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Subsidize traditional varieties, not hybrid seeds
By Devinder Sharma

By providing heavy subsidies for hybrid vegetable seeds, the government is promoting chemical and pesticide intensive agriculture. Instead, subsidy should be extended to healthier traditional crop varieties.


If you are wondering why your vegetables are tasteless and are devoid of nutrients, the answer is simple. The traditional varieties of vegetables, which were not only a reflection of the genetic diversity, but were also nutritionally rich and pleasing to the taste buds, have been increasingly replaced with hybrid varieties. These hybrid varieties are uniform in shape, require more chemical fertilisers and pesticides and drain out more ground water. But since they yield high, farmers are willing to pay a higher price. And if not, the government steps in by providing subsidy for the purchase of hybrid seeds.

No wonder, the traditional vegetable varieties have almost disappeared. If you go to the market and enquire about vegetable seeds, the chances are that you will get only hybrid seeds.       The traditional varieties of vegetables, which were not only a reflection of the genetic diversity, but were also nutritionally rich and pleasing to the taste buds, have been increasingly replaced with hybrid varieties.

All these hybrid varieties require heavy doses of chemical pesticides. The bhindi (Okra) you get in New Delhi, for instance, is cultivated in the outskirts of the National Capital Region. If you happen to visit a bhindi patch, you will be shocked to find that as many as 15 to 20 chemical sprays are quite normal. The other day I found that even while the sky was overcast and rain was expected, workers were busy spraying pesticides on the standing bhindi crop. I tried to convince them that rain would wash away the pesticide, but they were not willing to change the practice followed widely in spite of my advice.

Sometimes back I was travelling in Uttarakhand, which prides itself as an organic state. Even there I saw farm labour, mostly migrants from Nepal, spraying pesticides approximately 24 to 28 times on tomatoes, which are the sold in New Delhi. This is not an exception. Much of the vegetables we buy in New Delhi for example are heavily sprayed with pesticides, in fact, drenched in chemical pesticides. Now don't think that this malaise only afflicts the Delhi NCR region. All metros, big cities and towns are faced with a similar problem.

Last week I travelled to Meerut to address a conference on organic farming. It was heartening to listen to several organic farmers and NGOs associated with them. I was informed that the UP State Horticulture Department was providing 50 per cent subsidy on the cultivation of expensive hybrid seeds of vegetables. This subsidy is being provided under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojna launched by the Central government last year.

Subsidy is available for raising nurseries of only hybrid seeds of Shimla Mirch, Tomato, Capsicum, Onion, Lauki, Karela (bitter gourd), Cucumber and Tori. Subsidy is coming for a complete package of growing the hybrid seeds in a nursery, before it is transplanted. The subsidy amount will not exceed 50 per cent of the total expenses. To illustrate, let us take hybrid tomato. Under the scheme, a farmer will be subsidised to a maximum limit of 50 per cent of the total expenditure, and not exceeding Rs 47,500 per hectare. The government brochure lists the names of the hybrid tomato varieties -- Samridhi, ArkaAnayaya, Pusa hybrid-2, Pusa Rubi Avinash-2 -- that a farmer can pick from. About 150-200 grams of hybrid seed is required per hectare. The total seed cost for 0.2 hectares is worked out at Rs 1680, and the entire cost is being subsidised by the government.

The rest of the subsidy is for the other nursery activities for raising these plants.

Similarly for hybrid Capsicum, the total seed cost for 0.2 hectares plot is Rs 2100, for Lauki, Rs 1320 and in case of Shimla Mirch, the subsidy is Rs 4800 for a plot of 0.2 hecatres.       Remove the subsidy on hybrid seeds, and I am sure many farmers would continue to grow the traditional or the open-pollinated varieties.

When the entire seed cost of hybrid seeds is subsidised by the government, farmers surely have an attraction to go for the cultivation of hybrid seeds of vegetables even if they know that these are more damaging for the environment and human health. And then we are told that since the farmers are adopting these varieties in such a large number, these must be good. After all, farmer is the best judge. But what we are not told is that the cultivation of these hybrid seeds is picking up not because of farmers preference but because of the subsidy being doled out.

Remove the subsidy on hybrid seeds, and I am sure many farmers would continue to grow the traditional or the open-pollinated varieties. At the same time, there is an urgent need to provide subsidy for the cultivation of traditional seeds of vegetables. NGOs and farmer organisations should demand an equivalent subsidy for open-pollinated varieties, keeping the nutritional security of the nation in mind. Like the hybrid seeds, I think the entire cost of the seeds of traditional varieties of vegetables should also be subsidised.

Meanwhile, the government has announced a subsidy of Rs 288-crore for cheaper seeds for ensuing rabi or winter-season crops. The seed industry is obviously excited. I wonder why this subsidy cannot be also channelised for the promotion of traditional crop varieties in the rabi season?

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Devinder Sharma  |  Food and trade policy analyst, columnist and activists' guide  |  hunger55@gmail.com

Devinder Sharma is an award-winning journalist, writer, and researcher globally recognised for his analysis on food, agriculture and trade policy. After completing M.Sc. in Plant Breeding and Genetics, he started his career as a journalist. A decade later, he quit active journalism to research on policy issues concerning hunger and food security, biodiversity, genetic engineering and IPRs. He writes and speaks extensively on these issues and has written more than 10,000 articles till date.

Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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