In a thatched hut among muddy paths in the Indian state of Orissa one finds a fellow who, on just the surrounding 2.3 acres of land, grows 940 different strains, or landraces, of rice. He calls the place a "seed ark" and asserts that is the only such collection of the diverse rice strains that once were farmed across eastern India.
The Kolkatta (nee Calcutta) native lives pretty humbly at the place – no electricity except for two solar panels to charge his phone and computer. He also is much more than a local farmer with a bee in his bonnet about heirloom rice. This is a trained ecologist – including a spell at UC-Berkeley – with strong links to an international movement to preserve crop diversity. It has a big job. the expansion of mechanized industrial agriculture by its nature pursues the economic advantage brought by mass production and uniformity of the work routine. Biodiversity among crops is the loser.
This I learned this morning:
- Earth Island Journal – GBSNP Varma: Seed Savior/ In India, One Man Is Keeping Alive Hundreds of Varieties of Heirloom Rice ;
Earth island Journal, a quarterly, is a proud survivor of the early days of the modern environmental movement in the US, published by the Earth Island Institute that David Brower founded in 1982 right here in my town of Berkeley. The journal's forte is sustainable living, grass-roots movements, and generally on living lightly on the landscape. And Varma's piece fits well in its ethos and in its customary crusading, advocacy journalism. This form of journalism has its strengths and pitfalls, both evident in this well reported profile and story. The asset it offers the reporter is to make a deliberate argument, to be openly enthusiastic, and to write with the drive and organization of rhetorical essay. On the other hand, it does not inherently encourage looking for different points of view. Thus, while one reads here that modern agriculture with its reliance on the economies of scale and of uniform practice has been a big reason that the variety of crops grown worldwide is plummeting, which is true, we get no reply from that industry. This is too bad – reporters calling up the big seed companies (yes, Monsanto et al) and asking what they are doing, with their big profits, to preserve global genetic variety in crops might encourage those companies to do more. They, even with their gene jiggering wizardry that in away increases the number of plant varieties by an oonch would benefit, when it comes time to swap in some more gene, to have on hand plentry of alternate genes evolution has already provided.
The story launches with a vignette lede as the seed man, Debal Deb, instructs some trainees in proper rice seedling terminology and management. It remains intimate, locked to Deb, his institute, and its lessons for most of its length. But partway through it has an eye-opening set of passages on similar efforts worldwide and the critical, continuing loss of crop diversity almost everywhere there are farmers. Following a narrative arc that closes the circle the account then returns to India
Mr. Varma sent ksjtracker a note calling attention to the story, thank you very much. He works in India and has published in US media before. A look around the web reveals that this includes, last year, a three-part series for Science Careers, a partner to Science, on the science employment picture in India. He also has had several stories that have run in The Caravan in India, a journal of politics and culture. Pretty good stuff there. He also, as a freelancer who has to eat, done his share of light and fluffy writing – with flair. As, for The Hindu: It's cool to look hot.
I have sent Varma a note asking how long he's been a journalist, whether he pitched the story on the seed savior to Earth Island Journal or what, and – if it is not impertinent – what that impressive string of initials in his byline stands for. Will upate as warranted.
*UPDATE: Mr. Varma replied promptly. First, he said his initials elicit giggles when spelled out. He shared his full name on condition I not follow suit. But it is a long – and handsome – handle, 18 syllables in all. Second, he pitched the story to Earth Island J's editor, Jason Mark, who suggested the "braided essay" switching from the narrow to broad view and back. And, he said most of his writing energy recently has gone into a long-form magazine in India called Fountain Ink. He has a broad range as a science journalist. Here are a few examples:
- May 7 – As he lay dying ; Fighting the Pain ;
- June 4 – Tipping points and phase transitions/Mathematics is a mystery to most of us who don't know why we should bother with it. Vishwesha Guttal and friends explain the practical value of exotic branches of the field such as mathematical ecology ;
- Nov. 4 – The changing waters of India ;
- Mar 4, 2013 – Helping Hands for Wounded Lives / the men and women who run the government AIDS programme ;
The hero of Varma's tale for Earth Island Journal has caught media attention before:
- The Guardian , June 28, 2013: India's seed saviour goes against the corporate grain – in pictures.
- GoodNews India Magazine, April, 2012: Debal Deb – keeper of seeds ;