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Debal Deb

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Seeds of Tradition, Seeds of Future
by Debal Deb   

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Books by Debal Deb
· Beyond Developmentality: Constructing Inclusive Freedom and Sustainability
· Future of Rice
· Industrial Versus Ecological Agriculture
                >> View all

Category: 

Science

Publisher:  Research Foundation for Science Technology & Ecology, New Delhi
Pages: 

136

Copyright:  2005

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Contains a detailed morphological description of 416 Indian folk rice varieties, which are on the verge of extinction from farm fields. Also records diverse cultural uses of these rice varieties. This book is copyrighted in the name of farmers, to prevent bio-piracy patents on the indigenous rice varieties of South Asia.


The singular reason for the vanishing of thousands of local rice varieties is their steady replacement with the so-called “high-yielding varieties” (HYVs), introduced in the 1960s. Farmers were impressed by the initial high yield of the “miracle” seeds of the Green Revolution, and ignored the associated cost of external inputs, subsequent loss of non-grain biomass, and the long-term deterioration of the environment, including soil. The success of HYVs in wet farms have often prompted State agricultural scientists and agricultural extension workers to spread a set of unscientific exaggeration of yield compared to indigenous varieties. For example, the high yield of IR-8 in irrigated farms of Bardhaman district was posed as a triumph of HYVs over the ‘low-yield’ indigenous varieties like Bhut moori in dryland farms in lateritic western districts. The comparatively high yield of a large number of local landraces on dryland and seasonally inundated farms have remained systematically downplayed in most agricultural development programs. Although no “miracle” seeds have yet been developed for cultivation in saline, deep-water and dry upland conditions, farmers are prompted to grow HYVs even in unsuitable regions where only a few traditional varieties could be grown. A consequence of this Green Revlution campaign is that many common rice landraces like Dharial, Dular, Marichabeti, Nona ram-sal and Tilak kacheri, mentioned by Richharia and Govindaswamy (1990) as remarkably adapted to different soil, topographic and climatic conditions in the State, are now extinct from farms of eastern India.

Among the several adverse environmental consequences of the Green Revolution (Shiva 1991; Conway 1997; Deb 2004), the drastic erosion of the genetic diversity of rice and other crops is perhaps the most serious and irreversible. Thousands of folk rice varieties are no longer found on indigenous farms, where they evolved over centuries. Many of these folk varieties, not accessed in the national and international gene banks, are now extinct for good. This critical emaciation of the genetic base of crop biodiversity translates into a threat to the country’s food security.

A WWF-India survey, conducted in 1994 in six districts of southern West Bengal, recorded 137 varieties still surviving in marginal farms (Deb 1995). Later, our study of the cultural dynamics and economics of folk rice variety cultivation recorded a larger number of folk rice varieties (Deb 2000a). An investigation into the reasons for the continuation of their cultivation highlighted the following factors.

a)The poor and marginal farmers, most of them indigenous tribals, who grow them are too impoverished to buy the costly inputs for growing HYVs.
b)The HYVs failed to grow in dry uplands and wet lowlands, where only a few specially- adapted local varieties could grow.
c)Certain folk varieties had distinct culture-religious values, and were used during certain special religious or social ceremonies.
d) Many folk varieties were grown for their special aroma and flavour, which are distinctly lacking in HYVs.
e) A small number of folk varieties fetch higher price on market than HYVs.
f) The dwarf and poor quality straw of the HYV paddy is unsuitable for thatching huts, and cannot compare with the folk variety paddy straw. Thus, in Bankura, Birbhum, Medinipur and Puruliya districts, the latter is three times as costly as the former.

As the study indicates, a minority of farmers realized the diminishing yield potential of HYVs, and noticed the unsuitability of HYVs in a range of land and soil types. Experience of repeated crop failure due to climatic vagaries and unprecedented pest and disease incidences compelled many farmers to look for plausible alternatives. Many recall that the traditional rice varieties were better performers in the local climatic and soil conditions, but ironically, the traditional crop seeds developed by their ancestors are no longer available. They find themselves at the mercy of the market supply of a handful of HYV seeds that must be grown with the costly ‘inputs’ of agrochemicals, whose market is largely controlled by corporate oligarchy.

The establishment of the market economy has insidiously obliterated the traditional practice of informal seed exchange among farmers. This has resulted in an abysmal scarcity of the folk variety seeds. Since folk rice variety seeds are not sold on market, the choice of the farmer is restricted to a handful of HYVs for cultivation. With the recent introduction of genetically engineered (GE) crop seeds, patented and marketed by Northern multinational corporations, farmers’ options and capabilities are likely to become further restricted in terms of crop variety selection and farm management decisions. New laws like Plant Varieties Protection Act (2004), the Patent Ordinance (2004), and the Seed Bill (2004) have been drafted to secure the vested interests of transnational seed companies by abolishing farmers’ rights to save, cultivate and exchange their seeds and the farmer’s autonomy altogether. Vrihi’s seed exchange network is opposing this process of shrinkage of the farmer’s option, and has considerably increased the availability of folk rice variety seeds. Over the past seven years, more than four hundred farmers have received folk rice varieties from Vrihi.

In view of the patent on Basmati lines and grains (US Patent #5663484), registered in 1997 by RiceTec Inc., any folk rice variety seems to be vulnerable to biopiracy patent with reference to a set of agronomic and morphological characteristics. One of the legal means to preempting the biopiracy patent claims is to document the traditional folk knowledge of specific characteristics and uses of extant rice varieties. Since 1998, Vrihi has been keeping a register of folk rice varieties and their agronomic and morphological characteristics. As of January 2005, detailed morphological characterisation of 416 varieties has been completed, and assessment of other varieties is in process. The agronomic features of all the rice varieties of Vrihi’s accession, and detailed morphological characteristics of 416 varieties are presented here.


Excerpt

Fragrant varieties: A considerably large number of Indian rice varieties have typical fragrance, imparted by different concentrations of 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline (Brahmachary 1996). West Bengal boasts of at least 42 extant varieties that are grown by indigenous farmers for producing scented rice for special culinary purposes: Badsha bhog, Bhim-sal, Cheena kamini, Chini atap, Chhoto nuniya, Dana guri, Dar-sal, Dehradun gandheswari, Deulabhog, Gandha malati, Gandheswari, Gayasur, Gobinda bhog, Gujuri-bhog, Kalojira, Kalo nunia (= Kalijira), Kamini bhog, Kanakchur, Karpurtul, Katari bhog, Kanthali champa, Khas dhan, Khaskani, Khudi khasa, Lal badshabhog, Lilabati, Mohanbhog, Narasimha jata, Olee, Parmai-sal, Radhashree, Radhatilak, Radhuni pagal, Rani kajal, Sada nuniya, Shiyal bhomra, Subasita, Tulaipanji, Tulsibhog, Swarnakanti, Tulsi manjari and Tulsi mukul. In addition, presumably non-local varieties like Dehradun-bas and Basmati are also grown in West Bengal with considerable success. A few other aromatic varieties like Bou pagli, Lahaiya and Piparbas are absent from our collection, and therefore are not described here. Another aromatic landrace Badshabhog is in our accession, but it is widely cultivated in West Bengal for its high market price, so we deemed it not urgent to grow on our farm for the purpose of conservation. However, we would like to record that these varieties, although not recorded in this document, are well-known to be aromatic, small grained and fairly common in several districts of West Bengal, and therefore must lie outside the private IPR regime.

In addition to these Bengal landraces described above, we have further described another three aromatic rice landraces from other States of India: Tulsa and Garam masala from Maharashtra, and Jagannathbhog from Orissa.

Medicinal varieties: Rice starch has a lower osmolality than glucose, and therefore is traditionally used in the form of parboiled rice or rice powder gruel and rice water for the treatment of non-infectious diarrhea (Juliano 1993). A few varieties are believed by local people to have special medicinal properties. The red starch of Bhut moori is believed to cure anemia and enhance the blood volume in women after childbirth. Our qualitative biochemical examination of the rice kernel revealed that it contains folic acid, which indeed helps in assimilation of dietary iron. Parmai-sal is believed to have special nutritional value. Kabiraj-sal is another variety supposedly with medicinal property: its name itself reflects the folk belief that the rice serves as a kabiraj (village doctor), and is fed to convalescing patients to quicken recovery. Detailed biochemical investigation of these rice varieties is urgently needed to test these putative medicinal properties.

High-yield varieties: Compared to other cereals including wheat, rice is a high yielding crop even under adverse conditions. When the water supply is adequate, and naturally-occurring nitrogen-fixing organisms exist in the paddy fields, no synthetic fertilizers are required to harvest a local variety of rice up to 2 tonnes/hectare (Swaminathan 1984). A significant feature of rice is that the grain to seed ratio is very high. A single panicle of folk rice varieties considered here may contain between 80 and 400 grains, and in wet cultivation each plant may produce up to 30 tillers. Thus, an average transplanted folk rice variety may produce up to 1200 grains per seed. Simple cultivation techniques in areas which have not encountered the Green Revolution can easily produce yield to seed ratios of 100 : 1 (Bray 1986) or even as high as 3000 : 1 as in the case of Bahurupi and Nagra (Table 3).

When yield is calculated as production of grains per unit of ‘inputs’ of water and agrochemicals, most of the local landraces have better yield than any HYVs (Cleveland et al. 1993; Deb 1995, 2000a). In particular, rice grain yield may be objectively measured in terms of output per unit of nitrogen input. By this definition, the yield of most local rice landraces seems to be spectacularly higher than most high input-responsive varieties.

Even on absolute terms of grain output per unit area of farm, a number of folk rice varieties have considerably high yield of grains in farmers’ high-stress environments. It is well known that modern crop varieties often fail to perform well across environments when the range is wide enough, and may be out-yielded by folk varieties in marginal environmental conditions (Cleveland et al. 2000).

Characteristics that determine yield potential of rice cultivars are the modal number of ‘effective’ tillers (bearing panicles) per hill, panicle density (number of grains per panicle) and grain weight. Many folk varieties have greater mean panicle density and grain weight than most HYVs. Ashphal, Bakul phool, Bokra, Ganga-sal, Narahasoi, Patnai, Ras panjor and Sada jhinga-sal have especially heavy (cSW > 3.2 g) grains. The mean panicle weight of several farmer landraces, like Ashphal, Bahurupi, Bansh pata, Bansh tara, Jugal, Kabiraj-sal, Kerala sundari, Lakkhan-sal, Panjab-sal, and Srabanti-sal is more than 5.0 g. Our experience with Asit kalma, Bahurupi, Bakul phool, Haijam, Jugal, Kabiraj-sal, Kerala sundari, Nagra, Panjab-sal, Payjam, Saban-sal and Shiuli grown on farms with zero agrochemical inputs suggests that these rice varieties can often out-perform most HYVs in terms of grain output in a wide range of environmental conditions. A comparison of yield-related parameters of these varieties grown in Bankura district with that of a widely-cultivated modern high-yield variety Mtu 7029 (also named Lal Swarna) is presented in Table 3, which indicates that a significant number of local landraces have significantly high yield potential.




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