The Perennial Plate could give you wanderlust really quickly … at least if you're curious about food. The weekly, online documentary series follows two people who travel the world learning -- and filming -- how people really eat in their home countries.
The Perennial Plate duo, chef Daniel Klein and camerawoman Mirra Fine, find their way into home kitchens, onto farms and fishing boats. And they have a goal: 12 countries, in-depth, in 18 months. They've just returned from India.
Lynne Rossetto Kasper: While you were in India, you discovered a woman who's become very famous as a seed saver. What's the story?
Daniel Klein: When we found out that we were going to India, we obviously did some research. Something that continued to come up were these stories of farmer suicides. It's this horrible occurrence: Over the last 15 years, there have been more than 200,000 farmers who have killed themselves in India.
There are varying opinions on why they are doing it, but a lot of it's due to debt, losing their land, and one of the big reasons that people claim is that they have to buy seeds. They used to never have to buy seeds. In the old culture of India, and much of the world, farmers saved seeds to use them again the following year. It's a perennial thing; you are able to hold onto what you grow.
As culture changed and companies came in and began to sell seeds, traditional seeds were taken out of society and farmers were sold patented seeds that they could not save anymore. If seeds are patented, you can't use them again; you have to buy them year after year.
Instead of having this free source, farmers were forced to buy. They took on more debt, eventually lost their land and had shame brought upon them. The way most of these farmers committed suicide was to go into the field and drink a bottle of pesticide. It's really heavy stuff.
The sort of positive reaction to this catastrophe is this concept of seed saving -- getting these seeds that were lost back into the culture of India.
There's a doctor, Vandana Shiva, who's a very charismatic and recognized woman, but also quite controversial. She has made it her life mission to defeat Monsanto in India -- Monsanto is a chemical and seed company -- and promote an alternative to industrial agriculture.
With her partner, Bija Vidyapeeth (pictured at top), they started saving a few varieties of rice. Now they have 2,000 varieties of rice. Rice is the central thing, but they also collect vegetable varieties from around India as well. (Bija means seed in Hindi, so it's quite interesting that the woman who actually runs this seed organization has that in her name.)
LRK: These are heirloom seeds?
DK: Yes. They're seeds that are developed by farmers. You have a rice crop, and some of the rice grows better than the other rice, so you hang onto the good seeds and you save the ones that are strong and held up to the drought. They have value. There are thousands of years of history built into these individual seeds.
It has unbelievable positive ramifications. When the tsunami came and hit the eastern side of India, farmers couldn't grow their crops because salt had come into their land. But because of seed saving, there were varieties of rice that were resilient to salt, so they were able to reintroduce these seeds and they flourished in these circumstances.
LRK: Are many farmers using these seeds now? Has this become something that's a new movement in India?
DK: It is still a small percentage of farmers who are using these original seeds. There are bastions like in Dehradun, where we visited; it's the part of India known for growing the best rice. It's certainly a growing movement, but you're not going to see it everywhere and you don't hear people talking about it. Unless it affects you, you're really not going to know about it.
There's one beautiful story that we encountered in our stay at the seed saving center. The woman, Bija, who runs the operation, told us about how she was passing on this tradition to her children. She had her children and the kids of the neighborhood each plant a seed. Instead of having some other competition, they watch whose plant is growing the most.
Each child has this ownership of an heirloom seed that they've taken care of over a period of years and have seen grow. It's giving them this sense of belonging to the land. It's really a beautiful thing.
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Lynne Rossetto Kasper has won numerous awards as host of The Splendid Table, including two James Beard Foundation Awards (1998, 2008) for Best National Radio Show on Food, five Clarion Awards (2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2014) from Women in Communication, and a Gracie Allen Award in 2000 for Best Syndicated Talk Show.