green revolution.

M.S. SWAMINATHAN, Geneticist: There is no other alternative in this country. Land is going out of agriculture. In fact, the farms where I had demonstrations 40 years ago, they have all disappeared. They have become big malls. They have become big shops and so on and hotels.

So, land is a shrinking resource. We have to produce more and more from less and less land, less and less water. That means we need the green revolution approach, productivity improvement approach.

SAM EATON: The International Rice Research Institute has successfully bred some climate-resilient traits from the traditional varieties into a single high-yielding seed. The new plants are designed to tolerate limited amounts of drought and flooding during the same growing season.

So far, the institute has distributed them to more than four million farmers. In even the remotest parts of India, the green revolution caused many farmers to abandon their traditional seeds for the modern high-yielding varieties promoted by the government. But for those who didn’t, the benefits of these locally adapted seeds are becoming more and more pronounced; 64-year-old farmer Looknath Nauri grows 30 different traditional varieties of rice, millet, corn, squash and lentils on his two-acre plot in Eastern India.

His song is a celebration of the diversity of traditional seeds and the happiness it brings to his family and his land. These seeds, created over thousands of years, don’t just have the genes to withstand droughts and floods. They’re also adapted to local soils and pests, eliminating the need for costly nitrogen fertilizers and pesticides. Some are so resilient, they sprout even in the dry months.

MAN: Look at this pearl millet. We cut it last December. There hasn’t been any rain for five months. And it’s sending up new shoots. This would never happen with a high-yielding variety. Once the rains come, we don’t even have to reseed it. It just grows back by itself for two to three years.

SAM EATON: Nauri says he tried the new rice seeds, but his harvest didn’t even come close to the traditional varieties.

MAN: I tried planting that high-yielding rice one year. But I didn’t have money to pay for the chemical fertilizers. And without them, it wouldn’t grow. So I went back to the traditional varieties.

SAM EATON: The search continues for ways to feed nine billion people on a climate-changed planet. The new super-seeds scientists are developing could transform agriculture in the years to come.

But, for now, many of the world’s poorest farmers are turning to the seeds that sustained their ancestors as a sort of genetic insurance policy against an unpredictable future.