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June '02

 

Annadana: Food for Thought

- by Isha

 

A conference of the South-Asia Network of Soil & Seed Savers took place in Auroville to discuss strategies for saving the seeds

 

In the second week of March the Visitors Centre field buzzed with the presence of a very mixed crowd, invited to Auroville through a notice appearing online to 350 NGOs all over India and Southeast Asia. Seventy people arrived to participate in the conference, under a colorful pandal tent pitched near the cafeteria and amidst a wonderful atmosphere created by the Annadana crew: seed sample displays, and exhibit tables brimming with the season's harvest of shapely gourds, squashes and melons, tomatoes red, yellow and purple, colorful ears of maize and Star of David lady fingers, and bright posters showing vegetable and flower collections from around the world. In the middle of this show of nature's abundance chairs and blackboard took the focus, where presenters shared their knowledge on gardening and genetic heritage. Kokopelli Association, France, sponsored the whole conference, and visitors were treated to stays in some of Auroville's finest guesthouses. Lovely meals and teas were provided, which included samples of some of Auroville's own grains and vegetables in the lunch menus.

The purpose of the gathering was to discuss strategies for the saving of seeds, especially of well-loved varieties of vegetables, and for promoting the growing of these in kitchen and home gardens. Rather than commercial incentive, this initiative is to reintegrate traditions of better health and nutrition through interaction with one's immediate environment - the garden. A way to do this is to grow vegetables and successfully save their genetic heritage (seeds) from year to year, sharing these with friends and neighbors, and create local seed networks. The "farmers" who attended came from everywhere: agriculturalists, home gardeners, Non-Governmental organisations and rural development consultants, writers, and activists from places like Bangladesh, Himachal Pradesh, New Delhi, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala, Chennai, Chingleput, Trichy, Sri Lanka, Sumatra and Hawaii. A large part of the time was devoted to hearing each tell their experiences of promoting biodiversity through their own work. Besides discussions under the tent, there was a brilliant (literally!) guided tour by Stephane, to see garden cultivation and seed multiplication work at the new Auroville Botanical Gardens site, and then also two evening sessions in the SAWCHU pavilion.

The organizers responsible for topics and activities were Dominique Guillet and Bernard Declerq, supported by Stephane, Isha and Mauricette (for Annadana network) and help from many of the project's current volunteers. Dominique gave an overall introduction to the work of Kokopelli Association, and on maintaining purity of "open-pollinated" varieties and low-cost techniques for the prevention of cross-pollination. This was supported by the 60-page preparatory booklet provided for conference participants, providing a detailed species lists of exotic and indigenous food plants, and documenting a series of letters comprising the recent hot debate on the pros and cons of introduced "exotics".

The concerns raised about introduction of "alien species" were heard out during the course of the weekend. The simplest research into a history of economic botany clearly shows that (food) plants have been traveling around the world, taking root in "traditional" diets as long as man has practiced cultivation (approximately 10,000 years). Most "Indian" vegetables (i.e. chillies, tomatoes), and some staples (ie: millets, maize), are "imports" from other countries! With organic agriculture there is no chemical intervention when diseases and infestation arise in weak, unhealthy plants, so only the healthy ones remain in the field for seed collection. And many newly introduced varieties will not survive in new climatic conditions without artificial technology, so there is a natural process of selection - only the best suited survive to create the seeds of the future.

Why are seeds so hard to find in India today, and mostly from big seed companies? Many varieties of vegetables were in wide use here during the last 100 years, but these have mostly vanished with the advent of hybrid seeds (not reproducing "true to type") requiring more chemical inputs and watering, and producing useless seeds. People have given over their self-reliance to commercial and scientific organizations. Sunita Rao, respected speaker and organizer of the environmental NGO Kalpavrish, points out that there is a big demand for good quality, open-pollinated seeds by women farmers for their home gardens. She called for a non-divisive approach to achieving what is in everybody's best interests: assuring access to genetic resources and biodiversity. There is the need to work on the local level with a strong regional support, she explained.

What followed was formation of a statement of purpose - a charter for the ongoing work of making more and better seeds available to gardeners and small-scale farmers. Existing organizations and development networks are already in the best position to begin "seed wealth centers", to collect sample seeds of local open-pollinated varieties, with special attention to unique types, and preserve these vegetable seeds for gardeners who may not do it on their own. The next step is to pass on seeds to other farmers and gardeners sure to save seed of the next generation, who will also return a certain amount to the main center.
There is a tremendous need for research and documentation, to collate information about open- pollinated types still available in villages. This data will include location, origin, physiological characteristics, local name, qualities such as medicinal value, micronutrient content, pest resistance, etc. Of special interest are local skills in cultivation practices, planting times, seed selection and preservation, and the screening for the adaptability of seeds imported from outside the immediate region. Lastly, but very much in demand, is the need to organize skill-sharing workshops with farmers and gardeners on all technical aspects related to seeds and vegetable growing. Annadana is ready to provide encouragement in the form of technical assistance for those ready to begin.

This informative and inspiring event closed with a dinner at Athiti Griha guesthouse on the Sunday evening. The work has only just begun, but everyone expressed profound appreciation for the chance to meet together in Auroville, and for the added dimension of depth, reflection and beauty that Auroville (and Aurovilians working together) impresses on those who come here to share and learn!

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