Significance of Agro-biodiversity in the Food Security of Central Himalayan Region
Author: A. K. Trivedi
ICAR - National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources
Regional Station Bhowali - 263 132, District - Nainital (Uttarakhand)

Basically farmers are managing ecosystems, species as well as genes through their efforts to get food security in sustainable manner. Farming community is mainly concerned with those crops which yield economically and which can be commercialized easily. Genetic diversity of crops whether used in traditional farming systems, conventional breeding or new biotechnologies is the foundation for sustainable agriculture/ horticulture and global food security now and in the future. The ability of certain land races to withstand drought, grow in poor soil, resist an insect or disease, give higher yields or produce a better tasting food are traits passed on naturally by the genes present in that particular plant genetic resource. Old folk in villages know specific traits of land races as well as indigenous technical knowledge associated with the conservation and utilization of these land races, which they transfer generation to generation.

To fulfil the ever increasing demand of food, better understanding and management of genetic diversity is essential. Monoculture of genetically uniform modern varieties is replacing the highly diverse local cultivars and landraces in traditional agro-ecosystems. Changes in land-use pattern are significantly affecting diversity of the crop wild relatives. Globalization, industrialization, urbanization, changing life styles and market economies are contributing indirectly to the loss of diversity particularly of minor and neglected crops. Therefore, available genetic diversity and associated indigenous technical knowledge ought to be conserved and gainfully utilized/ commercialized.

Knowingly or unknowingly farmers are involved in the collection and selection of germplasm samples of different species from populations in the field or natural habitats for conservation and subsequent use. The unit of collection may be seeds or vegetative propagules, depending on the breeding system of the species. At farmers level collection is easy in species producing small seeds in abundance. However, it becomes problematic when seeds are unavailable or non viable due to damage of plants by grazing or diseases; large and fleshy seeds that are difficult to transport or where samples are not likely to remain viable during transportation due to remoteness of the collection site. Old folk in remote areas is conserving local land races and transferring related indigenous technical knowledge (ITK) generation to generation. This keeps agricultural practices sustainable and helps to conserve crop diversity of the region. Indigenous technical knowledge is the local knowledge that is unique to a society or culture. It is an asset of the population that guides them for judicious and efficient utilization of available natural resources for sustenance through production of crops. In the present era of modernization and globalization indigenous technical knowledge conserved for a long time is at the verge of extinction. Due to advent of modern technologies many ITK practices have already disappeared and it is difficult even for local people to trace back them. Therefore, it becomes important to make farmers aware about the benefits of these technologies so that they will conserve agro-biodiversity and preserve rich heritage of ITK. Although, ITK practices are practiced locally but most of these practices have some scientific background, therefore, scientific basis should be described among farmers to convince them about these practices. For example,

(i) In rain fed condition germination of rice is a problem it may take more than a month due to lack of moisture. Before sowing rain fed rice farmers dip seeds in water to imbibe. As a result of imbibition there will be de novo synthesis of growth hormone gibberrelic acid which helps in germination. Moreover, as an ITK practice farmers cover imbibed seeds with leaves over night. This increases seed germination. Logic behind this is slight increase in temperature of covered seeds. This enhances mobilization of stored food in the seed which helps in the growth of embryonic axis and results in faster and more germination

(ii) In rain fed condition direct sowing and in irrigated condition transplanting of rice seedlings is preferred practice. In irrigated condition seedlings take more than a week for establishment after transplanting. During this period transpiration loss may exceed absorption of water from soil. Hence incipient plasmolysis may take place, if continues for some time there may be permanent plasmolysis. Therefore, farmers are trimming leaf blades before transplanting which reduces available leaf area for transpiration and in this way transpiration loss is reduced

(iii) Farmers prefer to store harvested seeds in kitchen, reason behind this practice is that they are residing in huts, due to temperate climate and mountain topography seed drying is a problem. In kitchens seeds are dried without any extra effort due to heat released by burning of wood and cow dung in the kitchen, secondly smoke available in kitchen prevents attack of insects and pests

(iv) Farmers groom leaves of rhizomatous crops as yellowing starts. As leaves senesce photosynthetic process cease to function but respiration continues. Therefore, photosynthate stored in the rhizomes is tranlocated to leaves and this reduces yield. Therefore, in order to minimize the yield loss farmers groom senescing leaves

(v) In temperate fruits farmers apply farm yard manure (FYM) in ring method during lean season. There is double benefit of this practice, in these fruits root system is normally shallow hence if FYM is applied at certain distance from the main trunk nutrients will be easily available for new roots. Moreover, farmers will utilize their time during lean season in properly arranging and making FYM rings around their plants. There are several ITK practices common among farmers which have scientific base and help to conserve agro-biodiversity but need to make farmers aware about these.

Dunagiri region in the Almora district of Uttarakhand is naturally rich in agro-biodiversity. Radish of this region is famous for its taste. Due to high commercial value and high demand in the market farmers gradually turned towards monoculture of radish. This posed a threat to diversity of crops available in this region. Scientists of NBPGR Regional Station Bhowali meet with farmers; during interaction, personal discussion and with the help of related literature published by NBPGR Regional Station Bhowali, they have emphasized about the importance and benefits of cultivation of diverse crops and maintaining agro-biodiversity. Initially farmers were reluctant to maintain diversity reason being local land races of different crops are less remunerative. It has been emphasized that although every crop has its merits and demerits but diversity of different crop groups has been conserved and maintained generation to generation. This region is gifted with large number of land races of cereals. Each land race has different characteristics, which only local folk knows. Therefore, with the help of local people conservation of crop diversity of the region is essential for future generations. Moreover, pseudo cereals like buckwheat are mainly cultivated in high altitude areas if these will not be conserved then there may be problem of food security in such areas. Some crops like millets have short life span and tolerant to drought and temperature fluctuations. Due to high fibre content and nutrients these help to alleviate malnutrition. Pulse crops help in improving soil health status through nitrogen fixation in root nodules. Pulses help to improve texture of soil particles also. These can be grown with minimal inputs. Oil seeds are essential for preparation of any delicious dish in kitchen therefore, these need special attention. There are many more crop groups which have ample diversity and potential to play crucial role in food security.

Some farmers are maintaining diversity of crops generation to generation in their fields. Cultivation of diverse crops provides round the year income and employment to family members. Moreover, it reduces loss due to abiotic or biotic stresses as well as natural calamities. This practice minimizes risk involved in agriculture. In climate change scenario kiwi fruit has been found to be a good substitute of apple in this area. Kiwi fruit has several merits such as neither monkey nor wild pigs damage this crop. Harvested fruits can be stored at room temperature for more than one month. Hence, there is no problem of market; it can be sold in the market whenever farmer is free from other works during this period. Field crops fulfill food grain requirement of the family and surplus production makes seasonal income. These crops make a farmer self sufficient in food. Moreover, diversity of these crops reduces risk, provide fodder to animals which is more important for farmers in hills because mechanization is not easy in mountain topography hence farmers are dependent on animals for farm operations. Vegetable crops fulfill day to day expenses and help in routine saving. Off season vegetables have more demand and can be sold on premium prices in the market. Furthermore, fruit crops tremendously support farmer’s economy because in fruits, after establishment of orchard input cost is meagre. Benefits gradually increase with time. Small land holdings common in Central Himalayan Region are problem in the cultivation of modern released varieties because these need irrigation and other inputs but local germplasm of diverse crops helps to grow different crops in different agro-ecologies. As traditional agricultural practices are common in Central Himalayan Region it is more beneficial for farmers to conserve local land races rather than be dependent on modern released varieties. It is expected that in the future more farmers will be aware about importance of agro-biodiversity conservation and will come forward to conserve and cultivate diverse crops and contribute in sustainable agriculture.

About Author / Additional Info:
Senior Scientist, ICAR-National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, Regional Station Bhowali