India – Karnataka – A Growing Network of Seed Banks and Organic Farms

In the wake of the Green Revolution, farmers have suffered the effects of outside intervention that has uprooted local customs and erased local varieties of seeds that supported their environments, economies and traditional cultures. Together with a growing network of seed banks and organic farming projects around the country, GREEN Foundation is helping India’s farmers in Karnataka state to reverse the trend toward extinction of local crop varieties.

India is a country rich in biodiversity. The seed is highly symbolic, and GREEN Foundation has started a farmers’ movement around this symbol as a sacred nexus from which other rural issues radiate–gender, health, food security, environment, economics and diversity, both cultural and biological. Bangalore-based GREEN (Genetic Resource Energy Ecology Nutrition) Foundation (GF) was a small group whose original purpose was to create a forum for conserving biodiversity as a way to fight poverty. Its interest in this issue began after learning that a number of indigenous seeds were rapidly becoming extinct. This was partly due to great changes in agriculture and rural life following the Green Revolution, which began introducing hybrid seeds grown in monocultures, which required increasingly larger inputs of fertilizers and pesticides. Meanwhile, the simultaneous commercialization of agriculture forced farmers to depend more and more on external market forces.

GF began working in 1996 with a few seeds and five women farmers in two villages in the drylands of the Deccan Plateau of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu states. Foundation members began asking farmers–mostly small and marginal–to conserve landraces (native varieties) on a small portion of their land and to observe and evaluate their progress. From here, the idea of community seed banks was conceived. The first of these was in the village of Yerindyapanahalli. Over the years, however, the work has grown and includes collection, multiplication, evaluation, and farmer participation in selection, rating and distribution of seed. Through this process, traditional methods and culture have been revived and women’s economic status has improved. Today GF works with some 2,000 farmers in 160 villages and 50 community seed banks where 382 indigenous seed varieties are stored. It also has a conservation center in Thally village where a gene bank is maintained.

When GF begins to work with a community, there are several conditions that must exist:

  • dry land subsistence farming is practiced, and indigenous species are being eroded
  • farmers still have knowledge and skills in seed selection and conservation
  • the village is accessible, socially and logistically
  • there is access to a market

Initially it was difficult to gain the trust of farmers, and to convince them that switching from hybrid seeds to native ones would not cause them to suffer losses over reduced yields, so GF convinced farmers to grow the seeds in small plots at first. Gradually farmers became convinced that although yields may have been reduced, especially at first, the amount of required inputs (chemical fertilizers and pesticides) also went down.

One of the participatory survey projects involved the creation of an agricultural calendar, which showed seasonal food availability, rituals, and division of labor by gender. It revealed that during the main rains, pulses and cereal reserves were down, and the community depended on wild plants to supplement their diets: fruits, vegetables, tubers, and shoots. This revealed two things: that wild plants as well as cultivated ones were key in preserving farmers’ diversity, and that women especially are the ones with knowledge of wild edible plants.

Seed Banks

Traditionally in the area, seed preservation is the women’s role, and their knowledge of seeds was extensive. At one time, India had 200,000 varieties of paddy (rice gown fields submerged in water), ranging from wetland to dryland to deep water and scented, 30,000 of which were grown in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. Millets were once a popular crop because thery are drought-resistant, highly nutritious, and capable of cultivation in poor soil, but today it is stigmatized as a “poor man’s crop.”

The real work was done in several stages. First, informal discussions with farmers and the community (preferably through existing councils or self-help groups) were held to find out and revive the disappearing local varieties. If or when the village showed an interest in preserving them, a formal discussion was held to do “seed mapping,” that is, determining species that thrived in the region pre-Green Revolution. These species were then collected and seed banks were created to store them for multiplication. Managed by local SHGs (self-help groups), the seed banks collect, distribute and multiply local varieties of seeds in an organized manner. This is to ensure farmers’ access to seeds, which reduces their dependence on markets for their supply. Today, the 50 community seed banks are operated by an average of 15-20 people each, mostly women, currently saving 43 varieties of finger millets, 84 paddy, 24 sorghum, 44 minor millets, 53 pulses, 14 oilseeds, 4 wheat, and 116 types of vegetables.

Out of this, a Seed Management Committee (SMC), which is a federation of community seed banks, was created, which meets regularly to share information and discuss various issues. When Green Foundation withdraws from the area, this SMC will take over the management of the seed banks.

Seed Melas and Yatras

“Seed Melas” (festivals) are also held at certain times of the year according to the agricultural seasons, which is a chance for farmers to share information, seeds, and spread the messages, and GF believes that the increase in seed-conserving farmers is a result.

Women’s Community Farming, Kitchen Gardens, Plant Nurseries

Women with land who are unable to farm it due to poverty, or landless women, are supported with community farming. An acre of land is given for integrated farming, with traditional and improved methods of organic farming, included with animal husbandry, and the harvest is shared among the participants, while a percentage is given to GF for further distribution. Livestock is encouraged as it is a valuable source of fertilizer, as one result of the increased mechanization of farming is the need for chemical fertilizers. Some kitchen gardens, or “cottage gardens” that were once traditionally used for growing vegetables, fruit, flowers, and medicines have been lost as farmers began more commercial production and as food habits have changed. Reviving these gardens has also been encouraged to increase food security. Farmers are also encouraged to grow indigeneous forest species in fields to provide shade, mulch, fodder and fuel.

Experimentation and Monitoring

The breeding program known as Participatory Varietal Selection (PVS) involves farmers in research on nutrition, seed treatment, storage, demonstration and IPM (integrated pest management). GF has also created a systematic method to “map” the seeds and track the results of crops, where cards are maintained for each seed variety, from germination to harvest. They are evaluated for drought/pest/disease resistance, growth and yield parameters. In this way seeds can be selected for various desirable characteristics, multiplied and added to the seed banks.

Promoting, Reviving and Documenting Ceremonies and Rituals

Farmers have co-adapted certain rituals around various stages of the agricultural seasons. GF is encouraging innovation on some festivals to bring them more relevance to the present situation. One important tradition GF has documented is the Raashi Pooje which is held after a harvest, where an offering is given to a diety in appreciation to the elements for the grain harvest. Originally performed by individuals, some villages now celebrate it collectively. Another ritual is the Thippe Pooje, where an offering is made to the manure heap. The community collects organic waste, crop residue, green leaves, and cow dung to make a heap (thippe). This thippe, recognized as an essential part of agriculture, is worshipped. Maddina Madike, another worship ritual, is made to the herbal medicines stored in pots used in the villages for treatment of common ailments. In the Honneru Pooje, offerings are made to agricultural equipment.

Some rituals have practical function besides enriching daily life, marking cycles of nature and strengthening community bonds. Some also help in the selective breeding of seeds. In the “Negilu Pooje,” which is one of the oldest agricultural rituals, on the New Year’s Day of the Hindu calendar, a traditional, sacred combination of nine seed varieties (Navdanya) representing the cereals, paddy, millets, pulses and oil seeds are put in a shell with good quality manure. They are worshiped and left for seven days to germinate. The varieties of seeds which don’t germinate or are too small will be considered unsuitable for the next season and the farmer will instead exchange or borrow seeds to replace the unused varieties.

Training for Self-Help Groups on Organic Farming and Composting

Through its work in the villages, GF has consistently promoted organic farming, and has held workshops periodically on vermicomposting, green manure and biopesticide preparation to self-help groups and seed banks.

Income Generation

GF has worked mainly with women to set up income generation projects such as vermicomposting, biopesticide preparation, and the marketing of organic products. Currently, the major constraint on market access is transportation costs.


GF is part of larger regional, national and even international organizations to bring in policy changes on rural development and to curtail the powerful interests of multinational seed and chemical corporations, as well as issues of intellectual property rights in the saving of seeds. GF also organizes seminars, workshops and conferences, and this has had some influence on the organic farming policy of Karnataka state.

While suicide rates among farmers in North Karnataka state have been high, the farmers GF works with have not witnessed many suicides, as these farmers are still small-scale and largely subsistence. The suicides are more common among those with larger landholdings using more industrial methods of growing sugar cane or other strictly cash crops.

In 2004 GF won the UNDP “Equator Prize” (given yearly for successful sustainable development work). GF is currently dependent on external sources of income, for example overseas agencies from the Netherlands, Canada, Norway, and India. Recent successes have given the organization some visibility, but their limited resources have prevented them from meeting the corresponding increase in demand for the critically important work of outreach and communication with the media and public. In fact this was the case with us, as I was only able to spend about an hour with them. This may limit the speed and scope of their influence. However, their written material is extensive, with bi-annual reports published, a CD ROM introducing their activities, and quarterly newsletters both in English and Kannada (the language of Karnataka state).

ETP, Replication and Spinoffs

The ETP for this case is the creation of the seed banks from which other initiatives and changes have occurred. While farmers were initially resistant, fearing yields would drop, attitudes have changed (or are changing). According to staff member Nadugouda of GREEN Foundation, there have been several major changes in the villages where GF is working:

  1. Reduction in inputs for seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, and soil and water conservation measures. Farmers have (re)learned about alternatives to chemical fertilizers using different kinds of composting, especially vermicomposting. In addition to saving money by not buying chemical fertilizers, they are also saving money on transportation costs in obtaining them. Currently there is a surplus of fertilizer which is sold, so this has become an income generation project. The vermicomposting has been particularly successful with landless farmers as the number of worms doubles every three months, so they can sell compost, worms, and/or the “vermi-wash,” a liquid generated at the bottom of the container by vermicomposting, which is rich in nutrients. This is useful as a growth promoter.
  2. Reduction in dependence on seed companies as well as a growing interest in the seeds and the produce.
  3. Yields are at least as good as before even if there may have been initial drops after the transition from hybrid to native seeds.
  4. When hybrid seeds were introduced (negative tip), the role of women, who were traditionally the seed savers, became marginalized. By (re)introduction of seed saving, the level of confidence is up and there is a fresh recognition of women’s importance to agriculture.
  5. Cultural: the recognition that agricultural rituals and ceremonies were tied to the biodiversity and reviving or innovating on them would also strengthen eroding spiritual and cultural values.

Sample Cases

Chakkodabailu, Karnataka, Vermicomposting

A small village, Chakkodabailu, in Shimoga district of Karnataka state had begun to experience the costs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and was interested in alternatives. GREEN Foundation began to work with villagers to create a vermicomposting project.

Initially the work in the village began as a seed bank, and through creation of this seed bank, several other activities began, such as conservation of local paddy and vegetable varieties, sustainable agriculture practices, and vermicomposting. Currently, more than half of the villagers are involved in the preparation of vermicompost, which requires a certain level of maintenance. Once begun, demand for vermicompost grew quickly, especially from farmers who grow paddy, areca nut and vanilla. To simultaneously meet this demand and generate income for the landless families, a women’s SHG was started in 2003, which dealt not only with savings and credit but also vermicomposting. Land was donated by one of the members who had land, and four pits were constructed. Half the costs to set up the project were contributed by the SHG and the rest was donated by GREEN Foundation and one of its supporting organizations.

Members collectively share the tasks and responsibilities of maintaining the pits. Two days a week, all members collect biomass from the village and nearby forest to put into pits. Other responsibilities include adding water, and guarding the pits to prevent invasion by mice and ants. The group has so far produced 2 tons of compost, one of which was sold to local farmers. The success of the initiative has inspired members to begin production and saving of local vegetable seeds.

Dinnur Village, Tamil Nadu, Seed Bank

Dinnur in Tamil Nadu is mostly made up of dalit (untouchable) classes who were hit hard by the effects of the Green Revolution and ready to adopt less costly agricultural practices. In the late 1990s, GREEN Foundation intervened to try to work with villagers to bring back local varieties and farming practices. A seed bank was created, out of which other programs were developed, such as kitchen gardens, vermicomposting, preparation of biopesticides, soil and water conservation measures, SHGs and income generation. The project has had a big impact in improving the socio-economic conditions in the village, especially in the position of women who are much more active in the decision making processes. Women are more self-confident, can communicate more easily with visiting government officials or outsiders, and report that men have become more supportive and that there is less conflict between men and women. As well, women who had previously left villages to look for work as day-laborers are now staying in the villages, as there is more work available there. Some have become involved in training farmers in preparation of biopesticides.

The seed bank now has a plan of action for community farming on 2.5 acres of land for seed production, organic farming and research as well.

Questions for further research include the chronology of changes to the communities, and the kinds of incentives (feedback loops) to villagers that would make them want to continue to expand the seed bank network and revert to traditional methods (as opposed to the forces and incentives that are currently pushing farmers towards a more mechanized, commercialized, type of agriculture).

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