Meet Annadana, the soil and seed savers of India

Meet Annadana, the soil and seed savers of India

“If you give back to the earth, she nurtures us in return,” says Sangita Sharma, founder of Annadana Agro-Ecology Knowledge Farm.

Having grown up in the farm and seeing seed as the missing link in India’s agriculture crisis, Sangita set up Annadana in 2001, and have saved over 800 varieties of heirloom seed over the past two decades. When any natural calamity strikes, they are the first to send seed packets at no cost to the farmers. At the core, Annadana focuses on seed conservation, sustainability through training/research, and farmer welfare.

We visited Annadana and spoke to Sangita Sharma about her journey as a seed saver:

How did your journey with farming begin?
I grew up on this farm in Vidyaranyapura. My father set up a dairy farm here 55 years ago with 80 cows. He wanted to produce his own food, so he started growing his own cereals, starting with wheat. We had deer, guinea pigs, foxes, the diversity of snakes and the farm was 30 acres then. The idea for Annadana came when I relocated to Bangalore in 2001 after a corporate stint in Dubai. I needed to come back to my roots, and that inner voice kept gnawing at me saying Man needs a little bit of madness to dare cut the rope and feel free. So I did just that – I went from a specialist in corporate affairs to farm affairs.

I realized that the food I was eating is highly toxic. Growing up, I always questioned the source of my food and its quality, even when I was in the West. The next step was to know how the food was being produced. When I started travelling the length and breadth of the country, I realized that wherever I went, the farmers were facing the same set of challenges, be it in Vidarbha or Madhya Pradesh or North East. I found that seed – the most astonishing gift of life – was the missing link. When the seeds are not with the farmers, the whole food chain gets toxic.

In 2001, Annadana was set up with like-minded people in Auroville to propagate food that is required for our daily consumption with the farmers. We started with only 20 varieties. Today, we have over 800 varieties in our seed bank! My father supported me by giving me this land in Bangalore and urging me to continue my work here, so we shifted the operations in the middle of Bangalore.

Did you have prior knowledge when you initially started setting up the seed bank?

Not at all. The most fundamental step was to learn to grow our own food. The minute we did that, we got to the next step, which is seed. If you pick up hybrid seed packets found in the markets and read the label, it says Coated with poison. Do not eat. The need of the hour is to safeguard these seeds without having to put in fungicides or chemicals, and that is what Annadana’s expertise lies in.

When you look at the cost of seed, one must also look at the number of man-hours to produce it. In terms of processes, there’s growing, production, harvesting, extraction, selection, dying, packing and only then is it ready to use. We do seed to seed conservation of 28 species. We have about 49 varieties of tomatoes, 32 varieties of lettuce, 30 varieties of brinjal, 29 varieties of okra… We are safeguarding the diversity because we believe that one variety is so beneficial to ecology and health.

Setting up a seed bank is the simple part; building infrastructure and creating food production zones is difficult. We first started by testing the varieties. When the harvest was done, we started saving the seeds and set up the seed bank with at least 20 packets per variety. We packed and preserved everything from A to Z and created our internal system. Whatever we grow is what we get to eat; what is saved goes into the seed catalogue.

We have an emergency oven/dryer for storage in case there’s high humidity and the seeds aren’t drying and catching fungus. But we haven’t had to use it for 10 years. There’s also a cooler fridge for certain seeds. What we have to be concerned about is if we have say 5 varieties of chilli next to each other, if one seed goes from one tray to another, we’ve lost the whole batch. That’s why we don’t let people touch the seeds.

We have varieties of chilli, paddy, corn, black carrots, white pepper, sunn hemp, castor, black sesame in our seed banks. We make our own enzymes, bio-digestors, organic boosters, etc. Nothing comes from outside the farm – that’s how you become truly sustainable.

You also help others set up seed banks. What is that process like?

When we set up seed banks in different places, we have to think of the agro-climatic conditions. The beautiful part about India and its ecosystems is that within one region, there are different climatic zones. For instance, in Meghalaya itself, there’s tropical, semi-temperate and temperate zones. We do seed mapping in an area to understand the diversity grown there, what’s not being seen anymore, and then go hunting for the seeds. There are so many forgotten varieties in each place that nobody’s seen in years, so we try to revive them. Even if we get just one seed, we will make 5gms, which will become 100gms.

Seed banks are necessary, and there must be political will for the health of society, the environment. Every seed bank that is collectively bringing in indigenous native seeds to the region is home to sustainability.

Tell us about Annadana’s Agro Ecology Knowledge Centre and the work you do in educating farmers about seed conservation.

The Annadana Agro-Ecology Knowledge Centre is catering to a diverse range of people because they can understand sustainability at its core; we’re demonstrating it here. We regularly have students coming to learn about sustainable practices here. Over the past two decades, we’ve had over 1,50,000 students who have taken an interest in understanding about an alternative way of farming. There are workstations showing the diversity of seeds.

More importantly, we have farmers coming in from around the world. Our Agro Ecology Knowledge Centre is for the purpose of training and shifting awareness from conventional to organic farming. I don’t call it ‘organic’ per se; it’s ‘natural foods’ which are grown via seed propagation from seed to seed, where you know the source. We also conduct training programs for farmers.

Annadana’s youth – the second generation of farmers – are driving the work we do here. They come in the evening after school, do the seed orders, and show visitors around. They don’t want to step out from here because it’s viable and meaningful in the long-term. This is heartening because in many cases, we’ve seen that children leave farming to find other jobs.

We haven’t diluted our essence through commercialization; it’s only about seed conservation and knowledge through publications and films. For instance, if you want knowhow on how to save tomato seeds, we have films on that. If you want to learn about soil fertility management, we have pedagogic materials. It’s our time-tested efforts over 20 years.

Master trainers Gopala and Lakhamma in the field

Farmer welfare is at the core of what Annadana believes in. Please talk to us about your connection with the farmers themselves.

Our farmers have been with us for nearly 30 years, and they are the master trainers. They drive the entire operation. The beauty of our work is that we’re empowering farmers to sustain themselves. Whatever we make as revenue goes back to the trust, the salaries are shared, and it’s all transparent.

The farmers are part of a growing system where they’re not seen as labourers but recognized for their inherent skills in seed saving, in food production. Today, 450 million farmers in the country produce over 260,000 tonnes of food grain. We work on the fundamental principle that a farmer, whose knowledge goes back thousands of years, must not be reduced to a begging bowl. It’s a tragedy that today, the agrarian crisis has escalated because our farmers are being told what they should be growing. Why are they not part of a policy decision-making where you seek their advice on what grows best in a specific region during a particular season? Urban society cannot produce food the way farmers can! The crisis has escalated because there’s no direction or planning.

Once you provide farmers with hybrid seeds and say it’s free of charge, the next season he has to go back to buy seeds because the hybrids are sterile and the seeds can’t reproduce. Secondly, they require the corresponding pesticides and fertilisers. The hybrid system leeches in a lot of water, whereas an organic system thrives on the simple principle of a forest. In the latter, the more you pump in green matter into the soil, the more the humus, the more plants generate the yields you want to see, and farmers and therefore society benefits from it.

How does the politics around food affect your work?

Currently, the whole food chain is controlled by five giant seed corporations that are controlling 80-85% of the seeds. What was once indigenous, that can serve millions of generations, is now serving just a few. When you remove the trees that have roots which can actually prevent erosion, floods, and instead plant cash crops like timber and teak, rubber, coconut – the trees don’t have the penetrating rooting system to hold on.

For these high-yielding varieties, the farmer is in debt even before he starts out. He first has to buy those seeds ranging from Rs 20,000 to Rs 87,000, then add fertilisers and pesticides which is another Rs 30,000, and over and above that add labour and equipment cost. In this scenario, Rs 1,40,000 is his startout cost. If he’s not going to commit suicide, what’s he going to do? That’s why we’re working on producing these seeds to making our farmers food and seed autonomous.

If the seeds are not in our hands, then the ones benefiting are the refined processing industry. They’ve taken hybrid foods like rice and sugarcane, and made it into polished rice and white sugar with no nutrition. People are eating hollow toxic foods laced with pesticides, emulsifiers and additives. The result of this trend is that the pharmaceutical sector, insurance companies and eventually funeral homes are benefiting at the cost of farmers.

What’s happening in the farm at the moment?

June is the month where the soil is rejuvenated and the fields are sowed. We all need nourishment. Similarly, the soil, which gives us everything – from minerals to multivitamins – needs its food and reprieve. We have something called Auro Green Manuring, where we give back 9 grains known as Navdhanya, back to the soil. We put an oilseed like sesame or groundnut at the end to complete the whole cycle.

In terms of what we’re growing, we have amaranth, carrots, tomatoes, jamun, pitanga, avocados, spinach, Guntur chilli, gourds, amla, corn, groundnuts, sunn hemp, fennel, eucalyptus, leek, brinjal, calendula, chamomile, beets, onions, purple cabbage, spinach, Bananas, cashews, jackfruits and more. We have a nursery for transplanting seeds, and biomass collection zones around the farm. The bumper harvest of our crops is either sent to the market and sold for peanuts, or we do value addition and make preserves and jams.

Our ongoing work is to document the sturdiness of the plant, the season to grow it, the weight of each vegetable, how many kgs a seed can produce etc because we want to give farmers and urban gardeners the knowledge as a resource. We create and share resources on seed management. If one carrot seed can produce 150,000 seeds or one plant of brinjal can give us 20-24 kgs, are we really food insecure?

Annadana has been at the forefront when it comes to seed distribution after natural calamities. Tell us about some of these experiences.

Whether it’s a flood in Kodagu or the tsunami or any natural calamity, Annadana steps in and sends seeds because the seed is the heritage of the farmers. It does not belong to us. Seeds are not a commodity for us.

After the 2004 tsunami, we adopted five villages with 4500 beneficiaries with the French Red Cross and we worked on 500 acres of land that was saline to produce organic paddy. We work on projects like these where our intervention can help because we’re specialists in soil and seed.

We have no funding from the government, or any private organisation. We sustain on the merit of our time-tested knowledge. When we sent out 5 lakh seed packets after the Kerala floods, we had 14 progressive farmers come from 14 districts of Kerala for a workshop on seed conservation to learn more. That trust and interaction is what makes our work impactful.

You ran the Right to Safe Food campaign in 2009. What was your motivation?

To spread awareness and give people informed choices. Most of my time in 2009 was spent raising alarms, talking about why we don’t need genetically modified (GM) foods or GM seeds in our food chain and asking for verifiability of food sources and ensuring it’s safe for consumption.

When we launched my Right to Safe Food, I went to institutes, corporates, even the armed forces. The then Admiral Vishnu Bhagat told me “We protect the borders but little do we realize that we have to protect ourselves from bioterrorism.”

The more information you are armed with, the better you can share this information with more people. People need to read the label, no matter what they’re eating. The youth need to understand how much it takes to produce food. I personally invest time in the youth because they will carry the torch of hope to others. Seed is symbolic of a child, of diversity, of abundance, of hope. So what is stopping every individual from not treating their bodies as dustbins and reducing the toxicity in their body and life?

What are the major challenges you are facing?

Funding is the main issue. Our model is replicable; it can be scaled up easily to reach more people but we need funding for that. We don’t have marketing bandwidths, so instead we invite collaborators, investors that replicate this model. We’re also busy setting up a seed bank at the Annadana Western Ghats in the Sharavathi Wildlife Sanctuary, where the farmers will showcase the diversity of the tropical regions. But again, that requires funding.

The whole purpose of farming is to be sustainable. If you want to be sustainable, you must conserve at least 15-20% of the diversity. According to the United Nations, 90% of seed diversity has been lost in the farmers’ fields in the last 100 years. We need more community seed banks that are supported by the government, and support the diversity in that region.

We require support in terms of bringing in more progressive farmers who can become master trainers throughout the country. We’re always looking for ethical partners who understand the ecosystem. It’s not all about production or money; it’s about the health of society, our children, our planet.

What is Annadana’s vision going forward?

My journey with the seed is now almost 20 years old. And I haven’t looked back once. It’s such a gratifying experience to wake up in the morning and decide which vegetables you want to eat that day. It’s not a luxury; it’s a necessity.

When you create an ecosystem from barren drought soils to cultivate paddy, you realize that any soil can be regenerated provided you understand the concept of a forest. We’re so blessed that we have this genetic wealth, and that is the future. It’s our joint responsibility as humanity to revive the agriculture system, and seed saving is one of the best ways to do it!

To know more about Annadana, visit their website.

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