22 October 2011

Regraining the nation: we can and we must!

Whose rice, whose seeds, whose security, sovereignty and future?
‘Let it be written in the blood of Korean farmers that rice will not be imported ever again,’ is a sign carried in the offices of the South Korean Rice Federation.  There is pride there.  Determination too.  And it’s all about self-sufficiency. 

Self-sufficiency is an objective that all governments as well as those aspiring to govern talk about.  Indeed, self-sufficiency is a consideration that always factors into discussions on food security, which in turn is an integral element of national security. 
On the other hand self-sufficiency or being self-sufficient, say in rice, can also give a false sense of security.  It has all got to do with seeds.
There has been a lot of focus on irrigation and access to water, with token reference to the engineers who helped design a hydraulic civilization second to none.  There’s a considerable literature, also, on the use of chemical inputs.  The Green Revolution having spent its initial promise, there is greater awareness now about the dangers and dependencies associated with chemical pesticides, weedicides and fertilizers.  
The pluses and minuses of mono crop cultures and chemical thirsty high yielding varieties have been debated.  The importance of research and extension have been duly noted, even though the objections to policy regimes that have by and large deferred these subjects to multinationals and their agents selling poisons have been footnoted or edited out for the most part.  The issue of agricultural credit and insurance has had its day in the sun.  A lot of talk, some action, but the structures of resource and value extraction have remained largely intact. 
The entire discourse on agriculture and in particular paddy cultivation has largely ignored the politics pertaining to seeds.  To put things in perspective, just consider the fact that finding pumpkin seeds is next to impossible.  There was a time when a well-known multinational was busy purchasing pumpkin seeds, offering attractive prices.  Today, if you want to grow pumpkin, you have to purchase the seeds. The seeds of the pumpkins you purchase from the supermarket or pola are essentially ‘impotent’. 
The implications for food security are serious.  Sri Lanka may become self-sufficient in rice but if the seed companies decide to stop sending seeds, that’s it.  The nation’s borders are now secure, but this alone does not keep out evil and does not necessarily mean that the people are safe.  There is often mention of sanctions, withdrawal of concessionary trade instruments such as GSP Plus and motions to censure and thereby embarrass political leadership, people and nation, and these are indeed matters of concern.  The instruments of subjugation, however, are not all visible and don’t all come waving a threat. 
What is the fall-back option? 
The answer perhaps can be drawn from the unprecedented effort to secure the nation from the threat of terrorism.  There was help from friends, some who gave without question and others who pinned a price-tag to generosity, but by and large it was the resilience, determination and resourcefulness of the general citizenry, political leadership, academics, media personnel and public servants that made the difference. 
When it comes to seeds, then, the answer lies within and not outside the nation.  Recently, an enterprising young man, a graduate from the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya, secured a 5 hectare piece of land in the Eastern Province to grow 73 traditional varieties of rice, to symbolize the 73 gnanas (wisdoms) of the Buddha Siddhartha Gauthama.  He made 73 offerings of kiribath or milk-rice made from these 73 varieties to the historic Mahiyangana Chaityaya.  This arduous exercise gives a simple message: we can and we must! 
It must be remembered that there are said to been some 2400 traditional rice varieties in this country of which only around 200 remain with us.  The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines is said to have 1100 varieties preserved.  Currently farmers, as individuals or small, cooperative collectives grow around 120 traditional varieties. 
The issue is whether or not the relevant authorities (including those that take national security seriously) are aware of or committed enough to the issue of food sovereignty to understand the importance of seeds, in the context of global political economic process.  There is very little research on the subject of traditional rice varieties.  Each particular variety constitutes and invitation for thesis research, but undergraduates in Agriculture Faculties are not encouraged to explore this rich and vital aspect of their discipline. 
It is also doubtful whether the relevant laws (currently under review to ensure compatibility with conventions signed or to be signed uncritically) take into consideration issues of food sovereignty and national security.  The truth is that the law and policy preferences constitute serious disincentives when it comes to cultivating traditional varieties of rice. 
It is nice to be self-sufficient in food.  It would be disturbing indeed if ‘self-sufficiency’ is time bound to a single season and moreover amenable to swift dismantling by outsiders, in particular multinational intent in securing a monopoly in the seed business. 
It all comes down to a few pertinent questions.
Whose nation is this anyway?  Is planning about getting by in the hand-to-mouth manner or about preserving sovereignty and dignity for the next generation and those yet unborn?  Do we have a comprehensive understanding of ‘national security’?  Is self-sufficiency enough?  
There is a lot of talk about regaining the nation.  It seems that re-graining is an intrinsic part of such an effort.  And it’s about traditional rice.  One grain at a time. One variety at a time. 


Rajaratarala said...

You bring to attention some very timely and essential information that must be acted upon.

I also in my blog www.villagerinsrilanka.blogspot.com have harped on about this for a long time. However along with the reintroduction of traditional varieties we must also encourage their consumption, especially of rice. The quantity of traditional varieties that fill our stomachs is about a fifth of the current hybrid ones. So 5 times the price for one fifth of the volume consumed should leave the consumer with no extra cost, but it has to be combined with nutrition.

I have also extensively mentioned that diet in rural areas is very poor, perhaps due to multinational marketing techniques, but all this can be corrected by proper education of our kids on diet and nutrition.

There is a long way to go as only 1% of rice production is of traditional varieties.