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Safeguarding Traditional Seed Storage Systems for Sustainable Agriculture

Traditional Grain Storage Structures

The foundation of agriculture lies in seeds, and since time immemorial, farmers have been storing these vital resources in indigenous structures at their homes. These self-storage systems, originating from ancient times, offer a nature-friendly and practical solution, well-suited to specific agro-climatic conditions.

Aligning with the principles of ecological sustainability, seed storage systems have played a pivotal role in maintaining India’s fertile lands and rich biodiversity over centuries. This article delves into the significance of traditional seed storage methods and the challenges they face in a rapidly changing agricultural landscape.

Embracing Eco-friendly Traditions

Seed Storage
Traditional Seed Preservation Method

Amidst the rising awareness of environmental impact, traditional methods of seed storage and protection are gaining popularity. A comprehensive study was conducted to document the diverse traditional seed storage structures employed by farmers, with a profound objective of preserving and promoting these practices for future generations.

The transition towards sustainable practices entails reducing reliance on non-degradable and artificially created materials. Here, the power of indigenous knowledge shines through, with its accessibility, low cost, and accumulated wisdom from human interaction with the environment.

Modern Challenges and Their Impact

However, the modern drive for agricultural development to feed a growing population has inadvertently affected traditional seed storage systems. The outer Himalayan regions, for instance, face increasing exposure to formal seed systems and storage technologies introduced by multinational seed companies, including genetically modified seeds and advanced planting methods.

Additionally, public and private institutions’ plant breeding and multiplication methodologies, regulated and certified, have come with specific recommendations and restrictions. While market-driven seeds boost yields through fossil-fuel-based inputs, they simultaneously erode the invaluable community-based plant breeding practices that are deeply rooted in tradition.

As a result, the traditional seed system’s weakening poses a threat to seed sovereignty and in-situ germplasm conservation, thereby jeopardizing the nutraceutical security of marginalized farmers. Furthermore, traditional crop by-products, serving as fodder for livestock, play a pivotal role in subsistence farming.

The Essence of Traditional Seed Systems

Maintaining a traditional seed system, governed by local farmers, emerges as a crucial aspect of sustainable food production, balanced nutrition, and genetic diversity preservation, especially in marginal environments. It involves active farmer engagement in managing adaptable landraces and encompasses various seed-related activities, from selection to production, storage, and exchanges via gifts, barter, or purchases in nearby markets.

Moreover, the traditional seed system nurtures socio-cultural practices, fortifies the network of marginal farming communities, and upholds ancestral knowledge systems and traditional storage techniques. It resists the diffusion of ex-situ seeds, thereby preserving local socio-cultural values and adapting to minor environmental and weather changes, ensuring soil health, market price control, and minimum production and income security, even under adverse agro-climatic conditions.

Also read – Millets to Ensure Food and Nutritional Security of Indigenous Communities

Unraveling the Erosion of Knowledge

Over time, various studies have revealed the erosion of socio-economic and cultural knowledge intertwined with the traditional seed system. While the role of traditional seed practices in enhancing genetic diversity and gene flow has been widely reported, the scientific evidence supporting seed selection and storage remains relatively scarce, leading to skepticism among proponents of modern agricultural reforms.

Seed Selection and Exchange Practices

In the traditional seed system, farmers prioritize the quality, longevity, and estimated yield of grains and crop by-products over sheer production volume. They carefully select seeds from solo crop fields to avoid contamination and ensure optimal yields. Seed exchange becomes common when yields decline after continuous cultivation, usually around 7-8 years. Farmers also exchange seeds if they become infected during storage or face scarcity due to drought or high seed prices.

The majority of farmers, over 70%, prefer exchanging seeds within their community or neighboring villages, with almost 80% opting for community-level exchanges or purchases to reduce travel expenses. In cases where crop owners are relatives or friends, they mutually agree to exchange seeds, often returning the same quantity or 20% more immediately after the crop harvest.

During these exchanges, farmers account for additional seeds, about 25%, to compensate for storage losses and calculate wastage during sowing. The exchange of cereal crops primarily involves men or heads of households, while women play a significant role in exchanging vegetable and pulse seeds within the village.

Time-Honored Practices for Seed Storage

Critical crops like paddy, millets, pulses, oilseeds, and vegetables such as squashes, pumpkins, cucumbers, French beans, faba beans, long beans, gourds, okra, brinjal, and tomatoes form the major crops for seed exchange. After selection, farmers leave the desired individual plants in situ until they fully mature or ripen, ensuring optimal seed collection. Throughout this process, farmers employ traditional methods to protect these mother plants from wild animal crop raids, grazing livestock, poachers, and pests without resorting to chemical interventions.

Subsequently, the harvested seeds are sun-dried for a few days and stored in various containers made of wood, bamboo, mud, metal, or plastic, all treated with traditional techniques to safeguard them from insects and pests. This in-house storage significantly contributes to the traditional seed system and enhances the genetic diversity of local landraces.

Also read – Explore the Rich Diversity of Traditional Paddy Varieties

Harnessing Ancient Wisdom for a Sustainable Future

The wealth of traditional knowledge passed down through generations stems from the wisdom and experiences of our ancestors. Embracing Indigenous Traditional Knowledge and techniques during grain storage presents a sustainable alternative to synthetic pesticides. This approach has facilitated the availability of various biological preparations, particularly microbial pesticides.

Ancient practices have long relied on environmentally degradable or plant-based products like husk, shell, ash, neem seed oil, cow urine, cow dung, milk, red earth, and sand for coating seeds during storage. The Vedas, in particular, contain numerous examples of using cow dung, milky juice of Solanum indicum, coconut water, Emblicaribes, cow urine, and ghee (butter oil) for treating seed materials.

A wealth of indigenous botanical knowledge related to seed treatment, pest control, and seed storage can be traced in ancient Indian texts such as Varahmihira’s Brihatsamhita (5AD), Lokopakara’s Vrikshayurveda (5AD), and Sarangdhara Samhita (13AD), reflecting a predominantly agrarian society’s practices. Even today, farmers continue to rely on local herbal remedies to control storage pests and protect seed materials.

Securing the Future with Proper Seed Storage

Ensuring proper seed storage is a pivotal process in maintaining seed viability and vigor during storage periods. Various storage structures, ranging from bamboo baskets to mud structures, gunny bags, and modern bins with temperature and moisture controls, cater to different seed storage durations. Each structure serves as a guardian of the seeds, preserving their potential to sustain life and nourish generations to come.

Indigenous and Traditional Grain Storage Structures

1. Kanaja/Galagi

The Kanaja/Galagi is a cylindrical bamboo grain storage container commonly found in paddy growing areas of the transition and hilly zones. It is plastered with a mixture of mud and cow dung to prevent spillage and pilferage of grains. The top is also covered with mud & cow dung mixture or paddy straw/gunny bags for added protection.

2. Sandaka

Sandaka, also known as “pettige,” are wooden boxes used for storing pulses, seeds, and smaller quantities of grains for home consumption. These boxes have a storage capacity of three to twelve quintals and feature a big lid with a small outlet for grain retrieval. Some boxes have partitions to store different types of grains. Raised on legs to protect from moisture, Sandaka is a common sight in households with substantial grain production.

3. Kothi

Kothi is a proper room with a large door for pouring grains and a small outlet at the bottom for grain retrieval. It is primarily used for storing jowar and paddy and is often found in large landholding households where significant quantities of grains are produced.

4. Utrani

Utrani consists of mud pots used for storing small quantities of grains. Made by the village potter from burnt clay, these pots vary in shape and size. They are stacked up at floor level and used for safe storage.

5. Hagevu

Hagevu is an underground structure or simple pit used for storing grains, especially jowar. Lined with straw ropes to prevent moisture damage, it is sealed with mud plaster after filling with grains. Hagevu is advantageous for its natural fumigation properties, ensuring insect and mold-free storage.

6. Dried Gourd

Dried Gourd containers are made from the hard outer rinds of fruits from the squash or cucurbitaceae family. After removing the inner flesh, the gourds serve as containers for storing small quantities of grains, either for home consumption or planting. Treated with varnish, paint, or linseed oil, they provide an airtight storage condition.

7. Crib

The crib is a rectangular enclosed structure elevated above the ground, supported on columns with well-ventilated sides made of straw, palm leaves, bamboo, or wire netting. Traditionally used for un-threshed maize cobs, it now serves to store various other crops. However, it offers limited protection against insect pests and storage losses.

8. Bamboo House

Bamboo houses are made of bamboo splits joined by carpentry work. These structures are used for storing large quantities of food grains and are coated with cow dung or sprinkled with cow urine to deter insects and rodents.

9. Obeh

Obeh is an oval-shaped storage platform made from tightly interwoven bamboo sticks, providing airtight compartments for storing unthreshed rice. It has a storage capacity of 5.0-10.0 tonnes and features a removable roof for loading and offloading rice.

10. Earthen Pots

Earthen pots made of clay are used for storage purposes, with the walls coated with clay and the mouth closed with stiff cow dung paste reinforced with cloth. These pots can be arranged vertically, one over the other, depending on the pot’s size.

11. Gunny Bags

Gunny bags are used for storing seeds due to their durability, affordability, and air circulation properties. Treated with neem kernel solution, they protect seeds from pest attacks for up to four months.

12. Granary Rooms for Paddy Storage

Granary rooms are constructed during the building of the house itself, featuring wooden floors and brick-cement walls with a net-protected door for ventilation.

13. Maize Storage Bins

Traditional maize drying/storage methods include sun drying, outdoor raised open bamboo structures (Thankuro/Suli), indoor natural aerated bamboo structures (Meera), hanging on ropes, and placing above the kitchen.

14. Bhakari

Bhakari is a square-shaped mud and bamboo structure used for storing sorghum, wheat, paddy, maize, etc. Grains are kept in bulk inside, and the upper portion is plastered with mud and covered with polythene sheets to prevent moisture loss.

Traditional Grain Storage Practices

While newer methods of cold storage gain popularity among affluent farmers, many regions still adhere to traditional grain storage practices that have been passed down through generations. These methods utilize natural substances and techniques to protect grains from pests and ensure longer storage periods.

1. Storage of Seeds with Lime

In this traditional method, pulses are stored alongside lime powder. Approximately 10 grams of lime per kilogram of grains are dusted, and the mixture is placed in jute gunny bags. The strong aroma of lime repels insects, safeguarding the grains from damage and allowing them to be stored for up to one year.

2. Storage of Grains using Camphor

For short-term storage (up to 3 months), grains can be preserved by placing 1 gram of camphor per 5 kilograms of grains in jute gunny bags. The potent odor of camphor acts as a deterrent to storage pests. After three months, the grains are sun-dried and combined with fresh camphor for subsequent storage.

3. Cow Dung in Vegetable Seed Storage

To store vegetable seeds such as ash gourd, bitter gourd, and bottle gourd, farmers create plate-like round structures from fresh cow dung, known as Varatis. The seeds are inserted into the cow dung and dried under the sun for 2-3 days. Once the seeds adhere to the Baratos, they are stored inside wooden boxes. This method allows seeds to be stored for up to one year and can be directly used as seed balls during planting.

4. Neem Oil in Seed Storage

Neem oil serves as a natural repellent against various insects, including weevils, red flour beetles, long-headed flour beetles, and fig moths. Farmers apply 20 milliliters of neem oil per kilogram of pulses, coating the seeds uniformly to protect them during storage.

5. Ash Treatment in Sorghum

For sorghum seeds, a mixture of ash in a 1:4 ratio is applied. The treated seeds are then packed airtight in jute gunny bags, allowing them to be stored for 6 months without encountering storage pest problems.

6. Neem Leaves against Storage Pests

To combat a wide range of storage pests like pulse beetles and grain borers, farmers use a traditional method of keeping Neem (Azadirachta indica) leaves alongside the stored grains in gunny bags. This practice effectively repels storage pests and enables grains to be stored for up to one year.

7. Red Gram Storage with Common Salt

For short-term preservation (6-8 months), farmers manually mix approximately 200 grams of salt with 1 kilogram of red gram grains. The treated grains are then stored in jute gunny bags, which are stitched to keep insects at bay. This practice has proven effective in protecting red gram grains from pests. In some cases, red gram is also coated with oil for added preservation.

Biological, Minerals, and Other Materials in Traditional Pest Control

As the ill effects of synthetic pesticides continue to escalate, farmers are turning to traditional pest control methods that utilize various biological, mineral, and other natural materials. These ancient practices have proven to be safe, biodegradable, and less persistent, making them an essential focus in modern agriculture. Moreover, integrating traditional seed storage methods with modern scientific knowledge can lead to innovative and sustainable practices for the benefit of mankind.

1. Plant-Based Products in Ancient Times

During Vedic periods, farmers relied on a diverse range of plant-based products for pest control and crop nutrition. These materials, readily available in and around their lands, were carefully chosen and continue to hold significance in today’s agricultural practices. Some of the best-known plant species used during this era include rice flour, calcium carbonate, charcoal, kitchen ash, goat hair, tender coconut, clay, ragi husk, rice husk, chicken excreta, sugar, common salt, coconut, red earth, tamarind seed, asafoetida, sawdust, river sand, kerosene, ox horn, cow dung, cow urine, fish oil, buttermilk, and even mercury.

2. Reviving Traditional Seed Storage

Traditional seed storage methods were not only eco-friendly but also highly logical. To ensure the preservation and protection of traditional agricultural knowledge/practices available in tribal regions, it is crucial to motivate tribal farmers to adopt these practices from the past. By blending these traditional techniques with modern scientific knowledge, a vast array of new ideas and practices can be generated to develop sustainable agricultural systems in rural areas. Embracing the wisdom of our ancestors can help safeguard agricultural produce and contribute to a more harmonious relationship between human beings and the environment.

Conclusion

In conclusion, ancient farming methods of grain storage structures have proven to be highly effective in providing an excellent environment for stored grains. These traditional structures offer significant cost advantages in terms of both fabrication and maintenance compared to modern storage units. Stored grain pests pose a serious threat to food grains during storage, and the use of synthetic pesticides has raised concerns due to their adverse effects on the environment and the persistence of harmful residues in the food chain.

Indigenous practices that utilize locally available materials have emerged as a sustainable and eco-friendly alternative. These methods not only protect food grains but also minimize health hazards and prove to be cost-effective. Many of these practices rely on plants with rich sources of bio-active compounds, further highlighting their potential value in agriculture.

Despite the numerous benefits of traditional seed storage systems, there is still a need for more concerted efforts to explore and make these methods more widely available. Systematic research on the benefits and applications of such storage systems is essential to preserve, promote, and perpetuate their usage as agricultural production increases with technological advancements.

One obstacle faced in the adoption of botanicals is farmers’ hesitation, as they perceive them to be less effective than modern pesticides in providing quick knockdown effects. Therefore, there is a crucial need to raise awareness among farmers regarding the advantages of traditional practices. These time-tested methods hold unique strengths over imported knowledge, as they are readily available, cost-effective, and can be immediately adapted, leading to a more sustainable approach in agriculture. By embracing our ancestral wisdom and incorporating it into modern agricultural practices, we can pave the way for a healthier, environmentally conscious, and economically viable future for farming communities.

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