Traditional varieties: old seed, new success

Indian farmers are preparing for climate change with old and comparatively robust seed for rice and cereal. The varieties are also proving financially beneficial. Nevertheless, many farmers come a cropper first before converting their farming methods.

After the floods not a single grain is left in the husks and the ears of corn are destroyed. “How long did the flooding last?” asks Kusum Misra. “Five days”, the rice farmer answers despairingly. He has spent a lot of money buying seed and cultivating his field. Now, he is faced with ruin while all around the fields are still green. The neighbours, by contrast, sowed traditional seed that they obtained from seed activist Kusum Misra. This saved them.

Old seed could acclimatise to the soil and climate

Scenes like in the film “10 Billion” produced by German documentary filmmaker, Valentin Thurner, are not uncommon. Hybrid seed for rice, millet, vegetables and cotton is widespread in India. Because of this agrochemical groups rake in millions, while the farmers are heavily in debt because of their purchases. Fertilisers and pesticides are also expensive. They only use the invested money if they are lucky. If heavy rainfall floods the fields or drought periods make the soil arid, the farmers lose their harvest. This is not the case with old varieties – since traditional seed was produced for many generations, nowadays it is obviously better adapted to the soil condition and increasing frequency of extreme weather episodes. The chances of losing a harvest are much lower.

Local varieties are important for the farmers to survive

Local seed plays a major role in India for farmers’ food security. There are many private ‘seed mothers’ like Kusum Misra on the subcontinent who do their best to prevent tried and tested varieties from disappearing. “I have motherly feelings towards these seeds. They’re like my children”, says the activist and shows the carefully labelled pots containing the seed.

The problem is not the lack of will, but the shortage of networks: SWISSAID is therefore working with five local partner organisations to bring together seed mothers in local networks in ten states so they can swap seeds and knowledge from their seed banks. Old rice, millet, vegetable and cotton varieties should therefore be protected from disappearing and farmers should be familiarised with them. This is how to reach out to 10,000 farmers across 213 villages.

Successfully converting

Krishna is one of these farmers. For many years he also produced conventionally; he purchased hybrid seed and cultivated his rice fields with synthetic fertiliser, pesticides and weedkiller or to be more precise: he poisoned it. In the short term chemicals certainly produce wonderful harvests, but in the long term they cause damage – and not only to the soil: “At some point I no longer tolerated the pest control agents. I felt permanently ill and had headaches.” Today, Krishna is better. He cultivates old varieties and uses natural fertiliser. The conversion was also worthwhile financially.

Kusum Misra explains that the late insight is typical. Many farmers “really come a cropper first” before they return to more resilient and traditional varieties. Thanks to Kusum Misra and her fellow campaigners’ seed banks, hopefully, these seeds will continue to exist.



  • Project number: 02/15/02
  • Project duration: 12 months
  • Project costs: 236,813 Swiss francs
  • Number of beneficiaries: 10,000 farmers across 213 villages