I would like to share a story published by the Independent European Daily Express (http://bit.ly/VsxylL , Feb 1 2013) about the benefits of traditional farming practices in surviving extreme weather events such as those that we are experiencing more and more of these days. As my Nuffield study seeks to explore: ‘Realizing that the decrease in use of traditional farming practices is irreversible because it is closely linked to social transformation, can certain characteristics of traditional food growing practices be preserved to help restore the health of Canadian communities?’
Last monsoon season, 65-year-old Sunadhar Ramaparia, a member of the Bhumia tribe in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, mixed indigenous crops like ‘para’ paddy, foxtail millet and oil seeds in his upland plot.
The rains came, then played truant for 23 days and in the scorching heat even lowland farmers’ hybrid paddy saplings burnt to dust. But Ramaparia harvested a full crop.
Deforestation and climate change have resulted in erratic rainfall, shrinking water bodies and severe soil degradation in Ramaparia’s hamlet of Tentulipar, located in the Eastern Ghat region of Odisha’s Koraput province, leaving scores of farmers vulnerable to extreme hunger.
But the Bhumia tribe is simply falling back on the wisdom of their 3,000-year-old traditional farming systems to ensure a year-round supply of healthy food.
The tribe uses local seeds from the biodiversity-rich Eastern Ghats, a discontinuous mountain range that runs parallel to the Bay of Bengal along India’s eastern coast at an average of 900 metres above mean sea level.
The agricultural system here has adapted to the intensely hilly terrain, built resilience to the changing climate, and developed a natural pest-control mechanism. Tribal farmers grow hardy crops on the highlands, and more water-intensive crops on the midland and low-lying areas.
Though the government of India has offered the tribe subsidised hybrid paddy, which yields about 3,700 to 4,800 kilogrammes per hectare – a much larger haul than the 2,400 to 3,300 kilogrammes farmers can expect from traditional seeds – Ramaparia and his 20-member family have no intention of abandoning their indigenous crops.
“The rice from government seeds not only has no taste or aroma, they demand a lot of costly medicine (chemical fertiliser and pesticides), and they give diseases to those who consume them,” Ramaparia told IPS.
“A lifetime of eating our own grains has kept an old man like me strong, let any young man try arm wrestling with me,” he challenged jovially, looking around at the assembled villagers.
This is not an isolated example of a single tribe holding out against chemically altered seeds.
According to the 2003 India National Sample Survey — based on which the National Policy for Farmers (NPF 2007) and the agricultural programmes of the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-2012) evolved — 69 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people are rural. Tribal communities constitute 10 percent of the total rural population; of this, roughly eight percent follow traditional agricultural practices.
In Canada, how will our agricultural system adapt to meet the challenges of a changing climate and increased pest-control resistance?