Seed Keeping is an ancient occupation in India and farmers have done it for millennia. Seed keepers are farmers that in addition to their work in the fields have the responsibility of putting part of their harvest aside as seed for the next crop rotation.They select, dry and conserve these seeds to then exchange them with other farmers.“Free exchange among farmers goes beyond mere exchange of seeds: it also involves exchange of ideas and knowledge, of culture and heritage. It is an accumulation of tradition, of knowledge of how to work the seed” (Seed Dictatorship and Food Fascism by Vandana Shiva ed. Navdanya).
During a three month period of research in India I spent a week at Bija Vidyapeeth on Navdanya Agrobiodiversity Conservation and Ecological Farm close to Dehra Dun in Uttarkand. Here I talked to three seed keepers Bija, Bindu and Sheila. Seed keeping for them is a family affair.
Indian traditional seed keeping is a vast subject I am just starting to understand. A comparatively easy concept is the way multinationals are trying to take over tradition with hybridised and GM seeds. In the specific case of India, there are strong pressures to substitute traditional, local seeds with branded, sterile seeds, fertilizer and pesticides, first giving them out free, then once the soil has been impoverished and contaminated, for a price.This has led to call the mono-cultured, cotton growing belt that runs through the centre north of India,The Suicide Belt. Here, farmers get so much into debt that they end up committing suicide by drinking the same pesticide that they can no longer afford.
Another problem that multinationals are creating through their false rhetoric of technology-to-feed-the-world, is the disappearance of an outstanding amount of seeds varieties that are just right for that specific climate and soil. In fifty years the Indian rice varieties have gone from more than 2000 to just over 600. During the Green Revolution in the sixties, hybridised wheat seeds were introduced into India of the Mexican Dwarf variety.These became mono-cultures of extensive nature, which the companies marketed and sold as high yielding crops that would solve India’s food crisis.They did, but only for a few years, after which the soil became increasingly infertile and the amount of water necessary for this foreign seed to grow left the country in a renewed water crisis.
Nowadays, Monsanto is trying to patent – hence to own – native plant varieties such as the Neem Tree and some varieties of basmati rice.With its army of lawyers, political ties and money – a net profit of $7billion in 2012 – it is buying the right to own nature. Farmers are loosing not only their knowledge of seed keeping, but also their confidence in what they know.They are casting aside a lot of complex community binding rituals that go through their cultural tradition. As a consequence seeds are disappearing and the communities are becoming weaker.
Better education about the long-term consequences of using GM or hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides for farmers is needed. In India, organisations like Navdanya have created a “seed freedom” movement helping to conserve knowledge where possible, train and educate local farmers, prevent the loss of local plant species and creating biodiversity-based and organic agriculture. Such organizations, though, have to compete with multinationals and even government recommendations on a small budget, so they need support and public awareness.
Seed to Seed – The video
Seed to Seed will be a video exploring the idea of seed keeping traditions in India, as well as representing an intimate portrait of an uncomfortable situation which will potentially affect millions of people.The work includes artist film, as well as a collaboration with agricultural education organisation Navdanya in India and potentially a seed banks in the UK.
In Seed to Seed, I wish to juxtapose sound and images as two different elements in dialog with each other.
The sound is a triangulated conversation between the artist, the translator and the seed keeper. In this three-part dialogue the inter-cultural element is inscribed within the averaging (rounding up to the closest unit) of meaning. The
question “What is lost in translation?” becomes apparent.The conversation also contains the political aspect of my work, where the different seed keepers describe what they do and how this knowledge was passed on to them from family and neighbours.They describe varieties of rice and what they are good for, how to use plants to heal oneself and generally talk about their life working in the fields.
In September I will be organising a workshop at Fabrica as part of the Brighton Digital Festival 2013 where I will ask a mixed audience of Indian and British heritage to contribute conceptually to my work by listening and commenting on the seed keepers conversations. In response to this, I will then develop the piece further.
The landscape depicted in the moving image – the backwaters of Kerala in the South West of India – is very distant from the place where the interviewed seed keepers live – the foothills of the Himalayas. In bringing together two realities so geographically distant from each other, I wish to bring to the surface the multifaceted nature of the Indian subcontinent, but also underline that seed keeping is happening throughout India, amongst other things as a form of resistance to commercial, globalised profit driven pressures.
The landscape and sound also have a meditative aspect to them.The steady pace of the images passing by and the voice of the seed keepers are both rhythmic and draw the spectator in.
The film will be shown moving in Brighton in November 2013, with accompanying talks and workshops exploring the ideas around seeds and their meaning in different culture.This will also be integrated with a collaboration with Asian communities in the UK.
Seed to Seed aims to then tour to galleries throughout the UK and possibly India.