KRISHNA PRASAD

India,

Krishna Prasad is plugging the increasing demand for organic seeds in India, by commercializing organic seeds through an organic seed company that will be owned and managed by farmers. Krishna is creating a new market for organic farming in India by leveraging the knowledge and networks of existing farmers to revive and maintain traditional varieties of seeds and commercialize organic seeds.

This profile below was prepared when Krishna Prasad was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2010.

INTRODUCTION

Krishna Prasad is plugging the increasing demand for organic seeds in India, by commercializing organic seeds through an organic seed company that will be owned and managed by farmers. Krishna is creating a new market for organic farming in India by leveraging the knowledge and networks of existing farmers to revive and maintain traditional varieties of seeds and commercialize organic seeds.




THE NEW IDEA

Krishna believes that the assured supply of quality organic seeds is the first step toward incentivizing the preservation of traditional varieties of seeds and organic farming. By forming a seed company that would be owned and operated by farmers, he intends to create a sustainable model for the commercialization of organic seeds in India. 

Drawing from his extensive experience in farming, Krishna begins by organizing select farmers (e.g. seed savers and breeders) into groups based on the produce. Such farmers not only own the company but also ensure the diversified and stable supply of quality organic seeds to the company. Through a careful selection process, seed breeders also create new varieties and multiply the seed. The company in turn, through various “seed centers,” undertakes necessary steps to ensure quality control, storage and packaging of seeds. By obtaining necessary certification and entering in to royalty arrangements with farmer groups to commercialize the seeds, the company would bring to the market, highly competitive traditional varieties of seeds. Such seeds for different vegetables, grains and millets would be less vulnerable to weather conditions, suitable for local soil and meet nutritional needs. The wholesale supply of quality organic seeds will create an ecosystem for sustainable organic farming by creating economical incentives for the farming communities. 




THE PROBLEM

The green revolution in India and the introduction of high yielding varieties have been subject to severe criticism on account of their negative impact on the environment and farming community. Hybrid seed varieties require immense amounts of capital to be invested by the farmer to purchase hybrid seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. However, crop failures are frequent as hybrid seeds are less resistant to weather changes and droughts. Farmers, trapped in a cycle of debt, are unable to pay off the loans required each year on account of such crop failures or lack of adequate returns. Additionally, with a large number of farmers growing commercial crops (such as cotton and sunflower instead of food grains varieties) food security in rural areas has decreased significantly. This became one of the major causes of farmer suicides in the last twenty years in India. In 2006, 17,060 farmers committed suicide. This has resulted in an increasing number of farmers willing to move back to organic farming. 

Separately, according to a study by Rabobank India, approximately 65 percent of the Indian cropped area is “organic by default.” For instance, farmers located in the Eastern and North-Eastern regions of India are still mostly practicing organic methods, as they lack the financial resources to opt for chemical farming. But according to government statistics in 2002, from a total food production of over 200 million tons, India produced only 14,000 tons of organic food products. This is because India currently has only 1,426 certified organic farms. In order to officially certify its produce as organic, a farmer needs to meet certain criteria, and here purity of seed becomes one of the challenges. 

While there is a significant number of farmers opting for organic farming, there is a limited supply of quality organic seeds. Presently, organic seeds are either saved by farmers themselves or distributed by community-run seed banks. However, conserving seeds is a labor intensive and time-consuming process for individual farmers. Furthermore, seed banks rely on local farmers, many of whom do not have the skills or interest to conserve seeds, to contribute quality seeds. Also, as seed banks do not have adequate facilities and manpower to preserve the seeds, the quality of seeds deteriorate and many do not germinate. Seed banks are also limited in their reach and spread to supply diverse varieties of seeds. Moreover, seed banks, seed breeders, and seed savers usually work independently from each other and without collaboration. This results in inefficient infrastructure for organic farming, leading to poor yields and decreasing the biodiversity of food crops. 

Commercial seed companies in India also do not supply organic seeds, as profit margins for organic seeds are much lower than those of hybrid varieties. More importantly, as intellectual property rights in India protect the rights of the farming communities over traditional varieties of seeds, seed corporations cannot commercially exploit traditional varieties of seeds without partnering with farmer groups. Most farming communities that have rights over traditional varieties are not organized and corporations do not have the necessary network to organize such farmers to enter into licensing arrangements with them. As a result, there is no stable supply of organic seeds in India. Citizen organizations that seek to support organic farming, supply seeds (outside of seed banks) illegally as they do not have the necessary finances or infrastructure to legally obtain certification to sell the seeds. 




THE STRATEGY

Krishna is using a market-based approach to enable the stable and sustainable supply of organic and traditional varieties of seeds. He is leveraging farmers capacities and enabling them to bring positive change by forming a seed company that will be owned and managed by them. By centralizing operations and bringing economical incentives to farmers, the seed company will establish quality standards and increase their productivity. 

Having established thirty-four seed banks in the last fifteen years by organizing and nurturing a network of farmers, Krishna recognizes that all farmers do not have the skills to be seed savers. Therefore, he has identified and selected farmers and farmer breeders in the state of Karnataka, who have, based on his experience, exhibited the passion and skills to be seed savers. Such farmers will be grouped together based on geographical locations and produce, and also own 100 percent of the capital of the seed company. Apart from carrying out their routine farming activities, the select farmers will also select, purify, and multiply the seeds on “seed farms” to supply quality seeds to the company. Farmers are to produce a diverse variety of seeds for food grains (rice, wheat, and millets) pulses, vegetables, and fruits. 

Krishna intends to set up “seed centers” near the seed farms that will have the necessary infrastructure to undertake quality testing, store, preserve, and pack the seeds. To help farmer communities and groups monetize their intellectual property rights over traditional varieties of seeds and farmer varieties, Krishna also intends to organize farming communities and farmer breeders into associations or societies. He then intends to enter into negotiated licensing arrangements with them in return for royalty payments or equity interest in the seed company. 

The company will also obtain necessary certification to be able to sell the seeds in the market at competitive rates. For instance, the price of 1 kilogram of rice seed and maize seeds is expected to be Indian Rs. 30 and Rs. 40 (US$.59 and .79 cents) against an average of Rs. 40 and Rs. 75 (US$.79 and $1.48) respectively, for hybrid varieties. The prices for vegetable seeds are expected to be significantly cheaper. For example, the price of tomato seeds produced is expected to be Rs. 4,000 per kg against the current cost of Rs. 30,000 (US$592.00). By bringing the cost of farming down and assuring quality, the seed company can stabilize the livelihoods of the farmers.

By establishing this company, Krishna is creating a legal and social framework for farmers to commercialize organic and traditional varieties of seeds and ensure that demand for organic seed is met with a high emphasis on quality. The quality standards, customization to local conditions, and significantly cheaper pricing of the seed will also enable the company to compete for the share of the market. For instance, Krishna expects the seed company in three years to be producing 80,000 kg of rice seeds, 10,000 kg of maize seeds and 1,000 kg of tomato seeds as against 3,000 kg of rice seeds, 500 kg of maize seeds and 10 kg of tomato seeds currently produced in this network. The existence of a stable supply channel for organic seeds can contribute significantly to the scale of organic farming in India.

To bring this idea to scale Krishna is actively publishing articles around the issue. He is also building an extensive network of similar farmer groups in Maharashtra, Kerala, and West Bengal. He is building strategic connections and aims to build other companies across India. By identifying the right partners, Krishna will be able to transfer this knowledge to others to replicate a similar model in other parts of India. His long-term vision is to see this market being divided between various farmer seed companies that will be marketing different varieties depending on specific conditions in their locations. 

Krishna also wants to see farmers, previously marginalized and victimized, become recognized agricultural professionals. To achieve this, he created an organization to promote urban gardening in Bangalore. Farmers from surrounding villages are becoming instructors, who come for a weekend to consult city dwellers on agricultural practices, which raises farmers’ societal status and also creates a surplus to their income. Through his work, Krishna is enabling farmers to become field scientists who control and direct agricultural processes.




THE PERSON

Krishna comes from a family of farmers and was involved with agricultural activities from an early age. His older brother was an agricultural activist and an inspiration for Krishna and the whole family to introduce innovative farming techniques and sowing different varieties. 

Krishna’s interests in agriculture and environmental issues pushed him to study environmental engineering at college. Right after the course started, the university decided to cancel it as there were few students taking the course. The faculty advised Krishna to switch to an information technology course—a nascent area with a promising future. However, determined to pursue environmental engineering, he applied to a different university and convinced them to enroll him during the middle of the year. 

One of the books that inspired Krishna deeply as a student was One Straw Revolution, by Japanese writer, Masanobu Fukuoka. This book helped him build his vision for natural farming and how society should adopt it. His desire to convince people to go back to practicing organic farming was very strong and Krishna used his skills as a good writer to publish articles around this topic. Krishna has published nearly 150 articles on organic farming, mostly in local languages. He remembers a story about someone asking him to write an article about a local variety of seed, but he was never able to find a farmer growing it. This made him think of hundreds of food varieties becoming extinct and silently disappearing. This was a turning point for Krishna, who then joined the Green Foundation, one of the pioneering organizations working in the conservation of seeds. Krishna spent twelve years with the Green Foundation, building networks of organic farmers, creating seed banks, publishing books on a variety of seeds, and building relationships with other conservation organizations in the country. 

In 2006 Krishna felt that the approach he was taking wasn’t enough to change the direction of Indian agriculture. Therefore he left the Green Foundation to start his own organization—Sahaja Samrudha (Bountiful Nature). Knowing that organic farmers need strong market support, he promoted a producer company owned by organic farmers to link organic farmers to the market. After all this work he realized that the key for sustainable organic farming was in creating a sustainable supply of the organic seed. Krishna saw an organic seed company, owned by the farmers that would use a market-based approach to achieve sustainability as an ideal solution and made that his goal: To change the workings of farming in India.