Grassroots scientists challenge seed monopolies

By Biju Negi

Beej Bachao Andolan is removing the veil of secrecy from the seed research and development process by training farmers in Uttarakhand on cross-breeding rice varieties, helping them reclaim this traditional knowledge and technology from the agri-chemical industries that monopolise the sector

Cross-breeding rice varieties

Traditional agriculture knowledge and systems have a profoundly scientific basis, and over generations, farmers have perfected their practices in all aspects of agriculture including developing new crop varieties by closely following natural practices. But if there is one thing they haven’t done themselves, it is developing new varieties through artificial or induced means. Indeed, producing new varieties through cross-breeding has for long been the sole preserve of agricultural research institutions and agro-chemical companies that have placed a veil of secrecy over the technology under the pretext of it being “scientifically strict and technically difficult”. This absolute control over seed research and multiplication has allowed them to totally dominate the market by swallowing up local knowledge and seeds and imposing an alien, high-input, monoculture-predominant agriculture.

In Uttarakhand, the small farmers collective Beej Bachao Andolan is demystifying the seed development process. It conducted a three-day workshop on ‘Crop Cross-breeding Training’ for farmers in Chamba (Tehri) recently in a first-of-its-kind initiative in the state. What the farmers learnt to do, through a precise yet simple technique, was to develop new rice varieties by cross-breeding two existing varieties.

The technique has been developed and successfully popularised by MASIPAG (Magsasaka at Siyentipiko Para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura), a “farmer-scientist partnership for development” in the Philippines.

Concerned with the failure of the green revolution in the Philippines, MASIPAG was formed in 1985 with the specific objective of developing an alternative agricultural research programme suited to the needs of poor farmers for appropriate seeds and technology. With the Philippines also home to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), farmers were also concerned about the loss of traditional rice, more than 4,000 varieties of which have been collected internationally by IRRI and replaced with high-yielding varieties (HYVs).

A collaboration between farmers and scientists from the University of the Philippines in Los Banos, in the form of a ‘Piso-Piso Para sa Binhi’ (A Peso for the Seeds) project, was started to initiate research on the genetic conservation and improvement of traditional rice varieties, and to develop accessible and appropriate research designs and tools for farmers. Since then, over 750 traditional rice varieties have been retrieved and over 560 MASIPAG-bred selections created to suit specific agricultural conditions.

Farmers groups avail of the seeds by establishing trial farms where they select varieties for local adaptability, study genetic traits and performance, and undertake conservation and breeding.

Reetu Sogani (Samudayik Chetna Kendra, Nainital) and Bina Sajwan (Beej Bachao Andolan), who conducted the training in Uttarakhand, say: “The crop cross-breeding technique is really quite simple but needs precision and patience. Of course, with practise, the farmers will find the technique becoming simpler.”

The process

Rice is a self-pollinating plant, which means that both the pistil or ovary (female) and the stamens (male) are in the same spikelet. When the plant flowers, the stamens pollinate the ovary naturally, without any extraneous help. Therefore, anyone wishing to cross-pollinate two different varieties has to take a lot of care. Pollination between the same ‘mother’ and ‘father’ is avoided and artificially controlled to allow pollination between two different parents. This effectively means retaining the pistil in the ‘mother’ plant and bringing in pollen from the ‘father’ plant.

Timing is extremely crucial in this process. It must be done within a few days of the plant flowering, and when the hair at the end of the spikelet is about one-third or not more than half emerged. Around this time the anthers are fairly robust -- more than half the spikelet emerging from its sheath would mean that pollination has already taken place within the spikelet. 

The cross-breeding process is carried out over two days. On day 1, the seed on the ‘mother’ plant is emasculated; on day 2, pollen from the ‘father’ spikelets is sprinkled over the emasculated ‘mother’ seeds.

Emasculation is best done around 3-4 pm, as then the wind is generally still with minimal possibilities of accidental pollination by wind. Also, the pistil or ovary is fairly inactive at this time of day.

For emasculation on the ‘mother’ plant, the spikelet to be cross-bred is cut in a slant around the top-third. This allows for better viewing and more operating space within the seed sheath where one can now see an ovary at the centre encircled by six stamens (comprising anthers and filament), which hold the pollen. It is these six stamens which need to be removed. This is a delicate process and needs to be done with precision, concentration and very steady hands. The spikelet itself is so small, and the stamens so fine that the latter can be removed only by using a pincer. If necessary, one may use a magnifying glass for better viewing; in fact, it is advisable. Also, in the beginning it is always better for two or more people to work together on a single plant, with one doing the emasculation and the other holding the plant and/or providing a shield against the wind to prevent accidental pollination.

After completing one spikelet one may move on to another on the same panicle. The panicle is then covered with a glassine/muslin bag to prevent moisture or overnight dew from damaging the open spikelet.

The actual cross-pollination is to be carried out on day 2, around 9-10 am. Mornings are the best time as the cut on the spikelet opens to its maximum then, thereby allowing more pollen to enter the spikelet and increasing the chances of pollination.

The ‘father’ plant chosen must be mature, and at least two to four primary branches from its panicle cut carefully and taken for this purpose. Carried to the ‘mother’ plant prepared the previous evening, the ‘father’ spikelets are shaken over the emasculated spikelets for at least a minute or two so that pollen sprinkles on to the ovaries of the emasculated ‘mother’ spikelets. One may additionally place or tie a few ‘father’ primary branches (in an upside-down position) over and alongside the ‘mother’ panicle, and then cover it again with the bag. This will further ensure pollination. The ‘mother’ panicle worked on may be kept this way for the next three days -- the period when the ovary is highly susceptible to cross-pollination after emasculation. To further ensure pollination, one may repeat the cross-pollination process over the next two days. 

Remove the bag after three days. The plant must be checked continuously for the next 10 days, and then every now and then.

It is important to remember that in the first cross-breeding a farmer may be able to work on just a few spikelets, and, since the cross-breeding must be completed within two or three days (before the florets mature and self-pollinate), he/she can expect to get only a few seeds after the first season. It will take a few seasons to multiply the number of seeds to procure enough quantity.

Of course, after the first season, farmers will store the new variety seeds separately just as they would other seeds. From the second season onwards, the seeds on the plants will be allowed to self-pollinate and are subjected to the process of ‘selection’ over the next four to five seasons to stabilise the traits in the new variety. Only then, and when one has enough of the new variety growing, can one see the desired characteristics in the new variety emerge completely.

The montane regions of Uttarakhand have only one rice-growing season in the year, unlike in the Philippines which has three (and elsewhere in India where there may be two or three rice-growing seasons). And so here it may take up to five years before farmers can really claim to have developed or produced a new variety. Bina Sajwan explains: “The cross-breeding technique will show more rapid results in regions where paddy is grown more than once a year. At the same time, the technique can just as effectively be used in wheat and maize crops.”

Far-reaching significance

According to Vijay Jarhdhari of Beej Bachao Andolan, in whose fields practical exercises were carried out, “Our traditional practices of selecting and conserving good seeds -- and even developing new varieties through natural pollination -- is firmly scientific, but this training adds a further dimension to our farming capacity which will play an important role in increasing and strengthening our seed diversity, with attendant benefits.”

Indeed, this small beginning in Uttarakhand multiplies the possibilities of strengthening food security. More importantly, it will help farmers establish food sovereignty by encouraging them to delve into the deep reservoir of their traditional knowledge and agro-biodiversity, reclaim lost crop varieties, and develop new ones in accordance with their priorities and needs. For instance, as Kheema, an activist from Pithoragarh puts it: “Farmers can now consider developing and propagating varieties that are more resilient to the vagaries of nature.” Pushpa Devi from Paukhal (Tehri) reiterates: “We now have the possibility of growing crops the likes of which our mothers and grandmothers cultivated.”

Vijay Jarhdhari believes this initiative offers farmers the possibility of controlling decisions such as which seed varieties to grow, unlike now where agro-chemical companies, together with major research institutions hold all the keys to developing new varieties, with the sole objective of making ‘profits’.

Reetu Sogani says, “This sharing and capacity-building has political significance and ramifications. More than the fact of developing new varieties, it is an act of protest against seed development being the monopoly of just a few, and against the appropriation of people’s knowledge systems.”

At another level, it is not just the question of learning and mastering a technique or technology. It is the significance of farmers seeking a deeper engagement with their agriculture and their ecology from which they are forcibly being marginalised. They are seeking to become, once again, the masters of their own agriculture. And as farmers begin to cross-breed on their own lands, and others learn from them, they also begin to strengthen their claim to being the true agricultural scientists on the ground.

(Biju Negi is a writer, sustainable agriculture consultant and member of Beej Bachao Andolan)

Infochange News & Features, October 2011