Meet The Man Who Has Been Growing Exotic Varieties of Vegetables To Maintain Biodiversity
We do not waste a single moment to bask in the glory of ‘progress’ and ‘development’, be it in any sector. Little do we think about whose ‘progress’ we are talking about and what is the kind of ‘development’ that we have achieved in these many years, and if the development has left behind many of our fellow-citizens.
One wonders if this is the right time to redefine the notions of development and progress and think about the consequences of our actions that have caused considerable problems when compared to the benefits that have been brought about in the society.
The Logical Indian had the opportunity to talk to Dr Prabhakar Rao, someone who has dedicated his entire life to saving planet Earth by growing endangered species of vegetables and promoting organic and chemical-free farming. In an exclusive interview, he has taken us through his journey and his endeavour, Hariyalee Seeds.
From an architect of buildings to an architect of a ‘greener’ future
On being asked the reason for taking up this noble task, Dr Rao passionately and determinedly said, “The driving force behind my taking up this project is the little awareness about the hundreds of indigenous varieties of vegetables that are going extinct every year for the past 10-15 years. Hardly anyone, including the media, has highlighted this issue.”
He rightly pointed out, “If there is an animal on the verge of extinction, people are aware of it from various sectors, but the case is not the same when it comes to vegetables. This has always perturbed me, and I have always wanted to do something about it even if it is a small drop in the ocean.”
60-year-old Rao has done his PhD in Genetics and Plant Breeding with specialisation in seed production. However, he studied architecture subsequently and practised as an architect abroad, till he returned to India in 2011.
His interest in agriculture inculcated later on, in a life-changing moment. “I am very close to Sri Sri Ravi Shankar’s Art of Living, and he asked me to be a trustee of the Agricultural Trust of Art of Living. I thought it was a fantastic opportunity for me to rejuvenate my knowledge and interest in agriculture,” said he.
Dr Rao has a farm very nearby to his place of residence, and it was there that he started practising sustainable Vedic methods of farming which involved no use of chemicals. He said, “I can vouch for the effectiveness of Vedic methods of farming because I have used them on my farm. I am entirely sure of the benefits farmers can reap by making use of these methods.”
The impact of Rao’s endeavours
Dr Prabhakar Rao’s passion and unflinching support for chemical-free, organic agriculture took shape in the formation of Hariyalee Seeds. It is a family run farm which curates species of endangered and heirloom seeds from all over the world. It strives at keeping varieties of exotic species of plants alive for the future generations to enjoy.
Rao’s farm is home to a variety of exotic vegetables like that of the blue groundnuts, purple, white and pink ladies’ finger, cinnamon-flavoured Tulsi, etc. All of these are native varieties of crops that are no longer found in India. Rao has preserved these varieties through what he calls ‘prakritik farming’ or ‘natural farming’.
“I conduct a three-day course about sustainable farming techniques by travelling to the villages of the farmers. I have travelled to places like Chattisgarh, Odisha, coastal Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh trying to impart whatever knowledge I have about natural farming,” Rao said.
On being asked if the farmers are receptive about these sustainable techniques of farming, Rao enthusiastically says that the acceptance level among them is high. He then goes on to explaining why, “It is important to understand that the farmers who seek our help are those who have faced the wrath of Green Revolution, HYV seeds and are disillusioned by chemical fertilisers. Their lands have become ‘banjar’ (infertile), and all they want is to be able to grow crops on it once again. They want an alternative way out, and Vedic agricultural systems are the way out.”
The cost-effectiveness and the sustainability of these techniques are the main reasons farmers are opting for such alternatives, Rao believes.
“The farmers are encouraged to make their seeds, and they go to the market only to sell their produce, never to buy anything,” Rao said.
Rao’s concern and passion for his cause were evident when he said, “I have collected some indigenous varieties from across the world, and right now I am still in the process of multiplying them and ensuring that at least someone is growing them somewhere, keeping them alive.”
“The best part of this initiative,” Rao added, “is the fact that one does not need to buy seeds in bulk in the first go, one can buy seeds from me in small quantities and later use those seeds to make thousands of their own.”
Right now, Rao is mostly focussing on the urban garden enthusiasts who are his foremost clientele. “They like to grow exotic things, put it on social media and get ‘likes’ and ‘comments’ on their posts. In the process, many others get to know about these exotic varieties,” he said. Other farmers too have taken interest in these unique plants, selling which gives them better revenue, Rao opined.
Preservation of biodiversity – a priority for Rao
“Biodiversity necessarily means the vast variety of organisms that exist in nature. So, when vegetables are taken as species of living organisms on this planet, biodiversity refers to the entire range of plants that nature has created,” Rao explained.
He said, “Today, because of the manner in which the seed industry functions, the farmers have become dependent on them. After vast spans of rain, they are seen heading towards these companies to procure seeds. This was never our tradition; our farmers always used to grow their seeds. This was our ‘parampara’ (tradition).”
Vehemently rejecting the HYV and GMO seeds, Rao said, “The seed companies look out for their profit and hence, do not want the farmers to be self-sufficient. To give an example – the seed companies have put a ‘terminator gene’ in the BT Brinjal to make sure that the seeds from this brinjal would never grow into a plant.”
The seed industry, both in India and the West, wants the farmers to buy seeds from them in every season and the horrific aftermath of that, according to Rao, has been the complete extinction of the old and indigenous varieties; the loss of biodiversity.
“I have been able to harness some of that in my farm where we cultivate different varieties of common vegetables – they have beautiful colours and come in different shapes, they are not hybrids but just the native varieties that have been long-lost,” Rao said.
The profit-mongering of the seed companies and the subsequent erosion of biodiversity is a matter of immense concern for Rao as it is also adversely affecting the farmers.
Constraints faced by him
Dr Rao said the major obstacle in this endeavour was the collection of indigenous varieties of seeds. “It is only the older generation of farmers who may have the native variety of seeds which involves a lot of travelling.”
However, he added, “Truth be told; I love travelling and interacting with people. While on my tours, I meet different people and some of them have those varieties of seeds that I want to carry home with me for my farm. Most of them are very gracious to part with a few seeds. But accessing these varieties is indeed a challenge at times.”
“Also, another challenge that I faced was that out of more than 500 varieties of indigenous seeds that I had collected by travelling across the world, only 140 could suit the climatic conditions of India,” Rao said. In spite of his purest intention of making all of them survive, Rao said that it was not possible.
“I am continuously involved in gathering different varieties of seeds for my farm. Later this year, I am travelling to Japan and hope to bring back home some indigenous varieties from there,” said he.
“However, this was never meant to be a business model. My sole purpose was to save the native varieties that are going extinct now. In fact, once our clients buy seeds from us, they are not meant to come back to us for more – they are expected to have started their garden, thus taking the cause forward.”
Rao is very hopeful about the future of the Indian agriculture, providing sustainable options for the farmers; he said, “The government has been proactive in this arena.”
He then went on to mention about a project, among many, that is a collaboration of the Central and the Karnataka government and the Art of Living called Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY) that aims at upholding and the reviving the benefits of the traditional farming methods and thereby, helping the farmers to be part of sustainable agriculture. This scheme has been implemented in many districts in Karnataka. Rao also mentions about the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY), the PDS India Organic Certification Programme.
Rao, of course, agreed that a lot is still left to be done but was of the opinion that the scene is not grim.
The Logical Indian community acknowledges the work that Dr Prabhakar Rao has been carrying out for this long. His perseverance and zeal, coupled with a clear vision to steer India into the ways of sustainable agriculture are commendable. Unconcerned about his profits, Rao wishes to concentrate on making this planet a better place for the future generations. Such endeavour always inspires awe and is undoubtedly worthy of appreciation.