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Seeds and Indian Ethos of Conservation, Sharing and Freedom

(this article was written for the magazine Vedanta Kesari in June 2018)

Recently, we have heard the case of a major multi-national corporate body suing a small farmer with 4 acres of land to the tune of 1.2 Crores for using what it claimed as its own variety of Potato for making unhealthy food. The legal tussle that has ensued is still being played out as we go to press with this article.  As a country that has a very largen number of small and marginal farmers who do farming with their families, India is continuously faced with the challenge of having to engage with economies, technologies, policies, practices and knowledge that is created from countries where farming is done by a very small population of farmers each owning very large tracks of land. It is important for India to revisit its on ethos on food sovereignty to articulate a position that today in the global space is seen as not merely voicing a fresh approach but also more relevant in the context of the reality of climate change. This article tries to capture the groundswell of seed conservation movements in India and also the Indian ethos that is asserted in the process. The author has been associated with the Organic Farming movement in the State of Tamilnadu since over 2 decades and also coordinates one of the several farmers’ free exchange of seeds and biodiversity celebration festivals in Tamilnadu.

mudhal thani viththeyo” – Nammazhvaar addresses Lord Narayana, as the first seed of the world[1].

“Each soul is potentially divine” as we famously know, is literally apt for seeds, as each seed is potentially a full grown plant or tree or potentially every seed can further nurture life giving forces such as food, shelter, clothing, housing, etc., It is nature’s tiniest representative and continuous reminder of what might can be achieved through a little care seedsgiving and the dormant potential in each living creature. This potent is acknowledged and celebrated in this country as part of its tradition and ethos. Across the land, Indian celebration calendar is dotted with the celebration of seeds, farmers worship seeds before they are planted, and fresh produce is worshipped before they are consumed. The sentiment expressed above is practiced as a way of life, as part of the living ethos of the people of the land.



Colonial Disturbance

It is recorded that more than 3.5 million people starved to death in the Bengal famine of 1943. The renowned ecologist, Dr. Vandana Shiva states that more than twenty million were directly affected and this was due to the food grains appropriated forcefully from the peasants under a colonial system of rent collection. Exports of food grains continued in spite of the fact that people were going hungry. She cites the writer Kali Charan Ghosh that, “80,000 tonnes of food grain were exported from Bengal in 1943, just before the famine. India at that time was a supply base for the British military. Huge exports were allowed to feed the people of other lands, while the shadow of famine was hourly lengthening in the Indian horizon”.  In response peasants movements were built around slogans such as, “Jan debo tabu dhan debo ne”, we will give up lives but not our rice.

All over India, the colonial disturbance has been the struggle for rights of land and cultivation by the peasants of this vast land. But, there was a more fundamental encounter that happened as a subtext, this was the encounter of the ethics around production and sharing of food in India. The famous Gandhian historian Dharampal used to cite a one instances to highlight the shift in the way we did farming, citing a British archival document, he mentions how during a particularly difficult year, the British find no farmer willing to pay tax and so an enquiry is ordered. As part of it the Britisher asks the local farmers as to why the farmers never paid tax, and they respond stating that as far as their memory goes, they never paid tax during the years when agriculture was difficult and in fact it was the responsibility of the raja to provide them with grains and additional support during such years[2]. In another of his lectures, he summarizes the Indian idea of food production and distribution stating that we can ‘imply that every person in this society enjoyed a certain   dignity  and that his social and economic needs were well provided for. Food and shelter seems to have been a natural right, given India's fertility, etc. According to a historian of medieval India the only data which  was  available about the expenditure details of the rulers of Delhi  referred  to the free feeding of the people who required such  a  provision   It  is possible that perhaps this  was  the  major  expenditure even of this alien imperial state and the state had adopted  this practice from the prevalent norms of Indian society[3].

Annam Bahu Kurvita

The Indian view on food has always been production and sharing of food in plenty. The famous words of Taittreya Upanisad that produce and share food in plenty is echoed by the Tamil poet Thiruvalluvar who states that most virtuous of traditions devised by the elders is the one of producing diverse food in plenty and sharing the abundance with all living beings[4].

 annena dharyate sarvam jagadetaccaracaram…annadadah pranado loke pranadah sarvado bhavet. tasmadannam visesana datavyam bhutimicchata”, says Bhagavan Sri Krishna to King Yudhishtira.

“The world, both animate and inanimate, is sustained by food…The giver of food is the giver of life and indeed of everything else. Therefore, one who is desirous of well-being in this world and beyond should make special endeavour to give food”, is how Bhavan Sri Krishna preaches to King Yudhistira who desires him to teach the essence of Bhishma’s Bhavisyapuranam, summarizing dana with the amazing verse, “dhadasvannam dhadasvannam dhadasvannam Yudhishtira”, so, “give food, give food, give food”[5] in plenty the exhortation concludes.

What we ingest, so we become

We are what we eat, said the old wisdom. Our Upanisads say this, time and again, “Aham annam Aham annam, aham annam!” sings the wise rishi in ecstasy, after exhorting the nature of food and the wisdom of food[6].   Devo bhukthva, devam yejeth!, “when you ingest divine, so do you manifest”, says another old saying.  Increasingly modern Nutritionists and Psychologists are saying this too, as they have arrived at this understanding of the body and mind. Similar wisdom today prevails among several other disciplines of modern science that have studied the human being in depth. Food is the largest part of what we ingest and to ensure that the food is safe and nourishing the body is one of the fundamental functions of the human society. We indeed become what we ingest. For India, this is not new, we have grown and shared food in plenty since time immemorial and our methods of growing and sharing of food in plenty have inspired whoever has studied it at length. Farmers have done this function since ages and have been revered as well. The Tamil sage, Thiruvalluvar states, “if the farmer were to not do farming, even the wise sages who have relinquished all will need to go behind him begging”[7]. 

Indeed, Dharampal points out that this has been the practice among the Indian farmers till the onset of the Colonial times, Many 18th century western observers have often referred to the sophistication of the then Indian agricultural technology. The aspects which have been specially noted are the variety of seeds available to the Indian peasant, the sophistication and simplicity of his tools, and the extreme care and labour he expended in tending to his fields and crops.

According to recent historical findings, 41 different crops were being cultivated annually in the localities of the province of Agra. The number of crops cultivated in other areas of northern India was equally large. For the south of India Alexander Walker (he was in Malabar and Gujarat from 1780-1810) notes that in Malabar alone upward of fifty kinds of rice was cultivated. This variety of seeds and crops that the Indian peasant possessed and his ability to vary these according to the needs of the soil and the season, seems to set him apart from most other peasants or cultivators of the world whose knowledge was limited to far fewer crops[8]”.


 Seeds, their diversity and food

“ropitha ropitha buyasshidruphaaka guna adhikaah”, - Rice from old paddy (which has been used as seed and reused) is easily digested and is full of merits[9].

Modern health care system agrees with the ancient wisdom that consumption of diverse forms of food does help build immunity and strength. India as a fertile land of abundance had several ways in which it conserved the diversity of food. However, much of this changed with the changing times.

Globally seeds have been conserved and shared across regions as well and traditionally seeds exchanges among farmers has happened through the centuries resulting in the widespread usage of certain crops while there are certain crops that are unique and limited to a few parts of the world. The more diverse varieties are available in a given species, the better are its chances for survival in diverse and adverse conditions is one of the key findings of modern scientific understanding of seeds. India is the home of rice varieties and it has been estimated that perhaps even as late as the beginning of the 20th century, India grew perhaps about 200,000 varieties of traditional rice[10]. That the diversity of rice in India was so high that there seems to have been rice for various occasions and various types of soil and water conditions. For instance, mapillai samba, a popular variety of rice, was considered prestigious and the one cooked especially for the bridegroom and their families during wedding festivities! There are varieties that are grown in specific regions that lends a flavour, like the basmati rice variety that is grown in the Indo-Gangetic plain, today it is recognized globally as the famous aromatic variety of rice. There are of course regional variations, the jeeraga samba, variety grown in several southern Indian parts is a short rice variety that has a similar flavour. The kar varieties of red rice such as the kullakar, poongar, etc., are red rice varieties that are known as ideally suited for preparation of idlis in southern India. The famous mannapaarai murukku, a delicacy snack in Tamilnadu supposedly derives its taste from the variety of rice that is grown in this particular part of the country. Apart from the regional variations, there are also variations of rice that are good for different types of people and health conditions.  The variety karunguruvi, is good for lactating mothers whereas other varieties are seen as beneficial for the elderly and infants.  There are wild varieties of rice that are used in traditional medicine, the variety kaala jeera is even today used widely as a medicinal variety of rice. Apart from these specialities, there are also varieties that are suitable for alkaline soil, varieties that can bee grown in saline conditions, rice that can be grown in flooded condition and rice that is grown only rainfed and in completely dry conditions as well. Such vast variation has meant that farmers can grow food despite any kind of climate change challenges. Drought, floods and other natural calamities didn’t impact the farmers. In fact, in the post-tsunami period in Tamilnadu, it was noted that there were several locally conserved seeds that were planted by farmers in the saline water inundated fields so that even under those situations the farmers were able to have a good crop[11]. So, through there conservation methods, the farmers had climate change resilience, contributed to local tradition and health of the consumers as well and by providing variety, they also contributed towards the overall well being of the society. In the last 150 years much it had changed of course.

One of significant impacts of modernity has been the propagation of the idea that man is above that of the animal species and all plant and animal species are to be ‘conquered’ and contained / manipulated / executed by humans. This idea stems primarily from the western world and is contrary to the spirit and thought of the indigenous communities in the East as well as West.  With the advent of modern science and science based industry, there has been much interest on improving farming by scientists and policy makers. This extended from seeds to livestock to understanding and working with soils and pests as well. Selection, multiplication and enhancing of seeds has been one of the major areas of interest of modern science in agriculture application.

The early days improvements resulted in development of several varieties of seeds known as “high yielding varieties” or a selection of varieties of a particular crop that has a better yielding capacity rather than that of others with lower capacity. However, there were flip sides to the same. In India, it has been well documented[12] that the advent of HYV also resulted in the case of paddy for instance of short straw varieties that didn’t leave any hay for the cattle. This impacted the food for the livestock, the inadequate food for the livestock shot up the cost of maintaining livestock, this in turn meant advent of machinery to perform the sake task of livestock at less cost and more speed, but, the advent of machinery such as tractor instead of livestock meant that there was less of manure for the field, this necessitated the fertilizing of the fields with chemicals which again meant more water was required for the fields to digest the chemical inputs, this contaminated water and more chemical infestation also deprived the soil of its health and in turn impacted the health of the plant making it prone to attack by many pests, the pest management thus became a major preoccupation because the plants couldn’t fight it themselves, this resulted in chemical pest killers. When such pest ‘killers’ come to the picture, they not only kill the unwanton pests, they also result in the killing of other forms of pests that are beneficial to the soil and plant, now that we have got rid of beneficial pests, their functions need to be performed by other chemicals or machinery…and so on and so forth. All of these chemical and other inputs from outside as well as the usage of machinery come at a cost. The cost of agriculture and indeed the entire agricultural economy thus gets shifted from that which benefits the soil, farmer and consumer to that which benefits all those who supply chemical inputs and machinery.  The entire vicious cycle that results from the advent of one high yielding variety of seeds into a significant change in the economy of agriculture over a couple of decades is there for all to see today.


Farmer’s Conservation of Seeds

A traditional farmer perhaps performs several tasks that are specialized today. From being able to read the weather, to conserving the seeds, to be able to judge on the health of the soil in this farm, to  taking care of the cattle, to identifying pests of several kinds and knowing how to address them, to knowing the various herbs that can be utilized in addressing the different pest management, to the various stages of growth of the plant and its needs at these times to harvesting, post-harvest processing and storing of the grains and eventually to be able to recommend the way in which food has to be consumed…the multiple domains of knowledge that a farmer has been practicing his knowledge is mind boggling.

The conservation, propagation, recovery, exchanging and sharing of seeds has been traditionally part of the farmer’s work. The farmer has traditionally also got the seed selection, its conservation and propagation into a local festival. In Tamilnadu for instance, the molappari festival is celebrated during the tamil month of aadi, when the agricultural season begins. During this festival, the farmers sow their seeds in smaller pots and allow them to germinate in isolation. After the seeds have germinated and grown for a period of week, the seeds are taken in procession and placed before the local deity as an offering. The best of the saplings are noted and the seeds of that particular farmer is shared with others as that particular year perhaps these seeds have a better yielding potential. With many variations such festivals are held in various parts of the country till date as well. These festivals invariably conclude with a prayer for good rains and a bountiful harvest. Farming practices have at every stage built in their own processes of prayer and spiritual practice as well and seeds conservation is no different. One of the key factors to note is that much of the seed conservation work has always been carried out by women farmers.

Seeds are conserved and shared by the farmers because it is the ultimate freedom of choice of what to grow in a given season and also what to consume. “The seed, for the farmer, is not the source of future plants and food; it is the storage place of culture and history. Seed is the first link in the food chain. Seed is the ultimate symbol of food security.

Free exchange of seed among farmers has been the basis of maintaining biodiversity as well as food security. The exchange is based on cooperation and reciprocity. A farmer ho wants to exchange seed generally gives an equal quantity of seed from his field in return for the seed he gets.

Free exchange among the farmers goes beyond mere exchange of seeds, it involves exchanges of ideas and knowledge, of culture and heritage. It is an accumulation of tradition, of knowledge of how to work the seed. Farmers learn about the plants they want to grow in the future by watching them grow in other farmers’ fields.[13]  


Several initiatives across the country

Beej Bachao Aandolan, a national network of organizations started to conserve seeds through on-field farmer conservation methods today conservers 800 varieties of rice, 23 varieties of traditional cotton, 80 varieties of traditional maize and more than 50 varieties of vegetables[14].

That the traditional role of seed saving is welcomed by farmers and eagerly adopted can be easily seen by the growth of the seed varieties that are saved as well as the no. of farmers adopting to traditional seeds even through small initiatives. The ‘Save our Rive’ campaign to save indigenous seed varieties that started with 16 varieties and 400 farmers in 2005 grew to more than 60 varieties being conserved in the farms of over 3000 farmers in less than 8 years[15]. Another farmer producer company today is selling certified indigenous seeds through their own venture[16].  Other similar efforts are reported individually and collectively from across the country in recent times. Rahibai Soma Popere of Kombhalne village in Ahmednagar district of Maharashtra is highly knowledgeable about agro-biodiversity, conservation of landraces, innovative techniques in paddy cultivation and the like, when she speaks in her Mahadeo Koli tribal dialect, even experts listen intently.  The 54-year-old farmer has the distinction of conserving and multiplying 48 indigenous landraces of 17 different crops including paddy, hyacinth bean, millets, pulses and oil seeds[17]. Several such initiatives have sprung up in the past few decades, Vanastree, in the Malanad region for instance states that their efforts to conserve is to ensure that, “the role of women farmers and gardeners is seen as integral to the social, cultural and ecological fabric of the unique Malnad region where our collective is located[18]”. People like Dr. Vandana Shiva are seen as not merely articulating the seed saver’s ideas in India, but, for the entire world. They have come to be seen as the voices of resistance for the ethos that conserves the tradition of seeds across the globe today. Her organization Navadanya for instance has helped set up 122 community seed banks across the country, trained over 9,00,000 farmers in seed sovereignty, food sovereignty and sustainable agriculture over the past two decades, and helped setup the largest direct marketing, fair trade organic network in the country. Navdanya has also set up a learning center, Bija Vidyapeeth (School of the Seed / Earth University) on its biodiversity conservation and organic farm in Doon Valley, Uttarakhand, North India[19]. There was never a business model in the multiplication of seeds. If the Seed Keeper shared just a seed with a farmer, that farmer could make any number of seeds from it, and grow the same vegetable season after season. In effect, every farmer was a Seed Keeper who preserved seeds for posterity.” says Prabhakara Rao in an article[20].

One of the important factors often not acknowledged adequately is the role of women in agriculture. Women were traditionally the seed savers in the farming community and the attempt to remove the power from the hands of the women. As Dr. Vandana Shiva points out, “Today, the “seed replacement” rate (the proportion of seeds purchased as opposed to seeds saved by farmers) is rising steadily with efforts …that encourage the commodification of seed. In the Green Revolution model of agriculture, women lose control over agricultural production. Shiva calls this displacement of women’s traditional knowledge a “masculinization of agriculture,” in which agriculture is transformed from a feminine and nurturing activity, to a masculine activity that uses technology and violence to control nature[21].

Seeds, Diversity, Farmer’s Freedom and Culture

The arrival of the monsoon is the beginning of the agriculture season in India. The farmer prepares the soil for the arrival of the first rains and then starts sowing, a sacred act for him and an act of deep cultural significance. When he plants a seed free of tax or huge payments, he gets to assert not just his right over seeds, their diversity and food system overall, but, also a deep cultural heritage that has been passed on to him from time immemorial.

Do participate in any seeds and bio-diversity festival in your area this monsoon season and lend your support to the farmers in asserting this cultural heritage.

[1] Thiruvaimozhi, 9th stanza

[2] Author’s personal conversation with late Sri. Dharampal

[3] Dharampal, Pune Lectures, Collected Works of Dharampal, Other India Books

[4] Thirukkural, “paguthundu palluyir ombudhal melor vaguthavatrul ellaam thalai”

[5] Quoted and explored further in the brilliant articulation on the Indian culture of growing and sharing of food in plenty in Annam Bahu Kurvita, by Dr. M.D.Srinivas and Jitendra Bajaj, Centre for Policy Studies

[6] Tittreya Upanisad

[7] Thirukkural, “…vittem enbarkkum nilay”

[8] Lectures of Sri. Dharampal, Agriculture and its recovery in India

[9] Translation based on Prof. K.R.Srikantha Murthy’s translation of Bhavakrakasha, Dhanyavarga, verse 13 as quoted in Bhpjanakuthuhalam by Raghunatha Suri, a 17th century compilation of all kinds of information on food

[10] Dr. Richaria, quoted by CIKS, Dr. Vandana Shiva,etc.,

[11] The study by the author on the post-tsunami traditional seeds usage has been published by organic farmer’s movement in Tamilnadu. Similar studies have been done by the M.S.Swaminathan Research Foundation as well

[12] Violence of Green Revolution, Vandana Shiva et al

[13] Vandana Shiva, “Stolen Harvest”

[15] Numbers given are only for Tamilnadu according to their website -

[16] Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems (CIKS) efforts in the Nagapattinam District of Tamilnadu as reported in  the article here -

[17] Source: Maharashtra Tribal farmer’s reviving traditional crops – from

[18] Introduction provided in the website of Vanastree -

[19] Navadanya website -

[20] Source: First person account article in the Better Indian -