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Food Security, biodiversity and climate change
Agro Biodiversity was threatened not because of over use, but because it was not being valued adequately. If implementation guidelines for PDS and the mid day meal schemes are issued centrally, how will local foods and crops ever find a place?
GENE CAMPAIGN and Action Aid organized a seminal workshop at New Delhi last week (April23/24) to deliberate on this issue, and got an eclectic mix of participants: farmers from six states, viz Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal and Jharkhand and Maharashtra, scientists from ICAR, activists, NGOs, academe, students, researchers, media and government sector.
Suman Sahai, the feisty head of Gene campaign, and the main architect of the workshop started the workshop in a unique way. One farmer from each of these states spoke and sang about the dilemmas faced by farmers and their families, the loss of water and habitat, the virtual disappearance of many birds and beasts, the high rates of abortion among cows, buffaloes and goats, the decline in incomes and traditional occupations, the painful migration to the city, and the general ennui that was setting in the countryside.

There was Kamla Dabola from Uttarakhand who spoke about how the five day drizzle and rain, which was the hallmark of the higher Garhwal Himalayas has now disappeared, and the younger generation cannot even imagine wading through snow.

The trek to fetch water had become longer and more tiresome, and men were migrating not out of greed, but sheer survival. So many species had been lost, and disposal of dead animals was a problem as the vultures had disappeared. No wonder village after village was being abandoned. She wondered if it was ever possible for people who spent most of their working life in air conditioned environs (like the Constitution Club where the seminar was organized) would ever be able to understand the agony and pain of the farmers who were bearing the brunt of climate change directly.

Then there was Pushpa Devi from UP who had witnessed a decline in the productivity of mustard, wheat, paddy and vegetables over the last few years as the water table sank to lower levels- thereby making extraction more expensive, difficult and uncertain. She spoke about how difficult it was to access credit and fertilizer, and the loss of hope among the younger generation who were not at all keen to continue conventional farming. Budheshwar Teke from Sunderbans in West Bengal spoke about how cyclonic storms had inundated the lands with saline water, and that it would take many rainfalls to make the land productive again. Sunderbans is an area of great biodiversity, but as the island population rises, more and more land is required for paddy and vegetable cultivation. Ram Krishan from Rajasthan said that the increasing trend of treating land as a commodity had led to several farmers selling off their land (and with this, their traditional livelihood).

However the next generation was not trained, accustomed or geared to doing anything else, and ended up as security guards or taxi drivers. Jhaman Mahato from Jharkhand spoke lyrically about the farmers’ disenchantment with the rain gods, and his helplessness against the forces of nature, the disenchantment with the government and political leadership, the helplessness against the trader, and his own inability to do anything about any of the above. The representative form the Shetkari Sangathan of Sharad Joshi made the point which AgriMatters has made severely in the past: why not link farmers’ income to the pay Commission Recommendations. Let the farmers’ income be indexed to his land holding and his cropping pattern. AgriMatters holds the view that farmers using organic manure and growing crops which are more conducive to the soil conditions and rainfall patterns should have an edge over farmers growing sugarcane by excess drawl of water from the soil.

In her lead presentation, Suman Sahai made the point that climate change will bring turbulence in ALL production systems: no exclusions will be pronounced! The greater the genetic variety, the better the coping strategy will be. Genetic diversity gave species the ability to adapt to a changing environment by distributing risks, and ensuring a wider choice for selection. The wild relatives of wheat and rice have not been given their due credit in the success of Green revolution. Although many of these have been preserved ex-situ, and are therefore available for research, in-situ conservation strategies have a dynamic of their own, because it is not just the potential of individual genes, but the ability of genes to form combinations that holds out the real promise for future generations .Sahai also pointed out that biodiversity was not limited to Agro Biodiversity alone. Many wild relatives of the domestic livestock had been lost, and many cattle varieties were being pushed aside under the generic 'non-descript. Likewise soil biodiversity was very important, and the excessive use of fertilizer was playing havoc with the natural composition of the soil in several parts of the country.

While many of the points made above were known, it was the way in which she presented facts that changed the colour of the discourse. Agro Biodiversity was threatened not because of over use, but because it was not being valued adequately. If implementation guidelines for PDS and the mid day meal schemes are issued centrally, how will local foods and crops ever find a place? If over 90 per cent of the allocation of health department is spent on the allopathic system, how will the knowledge of myriad uses of herbs, ferns, leaves, roots for therapeutic use be sustained? When standardized menus replace the local cuisine, when retail chains pick only fruits which are amenable to packaging and processing, many fruits are lost forever.

Most young people in Metros are not even aware that there were many varieties of blackberry, mulberry, figs, apricots, and local fruits which, till a generation ago were available in abundance, and at very affordable rates. When the local 'hakeem' stops selling 'murabba', and proffers Diet versions of carbonated drinks, agro biodiversity loses out. And last but the least, there was the gender perspective as well: women understood, acknowledged and preserved biodiversity differently, distinctively, and if one may add, instinctively as well.
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