We Feed the World explored the extraordinary stories of 50 communities around the world, featuring small-scale farmers and fishers from across the globe who are using regenerative techniques to nurture biocultural diversity. Launched in 2018, We Feed the World brought the efforts of these individuals and communities to light in the context of current challenges – from land-grabbing to deforestation – calling for global support of small-scale, agroecological farming. We are often told by corporations, governments and the media that without a high-tech, chemically intensive industrial food system, we would soon starve. We Feed The World cut through this misinformation to creatively tell the stories of the farmers and fishers who really feed the world.
Recognising that this is an ongoing journey, and with the imminent launch of We Feed The UK, we recently revisited some of the individuals and communities featured in the original campaign to find out where they are now, and bring you updates on their stories…
HOW IT STARTED:
Farmer and scientist Dr. Debal Deb works between his farm laboratory, Basudha, and the living community seed bank, Vrihi, in Odisha state, Eastern India. A strong proponent of opposing the agro and biotech industries, he saves and importantly utilises landraces and heritage varieties of regional crops. Debal safeguards 1442 varieties of rice on his farm and in his seed bank, all of which were passed to him by farmers in the region, and each expertly adapted to their local climate. These rice varieties are distributed to thousands of farmers in the surrounding states, who in return send more seed back to increase the stock for further sharing.
By preserving genetic diversity of rice varieties that have evolved to thrive in local marginal conditions, Debal is providing an alternative path for farmers who are being sold industrial agriculture, and the pernicious cycles of debt this can entail. Hybrid (industrial agricultural) rice seed cannot be saved by farmers for reuse, and therefore farmers must pay out large sums for the seeds each year, along with purchasing the fertilisers and pesticides these hybrid seeds are bred to rely upon.
HOW IT’S GOING:
Since we last met, Debal has been taking part in India’s fight against a new, government approved GM mustard variety, which sets a precedent in allowing GM crops for human consumption (the only GM crop currently permitted in India is GM cotton). GM raises many ecological issues, in this case the most pertinent is that transgenes from the GM Mustard could easily be passed onto wild mustards in neighbouring farmers’ fields, thereby irreversibly altering wild populations of mustards. Further down the line, this also increases the risk of contaminating other domesticated mustards for consumption, including organic mustards, and the implications of this are not yet known.
‘After 60 years and billions spent on gene mining, the GM industry still doesn’t have a single variety which can withstand a drought or seasonal flood or sea water incursion. But all of these characteristics are available in many of our farmers’ varieties.’ Dr Debal
Recently, Debal has also been analysing the process of loss of plant knowledge and ecological breakdown as the social and ecological landscape of India changes, his conclusions are outlined in his recent paper.
He reflects “A majority of the indigenous societies are rapidly forgetting their native plants and animals, their traditional music, sports, crafts and even vocabulary of their languages. All aspects of material culture – pottery, ropes, mats and baskets – are drowned in plastics.’ But, ‘a good number of youth are listening to my plea to save biocultural diversity, and many are reading my books and articles to prepare themselves for a meaningful action.’”
Putting his words into action, recently, whilst surveying a nearby region for native plants, Debal noticed a tree he did not recognise. After much pondering, he realised that this was the last tree of its kind in the region, a tree almost extinct. He set to work immediately, micropropagating the plant material to ensure its continued survival, gifting 2 young saplings to nearby communities willing to help protect the species. You can hear this story in Debal’s own words on Tedtalk. Debal, normally a prolific conservator of anything photosynthetic, has even been branching out to conserving animal breeds, including cattle, goats and a vanishing Bengali breed of chicken. But due to lack of resources he has not been able to continue breeding the Bengali chicken at any significant scale.
Debal’s tireless work in seed and food sovereignty has drawn the attention of film maker Jason Taylor, who with presenter Dan Saladino, has been making a short film about his work – watch this space for updates!