Debal Deb addressing the Kisan Swaraj Manch Hyderabad, April 2016. Image: Vipul Kulkarni/YouTube, fair use
- Debal Deb began conserving indigenous varieties of rice in the 1990s after realising that they were losing cultivation ground to other varieties preferred by the Green Revolution.
- In an extended interview with The Wire Science, he explained what makes a crop resilient, why farmers should be considered scientists, and the perils of technological solutionism.
- Deb also spoke at length about the problems with the Green Revolution and its troubled inheritance for an India facing a potentially disastrous climate crisis.
- He was also particularly critical of what he believes are the deceptively weak foundations of India’s food security and sovereignty and the rejection of diversity on several fronts.
The following interview was conducted by Rebecca George for The Wire Science. The video transcript, available below the video, was prepared by Prashanthi Subbiah, intern, The Wire, with minor changes to improve readability. The editor’s notes are within square brackets.
00:00-1:34, Rebecca George: Hello and welcome to a special interview with The Wire Science. My name is Rebecca George and today we have the honour of speaking with Debal Deb. Known as India’s ‘rice warrior’, Deb is both an agrarian scientist with his research published in over 40 journals, as well as a farmer based in Odisha. Deb began conserving indigenous varieties of rice in the 1990s after realising that these varieties were losing their cultivation ground to other varieties during the Green Revolution.
Today, on a modest 1.7-acre farm in Odisha, Deb conserves nearly 1,500 varieties of indigenous rice. His conservation efforts are not to preserve a record of the past, but to help future agriculture to adapt to future instabilities. Deb has documented scores of varieties of indigenous rice with properties like flood-, drought- and pest-tolerance, and he has shared these varieties freely with thousands of smallholding farmers. He has also documented indigenous varieties of rice that are supposedly more nutritious and climate-resilient than other patented varieties. Over the course of our discussion today, we ask Deb: What is it that makes these varieties evolve to be so resilient? With that, I would like to give a warm welcome to Debal Deb.
1:35-3:08, RG: Thank you so much for joining us, Deb. Let me start by asking you, what does it mean for a crop variety to be resilient?
Debal Deb: The term resilience is born from the engineering discipline to describe a system which gets deranged after a perturbation, but then it has the capacity to return to its original equilibrium position. Once there is some kind of natural perturbation, like a drought or flood or any kind of climactic or even environmental disaster, like a pest attack or a disease attack, it will definitely get deranged. You know, the physiology of the plant will react to it. Maybe the productivity potential will be lowered and so on. But soon after a very short while, it can bounce back to its original capacity.
Some crop varieties, which have evolved over centuries and centuries, because they had already experienced a series of these kinds of environmental disasters in its evolutionary history. And as a result, it has incorporated many kinds of genetic prowess to adapt to these types of climate changes, despite all these kinds of perturbations. That’s the meaning of resilience. And this resilience is a property of most of the native varieties of crops, which we call landraces, which have evolved in the hands of ancient farmers over millennia.
3:09-6:00, RG: By way of introducing yourself, can you tell us how you have conserved nearly 1,500 indigineous rice varieties, and why that matters?
DD: Well, I was not trained as an agriculturist. I’m an ecologist, especially with mathematical models of ecological stability and extinction of species and so on. When I was dealing with these problems, we learned that a species whose genetic diversity has reduced very much, if you truncate this genetic diversity, the probability of extinction of the species is enhanced. So that means that if 50% of the genetic diversity of the species is lost, the extinction probability is more than two-times enhanced.
So then we noticed that rice, Indian rice for example – we used to have 110,000 varieties of rice, which means that was the enormous range of the genetic diversity of rice. Indian rice, or Oryza sativa, as a species. Now, when we started looking at it, in the early 1990s, we found that almost 90% of genetic diversity is lost from the farmers’ fields, which means that 90% of the genetic diversity is lost, and that entails that the probability of extinction of the species is more than nine-times.
Any kind of a disaster – one single pest outbreak, some kind of disease outbreak, or some kind of, you know, natural calamity – and the species is bound to go extinct, unless we actually restore its genetic diversity. So that was my understanding as an ecologist, that what made you make the commitment to conserving it.
Then, I thought: no, as a concerned citizen, let’s start it, let’s start doing it. I started working with it, without this kind of technical knowledge, this kind of technical training in agriculture, which eventually I learnt very thoroughly, in the hope that eventually more competent people, more expert agriculturalists would come over and take over the task. But so far, I am still alone and I’m doing this and I started with just around 200 varieties of rice. Initially in West Bengal, so whatever varieties I have are the last extant, genetic variety of the rice from West Bengal. Then we added varieties from all other states. So I’m now conserving varieties from 12 states of India, and this total is 1,480.
6:01-8:44, DD: It’s not my hobby, but a kind of commitment I must have as a concerned citizen and a knowledgeable person to commit to conserving this for the future of agriculture and the future of the farmers. It’s my duty. It’s my life’s call.
RG: What is it that gives these varieties those properties of being that resilient or evolving to be resilient or nutritious in a unique way?
DD: In fact, this was not given by nature, these properties. The genetic diversity means that some genes, say a certain set of genes which makes a variety salt-tolerant, which can withstand salinity and heat, or seawater incursion on the coastal areas – that is a property which is not found in all of the varieties. So some varieties, maybe through a mutation or some kind of natural diversity was discovered accidentally, by experimentation by an ancient farmer, and the farmer goes, “Oh this is a variety that can still grow in this kind of land. So let me cultivate that one.” That’s the process of selection.
From the panicle of these varieties, some grains which showed such kind of resistance, the farmer selected those varieties and bred them over generations. This is called selective breeding. And this selective breeding, a conscious exercise of breeding by these ancient farmers, whom I call “unnamed, unknown scientists”, those farmer scientists who did not know anything about DNA, or protein or enzymes, yet they achieved by domesticating them. They nurtured this diversity, perpetuated it, and fixed that line so that whole line remains pure. That particular colour, that particular variety, that particular aroma, taste, salt tolerance, for example, and all of these are stable, they don’t change over centuries. This is the feat our unknown farmer scientists had achieved and because they did not write down anything, they did not take any patent – no intellectual property rights were claimed by these farmers. We are taught to assume that this was unscientific or prescientific.
These were the amazing varieties which the farmers did not know the genetic basis or the DNA fingerprints of, but they did it. Our task is to conserve them, and honour these discoveries.
8:45-12:17, RG: Now that leads me to another question, because today every child in India is taught about the Green Revolution and how the Green Revolution helped India avoid famines in the 1970s, leveraging science and high-reaching technology. What version of the Green Revolution do you think is missing from our textbook narrative today?
DD: Now, US President Lyndon Johnson, in 1966, made this narrative of a famine [in India]. And this was to the astonishment of the Indian agriculture minister. He never believed there was a famine at all. It was new information from the US president, who said India is having a famine. The Indian agriculture minister himself didn’t know. That was a very interesting [piece of] news. And the US news headlines announced this famine in Bihar, particularly, because Bihar was suffering from a drought in that year. And drought is very common in India you know, every year, or every other, you have drought in some pocket or the other. But that year in 1966, everyone said that Bihar is in drought and that India is going to be in famine.
Now, very strangely, in the same year after this news, 12 British journalists actually visited Bihar, and they failed to find any death, and starvation deaths. They reported that “we don’t find any sign of famine”. But the US propaganda established that this was a famine and blamed the Indian government for not taking any action, so Indira Gandhi had to take famine caution and so on. Of course, there was some mortality, as it happens with any kind of drought, there is some excess of mortality, but this wasn’t the kind of famine as a result of overpopulation leading to a shortage of food. That was a Malthusian paradigm – that the population size was so big, that India cannot feed this population. That was the main propaganda that continues and still continues. And every time we are told, “There is an increase in population, you have to feed them.”
This drought had provided what Norman Borlaug himself said: “This is the opportune moment to promote this green revolution”. And in 1967, there was a very nice rainfall in Northern India, especially in the Punjab, Haryana area, and on top of the ample irrigation, because that was part of this kind of technology. The 1967-1968 season brought a bumper wheat crop. So they said that with this bumper wheat crop, which is from the Mexican green revolution, “see this is the result”. Now nobody noticed that in the same year, all the other crops, like you know sesame, cotton, rice, jute – all of these had also achieved a record harvest. Nobody noticed that. Because Borlaug emphasised these wheat seeds from Mexico, everyone was convinced that these were the results of the Green Revolution. But nobody noticed that jute had no seeds from the Green Revolution. Jute or cotton or rice, they didn’t have any Green Revolution seeds, but they also had a bumper crop as a result of a very good monsoon and very high irrigation.
12:18-16:18, DD: So anyway the myth was whipped up, and wheat crop took all the credit, and the states where no Green Revolution ever took place, like the southern states Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, also had bumper crops in that year. But nobody noticed them. So this was simply propaganda for promoting the agricultural industry and agricultural development that stuck. And USAID put pressure to promote the PL-480 [green revolution wheat] grain, and as a consequence India had to accept the Green Revolution.
And the scientists who opposed this – like the head of the Botanical Survey of India, opposed this and the Central Rice Research Institute director Dr [R.H.] Richharia also opposed this saying that India doesn’t need this Green Revolution, that India already has so many of the varieties which are already showing this enormous potential of growth – were sacked. Richharia was sacked. He had to establish his own private gene bank in Chhattisgarh, but he was dislodged from Central Research Institute in Cuttack.
Now Borlaug’s flagship varieties outyielded indigenous wheat only when at least 80 kg per hectare of fertilisers were added. Wherever these fertilisers were not added, they actually performed much less than the indigenous wheat varieties. That was also recorded by the ICAR, but that information was suppressed, until only a few years ago. Now people could read those documents that this was the truth. And [Marci] Baranski, in her thesis, she also mentions the detail of these findings: the growth rates in both yields and area planted actually show a decline.
Thus the overall rice production, which had been growing at 3.5% annually in the 1950s, just before the Green Revolution, the growth rate of rice came down to 1.9%, after the Green revolution, which is a 46% drop. So after the Green Revolution, the growth rate of rice came down by 46%. From 3.5% growth rate to 1.9% growth rate. Total food grain production, which had been growing at 2.8% annually, slowed to a 1.10% growth rate, which is during the Green Revolution era (1968-1976) – a 32% slump. So despite all of this decline, [recorded] by the government officers themselves, despite the knowledge of the ICAR scientists, this was pushed because otherwise they would be kicked out, like Richharia, or they would not receive promotions or else they would not receive huge amounts for project funding and of course there are many other kinds of paraphernalia. That was the hype.
As a result, we have actually sold our agricultural sovereignty to a handful of multinationals. And that’s a result of it. But there was no such thing prior to the Green Revolution. No farmer committed suicide because of the loss of crop, maybe one or two but not on a large scale. The government’s own records show that every year some 80,000 farmers are committing suicide. This is unprecedented in India’s agrarian history. So that hints enough about food security because of the Green Revolution, and prior to the Green Revolution.
16:19-19:19, RG: Especially when we are in a country where more than 60% of it is agrarian…
DD: Exactly. In fact, this also has the food insecurity intricately connected to the Green Revolution technology itself. The Green Revolution emphasised monoculture: rice after rice after rice, and that’s all. Nothing else. Or wheat after wheat after wheat in Punjab, for example. The problem is that before the Green Revolution, people used to grow every other crop on the same farm. So people used to grow, say, sesame before rice, and after rice there would be mustard, for oil, and different kinds of vegetables, and pulses, lentils and all this.
Today, farmers have abandoned all of these. I’m not talking of millets or cereals, but even oil seeds. India was an exporter of oil seeds to Southeast Asia and Asia, other countries. India is now importing soybean oil and palm oil, which were never consumed in India. This is the irony. India was the lump exporter of oil seeds and pulses to other countries; now, India is importing oilseeds from other countries, even the non-traditional oil like palm oil or soybean oil, which even the Chinese don’t eat, and we are taking that one. And we are importing lentils from Canada. Can you imagine?
That is our food security. We say we are self-sufficient but every seed is coming from either the Philippines or the fertilisers and pesticides are coming from Europe and America. So the farmers at the micro scale also have to buy all those things today from the market. Originally, earlier, the farmers used to grow all of their own food on their own farm. They used to buy only clothes and those things, but food, they were all self-sufficient. But now, whether a small farmer or a big farmer, they are growing rice and they have to sell this rice in order to buy those other foods, whether it is oil, potato, tomato, fruits or whatever – they have to buy from the market, because they aren’t growing them themselves.
This monoculture in agriculture extended to monoculture in forestry – like growing eucalyptus only and nothing else – and it has become embedded in our public mind also. It’s the monoculture of the mind, which Vandana Shiva was saying [in her 1993 book]. That we simply fail to think of diversity of answers, diversity of crop, diversity of lifestyle, diversity of food, diversity of food tastes, and so now we have this motto of one country, one religion, one food style, one language, and so on and so forth, and that is in line with this monoculture of the mind.
19:20-23:02, RG: So do you see any scenario where agroecology can come back and actually lead to a situation where we could feed ourselves as a country or even the world? Agroecology and organic methods today are very often looked at as healthier food, but not productive enough, and that that will lead to starvation eventually for countries. What’s your opinion on this, based on your research and specialty?
DD: Yeah, this is another myth. It’s another industrial myth that is propagated. In fact, FAO [UN Food and Agriculture Organisation] itself has published a document on the strength of agroecological practices. And also the IAASTD, the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development, comprising 600 scientists from all over the globe, publish their reports annually. In a previous publication by the IAASTD, they showed that the highest productivity in the world, in agriculture, is from the multiple-cropping farms, and especially the small farms [p. 22].
FAO already had observed the era of the small farms, because they declared that the small farms are the most productive and that’s the answer to food security of the world. So, it’s been amply documented not only by many scientists but also by international organisations including FAO . They have ample documentation, they have at least three publications from FAO, two publications from IAASTD, which documents country-after-country. Over 200 countries they have documented more than 2,000 farmers’ complete history and statistics showing that agroecology is the most productive method.
In my own collection, I’m not talking of any other crops, but I’m focusing on rice, the hundreds of varieties of rice that we grow every year, we have 15 varieties of rice which out-yield the third edition of IR rice. It began with IR8 rice seed, miracle rice, with bumper production. Then IR18, IR36, IR72, and so on and so forth. We have actually compared this, side-by-side on my own farm, and we have shown that there are 15 varieties of indigenous rice in India which can out-yield any of these other varieties despite zero agro-chemical inputs. We don’t give any kind of urea or super-phosphate. Despite all of this, their yield is much higher than the so-called higher-yielding varieties. [See Debal Deb’s Google Scholar page.]
The other premise is that if you don’t have enough irrigation in the land, those so-called high yielding varieties become low-yielding, they can’t perform, they will even die in drought. They always need an enormous amount of input water. Without water, no high-yielding crop can exist. But the so-called low-yielding varieties of India, even in the face of drought, can withstand drought and even give a minimum amount of crop. It will never be zero – unlike the high-yielding guys.
23:03-25:36, DD: Fortunately I have this lab, and this is the first lab which is committed to [conducting] nutraceutical analysis of all of these varieties of rice, which were never done before. So we have started this and have already published many papers, and our analysis of [content] of different varieties of rice or vitamin content of rice, and so on. And we show that there are many varieties of indigenous rice, in total 550 varieties. Of these, there are at least 200 varieties which are rich in antioxidants and vitamin B complex, which is never ever found in the modern varieties of rice. We have documented six varieties of rice.
We published this year that these varieties of cooked rice contain special kinds of fatty acids that are found in mother’s milk, in human breast milk. [The study was published in September 2021 in the journal Current Science.] It’s the equivalent to mother’s milk. So instead of feeding formula food to babies, if you feed this rice, the baby will get those kinds of fatty acids that are found only in mother’s milk, in addition to especially omega-3 fatty acids, which are not found in any of the formula foods.
These are the amazing properties which we have lost. And similarly we have found 68 varieties of rice which have super high content of iron. So the genetically modified iron-fortified rice, which has recently been promoted by the International Rice Research Institute and Monsanto: they claim that this is the highest content of iron in a type of rice, and you can see because it is genetically engineered it would require huge amounts of investment, capital investment. And they claim that this contains 8.9 mg of iron per kg of rice. In the 68 varieties we have documented and published about in international peer-reviewed journals, they contain up to 350 mg – 350 mg of iron.
25:37-26:47, RG: With the challenges today of the monopolisation of food systems, do you see that solutions like Basudha Farms can be replicable? And where government support is lacking, can people do this by themselves?[‘Basudha’ is the name of Debal Deb’s farm.]
DD: Yes. Basudha – we have already established in Bengal, we have established three seed banks. We assisted them with the seeds and they are expanding, they are still performing. And similar seed banks have already been replicated in Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Karnataka and Kerala. So far there have been hundreds of seed banks in these remote corners. In Odisha itself, we have established 15 seed banks.
In Thailand they have seed banks. MASIPAG in the Philippines have enormous seed banks, and they have a chain of seed banks, farmers’ seed banks, with zero aid or assistance from the government or institutions. Similarly, the USA also has many seed banks. Mexico, Guatemala, Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay – every country has hundreds of seed banks by the farmers, maintained by the farmers.
26:48-end, DD: That is common-sensical. If you have a flood-prone area, you should plant flood-tolerant rice. That’s very simple. You have this annual seawater incursion on the coastal lands, so it’s very common-sensical that you grow those varieties that are adapted to that particular climate. And soil condition: instead of developing a new variety, sitting in Delhi or New York and incorporating this change from that Sundarban rice and then selling it. There’s no benefit to the farmer, because they have to pay through their nose for the seeds. The benefit all goes to increasing GDP by increasing the industry, industrial profit, and of course lining the pockets of the bureaucracy. So I’m not going for that at all.
When we have those varieties already established, when we have already identified the genes in them. Without the presence of the genes they couldn’t have performed so well. Why not promote those varieties? Why not upscale the production of those varieties? That should be the policy. Instead of developing another new variety and searching for a gene in remote corners, then incorporating this by investing hundreds of dollars. That’s a total waste of public money, and I’d say a waste of intelligence. Or a kind of misuse and disuse of intelligence. It’s actually disuse of science.
Science is not for that, it’s technology. Science is a very useful use of knowledge. But technology is not necessarily so. Technology actually promotes industry. Without industry, there is no technology. Yes, when Galileo or Darwin worked, that was science, there was no industry behind them. Galileo or Darwin or Newton. Industry appeared only when technology came up. And then technology flourished. So we are talking of the science of agriculture. When agriculture becomes technology, it becomes a business, and then we have seed industry, fertiliser industry, genetic engineering industry and so on and so forth.
Agriculture of science persists for tens of thousands of years and it goes on. And that still continues to benefit the farmers and the farmers do get the benefit if they rationally use agroecology, which is a very complex science. Now we are talking of, you know, scaling up because we focus on this IR36 to be promoted by a central agency aided by an industrial thing, and then farmers will purchase them.
This is the industrial model against which we are working, and it is safe to say that, as an individual, I only reached about a few thousand farmers, over the past few years. But those thousands of farmers, a total of 3,000 farmers who took from me, have also exchanged the seeds with 17,000 other farmers. So the scale of exchange expands. This is an expanding circle of exchange. Farmer to farmer. And that’s how, over the 10,000 years of the agricultural revolution, we have done exactly that.
RG: Thank you so much for your time today, Deb. I truly hope that the viewers listening feel encouraged and know that they’re in the right footsteps by going for a system that is not just good for their health but also for the health of the planet. And thanks for your time.
DD: A great pleasure, thank you very much.
Note: This article was updated at October 4, 2022, at 8 am with several grammatical fixes.
Rebecca George is an independent writer from Kerala, India, now living in Brooklyn, New York.