Note from Dr. Debal Deb.
Short video explaining Dr. Debal Deb’s work on Traditional varieties of Rice.
Vrihi is to Expire: Long Live Folk Crop Varieties
Vrihi Seed Exchange Centre was founded for farmers in 1997, to promote free distribution and exchange of seeds. This open exchange of crop seeds constitutes reinstatement of the ancient cultural practice in all traditional agrarian societies, and poses a viable institution parallel to seed commerce that became “mainstream” since the late 1960s…
After 16 years of conservation and distribution of seeds of 650 rice landraces, I took refuge in 2011 in southern Odisha. Basudha and Vrihi of Bengal were relocated in that year, with the entire seed repertoire, in a tribal village in Rayagada district, where 1440 landraces, as of date, are being conserved.
With enormous support, love and respect of numerous villagers, community based organisations, as well as some government officials in Odisha, Basudha has given a series of hands-on training in methods of rice characterisation and genetic purity maintenance, and in agroecology. Vrihi has distributed seeds of over 860 landraces to more than 7000 farmers in 11 States of India. Considering that all this was with zero institutional funding supprt, this is quite satisfactory. With a skeletal staff of 3 members on campus, we have so far been maintaining the genetic purity of all the landraces, and the task of checking of purity by assessing 56 characters of each landrace every year is an immense burden of duty, responsibility and pride that we have been carrying on our shoulders like Atlas. And like the lonely Atlas, I have so found no one to inherit this legacy, to lend a shoulder to share with the task of maintaining genetic purity of the landraces, even after taking a rigorous training at Basudha.
Over the past two decades, I have so far trained exactly 182 farmers-conservators, individuals and organisations in methods of genetic purity maintenance and preventing cross pollination. The last big training sessions were held in three phases for 36 conservators, who also took the seeds of 700 rice landraces to grow. By the next year, most of them found the task too rigorous, and abandoned the task on the wayside. Currently, only 6 conservators are still following the techniques and maintaining genetic purity of a small number of landraces they are growing. I am immensely grateful to them: Syed Ghani Khan in Karnataka, Illias KP and Shamika Mone in Kerala, Sanjay Patil in Maharashtra, Sujatha in Pondicherry, Hariharakumar and Mahesh Anand of Tamil Nadu. Most of other conservator-activists are happy to announce some three-digit number of rice varieties they “conserve”, shoot their fields, and post on YouTube, to pay the crucial lip service to conservation, and receive, deservingly, accolades and awards. Meanwhile, dozens of the landraces “saved” and packaged and sold on organic food market, show uncanny departures from their documented characteristics. For example, grains of aromatic varieties are now devoid of aroma, awnless varieties show long awns and vice versa, and bizarre mix of various characters appear in samples of seeds distributed/ sold.
The reason of such departures from the stable characters of the ancient landraces is two-fold. Firstly, seeds of different cultivars may get mixed during sowing and/ or post-harvest handling of the seeds. Even a few grains mixed in a thousand of seeds stored for the next season is apt to breed a few hundred seeds in the next harvest, and the poroportion of mixture would cumulatively amplify at every harvest. Secondly, cross pollination between different cultivars grown in neighbouring plots would change the genetic composition of the landrace lines. While the received wisdom is that cross pollination does not exceed 2% in rice, our well designed experiment, recently published (Deb and Bhattacharya 2021, doi: 10.18520/cs/v121/i1/121-126), demonstrates that cross pollination can exceed 82%, depending on the overlap of flower opening time and duration between two neighbouring parental lines. Flower opening time and duration in rice are crucially important in determining pollination success, yet there is little information about Indian rice landraces available – until our own records of 1114 landraces recently published online (2022: doi:10.7910/DVN/KYW1UC, Harvard Dataverse, V6 ).
The summary of these studies is that (i) in early experiments, very briefly overlapping (or non-overlapping) duration of rice florets remaining open between two parental lines resulted in near-zero cross pollination. If the flowering times overlap for a considerable length of time, the frequency of cross pollination is likely to increase dramatically, as demonstrated in our studies. (ii) When the ovary parent receives pollen from a pollen parent with very different characters, the offspring would show variable proportions of those characters from their parents. Aroma being a single-gene character, the entire progeny of any aromatic cultivar would lose aroma in the very next generation, if the pollen parent was non-aromatic. Presence/ absence of awn, node colour, flag leaf angle, leaf anthocyanin distribution, internode colour, auricle colour – and so on, would change in the progeny to an extent proportionately with the degree of cross pollination. As a result, not only the visible/ perceptible characters (grain size, awn length, aroma) but invisible characters that are crucial for the adaptation of the landraces to environmental conditions (drought tolerance, salinity tolerance, pest resistance) would also disappear in the successive generations of the rice. The farmers would expect a special rice variety to withstand flood or salinity or contain high amounts of iron, but will be utterly disappointed if the seeds are genetically hybrid.
Putting the blame of seed impurity in custody of casual conservators on “altered environment” is no excuse for the genetic degradation of the old landraces, whose characters were kept uniform and stable over generations by ancient farmers over centuries by the practice of “rouging” and identifying the key morphological characters. This art of rouging and the science of identifying different characters between different cultivars are lost in the modern generations of farmers, who are habituated to buying seeds of whatever they grow from seed “dealers”. Most of them do not bother to notice the colour of rice florets and nodes, because that knowledge is not necessary when you buy the seeds of cultivars every other year. References to “farmer’s wisdom” and “traditional agricultural knowledge” in my own writings, are going to decimate into hyperboles.
Basudha is the only and the last (non-governmental) farm in Asia where measures are taken to prevent cross pollination using the method of flowering asynchrony (Deb 2006: Current Science 91: 155-157) and physical barriers, and all the 1440 landraces are screened every year for 52 agromorphological and 4 chemical characters, and any “off types” are discarded, with no tolerance for genetic impurity. Each handful of seeds distributed to farmers is 100% genetically pure, until they get mixed up, physically or genetically, in the farmer’s field.
This used to be the case, so far, until recently. I discovered, to my dismay, that core samples of a few landraces contained a mix of grains of different characters, which I promptly rouged out and replaced. But why did that happen? With my growing age and compulsion to obtain donations and earnings from my periodic teachings, in addition to my workload in Basudha Laboratory for Conservation, I am increasingly relying on my field associates, who are not as skilled or capable as I would wish them to be. It’s not their fault. Debdulal for example, despite his immense dedication, is colour blind, and I have to check the colours of 12 plant organs of each landrace. Also, the honorarium that Basudha is able to pay them for the arduous task they have to deliver every season is a pittance, and is no incentive to carry on this important task. Basudha and Vrihi have not received any young blood in the workforce over the past decade, although there is no dearth of advice and compassion from any quarter. Any lapse of my time or effort, due to my growing age and falling stamina, would lead inexorably to faulty selection of seed samples.
But even if all the seeds in my accession get degraded and lose their unique sets of characters, why should I regret? Like any life form, these landraces have their evolutionary life span. The culture of artificial selection by farmers have maintained their germ lines for centuries, but the life span of most of them had practically reached their fag end when I rescued them from extinction. Today, more than 460 landraces in my accession are no longer cultivated on any farm on Earth, and I happen to be the last repository of at least 130 landraces, to my knowledge, that are not in the international gene bank accessions. They are still alive on Basudha, because I have superannuated them, beyond their date of expiry. If no more than 6 individuals from this vast country have over the past 20 years come forward to maintain the pure lines of a few dozen landraces, I cannot commit to stretch my lifespan (or that of my associates) to the next century to keep a thousand evanescent landraces alive. I am neither YAHWEH nor IHEAS (Invisible Hand of Evolution by Artificial Selection).
So here is my call to all those who may feel concerned. If you commit to
(1) cultivate every year at least 100 landraces of your choice, AND
(2) maintain the genetic purity of each of these 100 based on at least 20 morphological characters, AND
(3) employ the method of rouging and preventing cross pollination between cultivars grown on neighbouring plots/ farms, AND
(4) never sell these seeds to any farmers, but distribute them for free, AND
(5) never hand over any of these seeds to any seed corporation or their affiliates,
- then please contact me immediately, and receive the seeds of 100 or more landraces.
Just 12 such individuals/ organisations would suffice to keep 1200 South Asian landraces alive and pure. I will not distribute the foreign cultivars accessed from 6 countries outside of South Asia.
Those who have so far failed to maintain the genetic purity of the landraces they received from Vrihi, and those who consider that cross pollination is of no importance, and those who believe that maintenance of genetic purity in landraces is unscientific/ foolish/ impractical, - of course need not pay attention to this announcement.
Whether we receive (or not) any committed and honest inheritor within next three months, Basudha will close its conservation farming, and close Vrihi seed bank after 30 June, 2023.
Vrihi is Expiring. Long Live Folk Crop Landraces.