Seemingly miraculous varieties that can withstand drought, flood, and saltwater intrusion are the result of centuries of selective breeding by ancient farmers.

Until as recently as 1970, India was a land with more than 100,000 distinct varieties of rice. Across a diversity of landscapes, soils, and climates, native rice varieties, also called “landraces,” were cultivated by local farmers. And these varieties sprouted rice diversity in hue, aroma, texture, and taste.

But what sets some landraces in a class of their own—monumentally ahead of commercial rice varieties—is their nutrition profiles. This has been proved by the research of Debal Deb, a farmer and agrarian scientist whose studies have been published in numerous peer-reviewed journals and books.

In the mid-1960s, with backing from the U.S. government, India’s agricultural policy introduced fertilizers, pesticides, irrigation facilities, and high-yielding varieties of crops under the moniker of a “Green Revolution” to combat hunger. Instead, it began an epidemic of monocultures and ecological destruction.

In the early 1990s, after realizing that more than 90% of India’s native rice varieties had been replaced by a handful of high-yielding varieties through the Green Revolution, Deb began conserving indigenous varieties of rice. Today, on a modest 1.7-acre farm in Odisha, India, Deb cultivates and shares 1,485 of the 6,000 unique landraces estimated to remain in India.

Deb and collaborators have quantified the vitamin, protein, and mineral content in more than 500 of India’s landraces for the first time, in the lab he founded in 2014, Basudha Laboratory for Conservation. In one extraordinary discovery, the team documented 12 native varieties of rice that contain the fatty acids required for brain development in infants.

“These varieties provide the essential fatty acids and omega-3 fatty acids that are found in mother’s milk but lacking in any formula foods,” Deb says. “So instead of feeding formula foods to undernourished infants, these rice varieties can offer a far more nutritious option.”

Deb and his team have also documented high levels of antioxidants and several B vitamins in more than 250 landraces of rice. Both of these compounds are essential for the functioning of a healthy human body, Deb says, but are rarely found in modern high-yield varieties.

In Garib-sal, a rice variety from a remote village in West Bengal, Deb and his co-workers discovered the bioaccumulation of silver in its grains at 15 parts per million. This may explain why Garib-sal was prescribed in traditional medicine for the treatment of gastroenteric infections, since silver nanoparticles are known to kill pathogenic microbes.

Miraculous as these traits may appear, they are far more than happy accidents of nature. They are the result of a conscious exercise of selective breeding by ancient farmers, whom Deb refers to as “unnamed, unknown scientists.”

“These farmer-scientists did not know anything about DNA, proteins, or enzymes,” he says, “yet they managed to develop novel varieties through generations of selective breeding.”

Deb’s conservation efforts are not to preserve a record of the past, but to help India revive resilient food systems and crop varieties. His vision is to enable present and future agriculturists to better adapt to climate change.

Cultivating Resilience

Deb conserves scores of climate-resilient varieties of rice originally sourced from Indigenous farmers, including 16 drought-tolerant varieties, 20 flood-tolerant varieties, 18 salt-tolerant varieties, and three submergence-tolerant varieties. He shares his varieties freely with hundreds of small farmers for further cultivation, especially those farming in regions prone to these kinds of climate-related calamities. In 2022 alone, Deb has shared his saved seed varieties with more than 1,300 small farmers through direct and indirect seed distribution arrangements in several states of India.

One of these farmers is Shamika Mone. Mone received 24 traditional rice varieties from Deb on behalf of Kerala Organic Farmers Association, along with training on maintaining the purity of the seeds. Now these farmers have expanded their collection, working with other organic farming collectives in the state of Kerala to grow around 250 landraces at two farm sites. While they cultivate most of their varieties for small-scale use and conservation, they also cultivate a few traditional rice varieties for wider production, which yield an average of 1.2 tons per acre compared with the 1 ton per acre of hybrid varieties.

“But that’s only in terms of yield,” Mone says. “We mostly grow these for their nutritional benefits, like higher iron and zinc content, antioxidants, and other trace elements. Some varieties are good for lactating mothers, while some are good for diabetic patients. There are many health benefits.”

These native varieties have proven beneficial in the face of climate change too.

With poor rains in 2016, for example, the traditional folk rice variety Kuruva that Mone had planted turned out to be drought-tolerant and pest-resistant. And in 2018, due to the heavy rains and floods, she lost all crops but one: a folk rice variety called Raktashali that survived underwater for two days.

“They have proven to be lifesavers for us,” Mone says.

With extreme weather events, like droughts, floods, and storm surges, on the rise across the world, small farmers suffer damage to their farms, lose harvests, and go into debt. But small organic farmers incur less debt since they don’t depend on expensive inputs.

“About 90% of the overall costs incurred on most organic farms in Kerala are mostly for labor costs, while only around 10% goes on manures and composts, if any,” Mone says.

By expanding the cultivation of resilient crop varieties, an agricultural system can bounce back faster to its original capacity.

“Our emphasis and advice to every farmer in the world would be to foster and nurture diversity at all levels—at the species level, at the crop genetic level, and at the ecosystem level,” Deb says. “The building of complexity and diversity is essential to building resilience.”

The Case for Agroecology

Many fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides commonly used in commercial farming act as biocides (killers of life forms) and, in so doing, decimate the microorganisms in the soil. Soil microorganisms, like mycorrhizal fungi, are recognized as essential to deliver nutrients from the soil to the plants. Without these nutrients, plants cannot remain productive, and they become more prone to pest attacks. Thus begins the degenerative cycle of spraying more pesticides while adding more synthetic fertilizers to compensate for the lack of nutrients.

Industrial farming, associated with monocultures and synthetic chemical inputs, leads to the loss of soil fertility year over year and ultimately the collapse of the farm ecosystem. Commercial hybrid seeds, dependent on costly inputs, have also proved to fall behind in climate tolerance.

“We need resilience under uncertainty and hardship,” says Sujatha Rajeswaran, a farmer from Villupuram district, Tamil Nadu, who received seeds and training from Deb. She sells her produce directly to a group of friends and family members.

“Growing traditional varieties coincides with our philosophy for life,” Rajeswaran says. “Just having a lot of money is not enough. We need good physical and mental health. We need good relationships. We need good ecology, not only in a human-centric way, but for all beings to be able to live and thrive.”

Deb asserts that in order to grow resilient and nutritious food sustainably, global food systems must transition to agroecology, which doesn’t introduce toxic chemicals to the environment. Deb and many other scientists have also documented agroecology to be more productive than industrial farming, and that it leads to better soil fertility year over year.

“Agroecology is an essential component in the fight against climate change and [greenhouse gas] emissions,” says Steve Gliessman, professor emeritus of agroecology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and an international expert with more than 50 years of teaching, research, and production experience in the field of agroecology.

“Agroecology is all about farming practices that capture and hold carbon, but it is also all about how all other parts of the food system contribute to sustainability. This means more local, seasonal, and integrated food systems, where what we call ‘food miles’ are reduced, food waste is reduced, and local food production capacity once again plays an important role.”

Gliessman applauds Deb’s conservation and participatory work with local farmers.

“[His work] confronts the modern idea of ‘improved’ seeds when farmers already have the seed knowledge they need in their hands. Deb has rescued this knowledge, codified it, and made it available once again.”

Roadblocks to Implementation

Despite a plethora of reasons to prioritize a transition to agroecology, funding for these open-source solutions is severely lacking. Public institutions and private businesses alike favor putting their money toward patented technologies and seeds.

There are two pathways to adapt agriculture to climate change, according to Rasheed Sulaiman V., director of the Centre for Research on Innovation and Science Policy, a nonprofit organization that promotes research in the area of innovation policy for agriculture and rural development. Pathway 1, he says, is the development and promotion of new climate-resilient, high-yielding varieties of seeds. Pathway 2 is to promote and strengthen in-place conservation of native, climate-resilient varieties by civil society organizations and seed champions like Deb.

Based on a detailed case study in Odisha, Sulaiman says Pathway 2 can help in achieving several more of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals than Pathway 1, without causing adverse impacts to the environment and agro-biodiversity. “Unfortunately,” he says, “almost all science, technology, and innovation support is invested in Pathway 1, and there are practically no resources invested in strengthening Pathway 2.”

Deb documents that many native varieties of crops measure more resilient and nutrient-dense than commercial varieties and patented seeds, even after the billions of dollars that have been invested in agribusinesses. For example, the International Rice Research Institute, an agricultural research and training organization that contributed to the Green Revolution, has developed an iron-fortified genetically modified rice variety, IR68144-2B-2-2-3, containing 8.9 ppm of iron. This is meant to be its “high iron” variety. Contrast that with the approximately 80 native varieties of rice Deb has documented that contain between 20 and 152 ppm of iron.

Such knowledge becomes vital in light of government policy that favors food fortification instead of food sovereignty. The Indian government recently mandated that rice supplies be fortified with iron and other supplements in order to tackle malnutrition. This fortification process involves rice being milled into a powder form, fortified with supplements, and reshaped into rice grains. The Mandatory Food Fortification Program is now in effect across four states (Bihar, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, and Jharkhand) and counting, and all rice supply in India will need to be fortified by 2024.

“According to this fortification mandate, everyone, whether you need it or not, has to consume this fortified rice. What if your child has thalassemia, a condition where excess iron is lethal?” wonders Deb. So far, local news outlets have produced concerning reports: Children in Bolangir district of Orissa fell ill after consuming the fortified rice in their public school meals. In the state of Punjab, 19 samples of fortified rice out of 22 collected failed national quality control tests.

“Experts are spending billions of dollars to fine-tune genetic engineering, while these nutritious and resilient varieties already exist,” Deb says. “In the name of smarter agriculture, we are losing these climate-smart varieties.”

Small-Scale Solutions

Patented and high-tech solutions have also proven inequitable for small farmers. Deb asserts that these are not for peasant countries like India, where nearly 80% of farmers operate on less than 5 acres of land. High-yielding varieties have raised the input costs (since fertilizers, pesticides, and the seeds themselves have to be bought every year), making farmers increasingly dependent on markets. At the same time, the prices farmers receive for their harvests have fallen with greater market supply.

At times, in the short run, growing fragile, high-yielding varieties can be profitable. But in the long run, only large landholders are able to weather losses thanks to their other asset classes. Small landholders, Rajeswaran says, don’t have that cushion. They go into debt and face complete ruin. In fact, today in India, more than half of all farming households are in debt, leading to episodes of farmer suicide.

On the surface, reduced drudgery and more yields may seem worth it, which is why so many farmers opt in. “New varieties are being created for higher yields and process mechanization—for doing well in control environments,” Rajeswaran says. “But the real world is not a controlled environment, although we are constantly trying to make it one.”

Nearly three decades since beginning conservation work, Deb remains motivated. He recognizes that some of the farmers requesting his seeds today are the descendants of his original seed sources. They come to him after losing their seeds to high-yielding varieties.

“These ancient farmers never wrote down their discoveries or patented their work, so we are [wrongly] taught to assume they were unscientific,” Deb says. “Our task is to honor their discoveries by conserving these varieties.”

Teaser photo credit:A mixture of brown, white, and red indica rice, also containing wild riceZizania species. By Earth100 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=23632640