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Candy tomato Image Credit: Supplied

New Delhi: In present times, when bio-diversity is fast dwindling, it’s difficult to find hyper exotic vegetables. But, perhaps, in remote parts of the world, untouched by industrial agriculture, one may still spot a few of these on the dining table. The phenomenon is worldwide. And India is no different.

But Bengaluru-based agricultural scientist-cum architect Dr Prabhakar Rao has been trying to turn things around. For the past 27 years, Rao has become a mentor in natural farming practices that involve no use of chemicals and is collecting rare indigenous seeds of endangered species of vegetables.

Benefiting the farmers

His passion and endeavour for chemical-free organic agriculture has taken the formation of Hariyalee Seeds, which he set up in 2011 after collaborating with the Seed Savers Exchange in the US. He travels to the remote villages in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Odisha and Karnataka, imparting sustainable farming techniques to cultivators.

This benefits the farmers who faced the ill effects of Green Revolution, which turned their lands into infertile area. (Farmers began using high-yielding variety (HYV) seeds, launching the green revolution in the late 1960s. This saw crop yields and production rise dramatically. But, it intensified farmers dependence on the government for inputs and subsidies needed for growing HYV crops — the effects of which are being felt even today).

With the advent of companies that produce seeds, hundreds of varieties of native vegetable species become extinct every year.

- Dr Prabhakar Rao, Founder, Hariyalee Seeds

The 62-year-old farmer by passion, who holds a PhD in plant breeding and genetics, told Gulf News, “All along, farmers looked for an alternative way out to be able to grow crops on their lands once again. With cost-effective and sustainable techniques of farming introduced by us, they are now opting for these. We encourage them to make their seeds, so that they visit the market only to sell their products; not to buy seeds.”

Endangered species

Rao runs Hariyalee Seeds Farm, a 1.01 hectare patch of green haven that is untouched by chemical soil additives. Here, species of endangered and heirloom seeds from all over the world are curated. He has till date tested about 560 rare seed varieties that produce a range of exotic vegetables that are no longer found in the country.

“It was a challenge to first collect indigenous seeds of endangered species by travelling across the world for many years, as only the older generation of farmers have the native variety. The next major obstacle was to see that they suited the climatic conditions of India. In spite of my best efforts, I was able to genetically stabilise and make only 146 of them survive,” he remarked.

Prized assortment

Among his collection, Dosakai, a round cucumber the size of an apple that tastes like lemon (found in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh); a blue corn (originating from the border areas of Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka); Kamo, a purple round eggplant (found in Japan); Maldavian Balm, a herb with flowers that have the flavour of lavender and lime (found in Moldavia, Central and Eastern Europe); the white long brinjal (from Mysore) that was the hall mark of a popular dish called ‘vangi baath’ in Karnataka; the red pumpkin (from Meghalaya); the blood red corn (from north Karnataka), top the list of endangered heirloom seeds.

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Indonesian purple-winged beans Image Credit: Supplied

What surprises Rao most is that while the world over animals and birds that fall in the endangered category are focused upon, people do not care about many varieties of vegetables that are facing extinction.

“These indigenous varieties play a major role in our lives and can handle climate change. Tolerant to drought conditions, they are adaptable to natural farming methods and resistant to diseases and pests. In fact, it makes sense to go back to cultivating them rather than purchasing and making hybrids through genetically modified procedures,” he suggested.

Depending on seed companies

Explaining a steady decline in the variety of vegetables, he said, “It has happened over the past two decades because the original vegetables were of native indigenous varieties and farmers could produce their own seeds every season. But with the advent of companies that produce seeds and make profits, hundreds of varieties of native vegetable species become extinct every year.

“The seed companies have business model structured in a manner that farmers have to depend on them to buy new seeds. After every planting season, farmers head towards these companies to procure seeds. This was never the tradition in India and farmers would always grow their own seeds. But now, almost 99 per cent of the vegetable varieties that we eat today are hybrid.”

560

Number of rare seed varieties Dr Rao has cultivated

Rao pointed out that a century ago people had the option to choose from 544 cabbage varieties, 480 variations of peas, 408 tomato species and over 341 types of pumpkins and squashes. “But, even though nearly all the vegetable varieties were kept alive by dedicated farmers and seed savers for some decades, our generation failed to recognise the importance of those seeds and simply let them go.”

Few to more

The scientist set up Hariyalee Seeds to make up for that loss and now sells heirloom vegetable seeds. When he collects seeds from remote areas, sometimes it is just one seed and at other times a few more. He informed, “I multiply them. Once people, whether farmers or enthusiastic home gardeners, buy seeds from me, they need not come back for more. I suggest they buy in small quantities and use those seeds to make thousands of their own and take the cause forward. This way, instead of getting lost, these varieties will exist somewhere on this planet.”