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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.

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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.

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