Rajeev Khedkar is restoring the diversity of plant species cultivated in India by teaching farmers how to use, modify and preserve traditional species of rice. The re­introduction of traditional rice species will help farmers confront their problems of soil infertility, plant diseases and pests, and climate change.
The New Idea
Rajeev Khedkar is promoting the preservation and cultivation of India's indigenous plant species as a more sustainable and appropriate system of agricultural and ecological management. Through the reintroduction of a variety of indigenous rice species, he is demonstrating their effectiveness as a crop. By creating a string of interconnected local gene banks, he is providing for the widespread use of his strategy, while ensuring its sustainability by gaining grassroots support through public education and placing control of these resources within the community. In addition, he is creating a network of trained individuals to help farmers and agricultural organizations utilize and maintain the "living" gene banks across the widest possible area.
Traditionally, the farmers of India cultivated over 6,000 indigenous rice varieties, each with their own unique characteristics. Some indigenous varieties were capable of growing in over twenty feet of water while others could withstand weeks of intense drought. This wide genetic base served to ensure the stability and long-term sustainability of rice production in the country. Today, however, only a dozen varieties of imported "high-yielding" rice are used.The introduction of foreign high-yielding varieties has resulted in the disuse of most of the indigenous varieties of rice and has brought the plant bio­diversity of the region to dangerously low levels. The new varieties of rice often cannot adapt to the more extreme conditions of mountains and coastal areas, nor can they adapt to new strains of diseases or pests. These challenges threaten the long-term sustainability of farming in many areas.
Rajeev recognized that his first task was to collect and preserve indigenous rice varieties. Thus far, he has collected and stored over 350 varieties of rice from one southern region alone. In order to learn about their characteristics, strengths and weaknesses, he has planted the varieties in a three-acre "gene park."Rajeev is also currently teaching farmers self­reliance in the use of traditional species by training them to use selection, hybridization and cloning methods to adapt the species to their individual needs. He has achieved rapid success in re­introducing indigenous species in one area where farmers who were growing only three high-yielding varieties of rice are now cultivating ten indigenous species.Having achieved seed- and plant-growing self­sufficiency in a number of local areas, Rajeev is encouraging the establishment of local seed banks. He has established the Indian Society for Rural Gene Banks to provide technical assistance and networking opportunities to local communities who are setting up gene banks, as well as ongoing support for the gene banks into the future.
After receiving his master's degree in pharmacology, Rajeev began working with a project aimed at strengthening the local resource base of traditional medicines. During this period he compiled the Directory of Herbal Gardens in India and a manual on nursery techniques for traditional plants. From this experience he gained an acute awareness of the gap between the inherent value of indigenous bio-diversity and the difficult and often dangerous realities of modern agricultural practices and environmental management.Rajeev has also put his lifelong passions for cycling and trekking to the service of his work. He has made several cycling trips through the Himalayas and the Kanyakumari region at India's southern tip to promote nature awareness and conservation.