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A living laboratory for rare fruit trees, roots, tubers and medicinal plants in Bangalore

Planting trees at the Bangalore Living Laborary Ceremony. Photo: Bioversity International/A. Gupta

India’s first ever genetic garden opens to safeguard and study rare plant species that are important for food and medicine, in one of the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots. 

A living laboratory for rare crop and fruit diversity opens in Bangalore India’s first ever genetic garden opens to safeguard rare species that are important for food and medicine, in one of the world’s 35 global biodiversity hotspots.  

Dr. Prem Mathur, Regional Director, Asia, Pacific, Oceania reports from Bangalore.

In March, I was proud to take part in the opening ceremony for Bioversity International’s office and India’s first ever genetic garden in Bengaluru. Bengaluru is the capital of Karnataka State in India, close to the Western Ghats – one the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots.

The garden will safeguard a genepool of rare species of flora endemic to the Western Ghats and will be a ‘living laboratory’ to study these species and how their different traits can be used to help improve the nutrition and livelihoods of farming households and rural communities in the region. It is expected that a total of 60 rare fruits, 13 species of roots and tubers and 65 species of medicinal plants will be planted across the 5 acre plot.

Many traditional and localized species have been ‘forgotten’ as the trend for modern staple crops like rice, wheat and maize dominate agricultural production and diets not only in India, but the rest of the world. With high rates of malnutrition and yields being affected by climate change, looking back to our rich plant genetic heritage can help us adapt to the future. For example, by studying differences between these species and varieties, and the associated traditional knowledge of their use, we can better understand varieties which have traits that are better adapted to changing climatic conditions or are more nutritious.

Several distinguished guests at the opening ceremony planted a fruit tree that is commonly found in the region including Jackfruit, custard apple, Indian gooseberry, Jamun, mangosteen, tamarind, wood apple, pomelo, karonda and water apple. Guests included M. Ann Tutwiler, Director General, Bioversity International, Dr. S. Ayyappan, Director General, Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Dr. R.R. Hanchinal, Chairman, Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Authority (PPV&FRA) as well as Vice Chancellors from five agricultural and horticultural universities in Karnataka State.

Opening ceremony Bangalore OfficeThe generous support of University of Horticultural Science (UHS), Bagalkot means that we have these facilities situated on campus both in terms of office space and land for the genetic garden. This gives us direct access to expert professors, and to MSc and PhD students, who can learn why these endemic species are so important for the region’s future. I really see this as a ‘win-win’ for exchanging knowledge and ultimately a ‘win-win’ for species diversity and the rural communities who depend on it for their food and livelihoods. We can also monitor more closely the research we are carrying out in the region, such as work with local partners to improve the nutritional and livelihood security of smallholder farming families through better use of both cultivated and lesser known tropical fruit tree diversity.

We have a long history of working on how agricultural biodiversity can contribute to food and nutrition security in India, with the support of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). One example is a 10-year project to promote minor millets in four districts of India, including Karnataka, in terms of their nutritional content, their resilience to dry conditions and their income generation opportunities.* We worked closely with local partners including the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation. Minor millets have now been included in the 2013 Food Security Bill which means they will be more widely available to farmers and consumers.

In 2013, we were really pleased to sign a new 5-year agreement with ICAR to improve agricultural sustainability, smallholder well-being and resilience to climate change in India through the use and conservation of agricultural biodiversity and are also looking forward to work closely with Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority (PPV&FRA) to help establish a network of around 600 community seedbanks across India using low-cost technology such as use of dessicants and air-tight containers for storing seeds at room temperature. These technologies reduce moisture content so the seeds stay viable for longer and leave no toxic residue so if the seeds are not used for planting, they can be used for the farmers own consumption.

Ann at seed bank Bangalore. Credit: Bioversity International/P. MathurWe are lucky to have such a rich diversity and a culture of seed exchange between farmers in India. For example, there are around 900 farmers’ varieties of rice alone in Chhattisgarh state of India that we know of. But without access to good quality seeds, and information about which variety to use that is relevant to local needs, farmers will not cultivate them, people will not eat them, and we could lose them just at a time when we need more options to adapt to global challenges in food production. The living laboratory in Bangalore is part of the plan to implement research collaboration and training opportunities in India and we hope it will become a Centre of Excellence for the conservation and study of important species for the region.

For more information, please contact Prem Mathur

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The genetic garden is supported by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research and the University of Horticultural Sciences, Bagalkot.

*Work funded by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and more recently, with additional support from the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS).

Photo 1: Distinguished guests plant trees at the Bangalore Living Laboratory opening ceremony. Credit: Bioversity International/A. Gupta

Photo 2: Lighting the lamp at the official opening ceremony of the Bangalore office. Credit: Bioversity International/A. Gupta

Photo 3: M. Ann Tutwiler, Director General, Bioversity International at the 'seed bank'. Credit: Bioversity International/P. Mathur

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