I am moving through the farmers' fields in the gangetic plains of Uttar Pradesh as my work takes me there. The holdings are small and the farms have a great diversity of crops. The region is extremely rich in water and soil fertility and so has to feed large dense population dependent on the same. The diversity of crops is very difficult to understand but one thing is clear that people's agriculture is more like hand to mouth. A large chunk of farmers' produce ends in feeding the people at home. That also means farmers plant what they want in their own plates. The result is one can see old time varieties of rice which are tasty and traditional varieties of vegetables which do not necessarily produce high yields but are less perishable. One farmer gives me two plump and long pods of Boda, a local type of cowpea beans. It is crunchy on the outside and soft in the inside which I have never experienced before in a vegetable as mundane as a cowpea bean. "See this local type of chillies. Dont try to eat them. These are tiny bombs if put in the mouth it will get your entire mouth and subsequently stomach on fire, "one farmer tells me while showing tiny round shaped red chillies kept for drying in his yard. "When we make Masala we add in only two of these and that's enough." His wife tells me smiling while looking at my expression of disbelief.
The NGO guys and the agricultural scientists who have accompanied me keep on talking, "these are all local types of vegetables. The productivity is so low. One has to replace them with HYV." They seem visibly frustrated with farmers still opting for those low yielding crops. Nobody seems to care about what value these newer varieties they want to introduce are going to bring to the farmers.
I want to tell them that in Ratnagiri district, where I live, we have lost our great diversity of crops and also losing our culture of agriculture. The villagers here wait till the day of the weekly markets to buy their vegetables which come from distantly located producer regions. The chillies that are sold in the market are without any hotness. They complain about high prices of these vegetables and non fiery chillies. Trees of many of other good varieties of mangoes and local seedling mangoes have been cut off to make way for alphonso mango trees, the fruits of which typically end up in the houses of the rich upper and middle classes in the cities because of their high price. Majority of local people line up in front of the government controlled ration shops to get their monthly stocks of grains in the quantities as deemed by the government to be right for them. Overall they produce less, earn less and also eat less.
I think we now need to strongly challenge all these notions of low productivity of crops. Nobody in the formal systems, governmental or private, seems to care about loads of vegetables wasted only because there was no local buyer and the traders in the distant markets offered so low price that it had to be thrown away midway. What good did the high productivity of the crops do to farmers who cultivated it? What good did this high productivity do to the consumer who ended up getting a highly perishable, tasteless product that ended up as a mush? What nutrition did it provide to the already anemic rural poor population?
As farmers we have to preserve our good local cultivars of the crop and be proud about them. We have to ask the crop breeders, whether government and private, beyond per unit area productivity what value their varieties bring to us as farmers. How these varieties will help us to earn more profits (not just incomes)? Does it give us needed pest and disease resistance? Does it sustain drought, flood or frost? What is the shelf life of the final product? Is it good for processing? Is is good in taste? What are the cooking qualities? What are the nutritional qualities of it? Don't fall prey to the marketing gimmicks and propaganda. Dont believe these guys blindly and let them fool you. Ask and try to get what you want. Let the chillies be real hot tikha!