History in a grain of rice

About 70 years ago, thousands of heirloom rice varieties were cultivated across India. Each type was native to a particular region and had a unique shape, taste, and scent. Many of these heritage rice varieties have been lost over time, giving way to a few commercially viable hybrid varieties.

The NGO AIM for Seva launched the “Spirit of the Earth” campaign to raise awareness of indigenous rice varieties. They also sell organic rice.

“In 2011, we were already working in the village of Manjakkudi in the areas of education and health,” says Priyanka Joshi-Navneet of Spirit of the Earth.

“Located in the heart of the Cauvery Delta, farming is the main occupation here, and farmers grew hybrid variants and used heavy pesticides. During a visit there, President and Chief Executive Sheela Balaji decided to embark on a project to revive cereals and encourage farmers to adopt natural farming practices and grow heirloom seeds”.

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Motivated by people like Nammavalaraiiyya and Nel Jayaraman of the “Save our Rice” campaign, in 2013 the NGO organized the Nel Thiruvizha or seed festival to teach organic farming practices and share heritage rice seeds with the farmers.

“In the first year, farmers from over 300 villages participated. We held this festival for three years (2013, 2014, 2015) before the farmers finally decided to grow the traditional rice organically,” says Joshi-Navneet.

“We also established the Swami Dayananda Farms Heritage Rice Seed Bank in Manjakkudi. We started with two varieties of seeds, and today 260 varieties of heritage rice seeds – endangered and endemic – are being conserved. , researched and reintroduced on the market.

The collection comes from farmers and seed banks in Maharashtra, West Bengal, Bihar, Chhatisgarh, Orissa, Assam, UP, Karnataka, Kerela and Tamil Nadu.

“After the seed festival, farmers were sowing these seeds in small plots only for their own consumption. They thought there was not enough awareness or market to sell these seed varieties.”

So, to raise awareness of heirloom rice, educate consumers, encourage them to try and create demand for them, Spirit of the Earth was born.

Among the challenges were correcting preconceptions that rice is unhealthy and changing a fifty-plus-year-old lifestyle of consuming polished hybrid rice varieties.

Read also — Deciphering the culinary culture of Harappa

Over time, Spirit of the Earth has developed a network of trusted seed savers and growers from across the country.

“Sometimes we only get 25g of seed, which we have to cultivate for five or six seasons to get at least 10kg,” Joshi-Navneet said. “We worked with CIKS (Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems (CIKS), a registered independent trust working in organic agriculture, biodiversity conservation and IMO to achieve organic certification.”

Besides cultivation, Spirit of the Earth helps farmers find markets in India and abroad.

New product presentations and workshops on health benefits and use are held every few months. Information sheets on each of the cereals and a recipe are given with each purchase. The brand also encourages farm tours for parents and children to continue the conversation about heirloom rice, experiential learning and understanding organic farming at the local level.

(Neeti Jaychander is a Chennai-based journalist, writer and lecturer)

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