A new rice every day?



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Natwarbhai by his beloved rice fields
Natwarbhai by his beloved rice fields

The small farmer is increasingly getting the short shrift, and control over farming is moving into the hands of the private corporate sector. This does not paint a happy picture.

Natwar Sarangi could eat a new variety of rice every day of the year. None of it bought in the market. When I met this remarkable farmer in a small village in Odisha, I realised the magical potential of India’s ‘ordinary’ peasants. A potential sadly neglected by our agricultural bureaucracy and ‘development’ planners.

Natwarbhai, 80+, is a resident of Narishu village, near Niali in Cuttack district. A retired schoolteacher, he has been practising organic farming for the last decade or so, and swears by its potential to feed India’s population. He says some of the varieties he grows yield over 20 quintals per acre, higher than the so-called ‘high-yielding’ varieties that farmers around him get after using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And he spends much less, since his main inputs are gobar, natural pesticides when occasionally needed, and labour.

Natwarbhai was earlier a ‘modern’ farmer, lured into it by officials and traders, involving high-yielding varieties, chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. One day, while watching a labourer spray Carbofuran (a highly toxic pesticide), he was horrified to see him stagger and collapse. Rushed for treatment, the worker survived, but not Natwarbhai’s faith in the new agriculture. Especially after the labourer told him: “I could not breathe, my head was reeling”; and especially after, having buried the remaining stock of Carbofuran in a pit in his fields, Natwarbhai “saw dead snails, snakes, and frogs floating in the water that had accumulated there; I immediately wondered what would be happening to the earthworms and micro-organisms that I knew kept the soil alive.”

Natwarbhai switched to organic inputs, but with the high yielding varieties that the agricultural establishment had distributed. His son Rajendra, by now having become involved in a number of environmental movements, advised him to try traditional crop varieties. The problem was, most such varieties had gone out of cultivation in the area.

Around this time (1999), along with Rajendra another young man of the village, Jubraj Swain, had been active with relief and reconstruction work after a super-cyclone. Now they set off to find traditional rice varieties; travelling over 5000 km within (and a bit outside) Odisha, they brought back dozens of varieties still being grown by so-called ‘backward’ farmers. Natwarbhai tried them all, noting down their names, characteristics, and productivity. He and Jubraj continued even after the tragic death of Rajendra due to cerebral malaria, eventually reaching the astounding figure of 360 varieties (90per cent of these from Odisha). When I expressed astonishment at this, Natwarbhai laughed: “we are aiming to have at least 500. This is in any case only a small fraction of the total diversity that Indian farmers have created”.

So true. I remember when coordinating India’s National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan process a decade ago, I had come across the mindboggling fact that the country’s rice diversity was anything between 50,000 and 300,000 varieties!

How does Natwarbhai keep track of this diversity, year after year? He said he and his colleagues kept an album, in which they noted down each variety’s characteristics. I was later shown a two-volume set of this album by Sudhir Pattnaik of the Oriya journal Samadrusti; it had tiny packets of each kind of rice variety, with key features of their growth, performance, and values written alongside.

Diversity was nice, but would it feed India’s growing population? Natwarbhai was categorical: “Without doubt. Firstly, I get as much or more average rice production on my land as those using chemicals in this region; secondly, I can grow pulses as a next crop, and then gourds or other crops as the third … all on the same plot of land. And I get better fodder and mulching material. Overall productivity is therefore higher than my neighbours who use new seeds and chemicals. If land is not turned to non-food cash crops like tobacco, we would easily produce enough food with organic farming.”

So why then were his neighbours not switching to organic? Natwarbhai explained that the government and corporations were constantly giving ‘incentives’, e.g. subsidies on chemicals, and filling the cultivators’ minds with promises of bumper crops and high returns. Another factor was that many of the traditional varieties had tall stalks, and ‘lodged’ (fell down) if there were unseasonal rains. But Natwarbhai asserted that even with this, productivity did not drop significantly, provided it did not keep on raining. Yet another reason was that many of the lands here were being cultivated by sharecroppers, who had to do what their absentee landlords told them to.

I reflected on this a bit. Farmers here were probably also being seduced by news from other regions of India, some of which had achieved over 30 quintals per acre; no-one was telling that this was possible only with increasing amounts of external inputs, that the land would simply not sustain this intensity of cultivation for long, and that growing costs of inputs would eventually reduce profit margins. Official records showed that in any case, HYV rice had yielded an average of around 15 quintals in Orissa.

Other farmers were slowly getting interested in Natwarbhai’s methods. He and others have organised dozens of meetings with farmers, and offered free seeds for those willing to test them out (on condition that if they had a good crop, they would return twice the amount, to go into a grain bank). The journalSamadrusti also did its bit in public outreach. If only the government would help, these efforts would go much further. Unfortunately even civil society organisations were not always helpful; Natwarbhai pointed to a patch of black-grain paddy (Kali Jiri) swaying gently in the breeze, and sadly recounted how an institution from Chennai run by a famous agricultural scientist had taken some samples, and then claimed credit for the variety!

I asked Jubraj why he had not gone looking for a job in the city, like his other young colleagues? He was, after all, a graduate in history. His answer was simple: “I enjoy this. I think it is more worthwhile than a job in the city”. Productivity on his land? “I’m getting 18-20 quintals per acre; those using new seeds and chemicals here were getting less, while spending more.” In a general scenario of the newer generations turning away from occupations like farming, it was good to see the young man wanting to carry on Natwarbhai’s mission.

In a recent address to an international conference on biodiversity in Hyderabad, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: “Biodiversity, found in our forests and our fields, could provide us keys to the solutions of the future. So we need to build a movement to conserve traditional varieties of crops.” Nice words. But the Indian government’s agricultural policies and programmes have systematically destroyed the diversity and knowledge of thousands of years of intelligent, innovative farming systems. Increasingly they are marginalising the small cultivator, and handing over controls over farming to the private corporate sector. Efforts like Natwarbhai’s and Jubraj’s, small as they may seem, are crucial elements of sustainability that India is going to desperately need when its food production systems face ecological and social collapse.

Ashish Kothari is with Kalpavriksh, Pune

Partitioning of CH4 and CO2 production originating from rice straw, soil and root organic carbon in rice microcosms

Partitioning of CH4 and CO2 production originating from rice straw, soil and root organic carbon in rice microcosms
Author(s): Quan Yuan, Judith Pump, Ralf Conrad
Source: PLoS ONE | November 5, 2012

Flooded rice fields are an important source of the greenhouse gas CH4. Possible carbon sources for CH4 and CO2 production in rice fields are soil organic matter (SOM), root organic carbon (ROC) and rice straw (RS), but partitioning of the flux between the different carbon sources is difficult. We conducted greenhouse experiments using soil microcosms planted with rice.



†Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, Kolkata 700123, India, §Institute of Computational Science, University of Lugano, 6906 Lugano, Switzerland and ¶Machine Learning Laboratory, TU Berlin, 10587 Berlin, Germany
(Accepted 19 January 2012; First published online 27 February 2012)
A survey of the system of rice intensification (SRI)-related literature indicates that different authors have drawn conflicting inferences about rice yield performances under the SRI, chiefly because the SRI methodology has been variously advocated, interpreted and implemented in the field using different rice varieties, seedling ages at transplantation, cultivation seasons and nutrient management regimes. In particular, the SRI method of single-seedling transplantation (SST) has potential economic advantage due to reduced seed costs, but it is not clear whether SST is an effective management strategy across a range of seedling ages, and whether there is any specific seedling age that is optimal for yield improvement of a given rice variety. This is an important consideration in rain-fed ecosystems where variable rainfall patterns and lack of controlled irrigation make it difficult to reliably transplant at a specific seedling age as recommended for the SRI. We conducted a five year-long experiment on a rain-fed organic farm using a short-duration upland and a medium-duration lowland landrace, following the SRI methodology. Rice seedlings of different ages (6, 10, 14, 18 and 28 days after establishment) were transplanted at 25 cm × 25 cm spacing in three replicated plots. The performance for each landrace was examined with respect to productive tillers, panicle density, total grain counts per hill and grain yield per unit area. Performances
of seedlings of different ages were compared with that of control plots that employed all SRI practices with the exception that 28-day-old seedlings were transplanted with three seedlings per hill. The results indicate that (1) the SRI can improve mean panicle density if seedling age ≤ 18 days, but that responses differ between varieties; (2) the number of productive tillers per hill is significantly less in SST than that of multiple seedling transplants (MST) of 28-day-old seedlings of both upland and lowland varieties; (3) the total grain numbers per hill of the lowland variety is significantly greater for 14-day-old SST than 28-day-old MST; (4) the grain yield per unit area from young SRI transplants is significantly greater than that from 28-day-old MST for the lowland variety, although the magnitude of the improvement was small; (5) for the upland variety, grain yields declined with the oldest seedlings, but planting multiple seedlings
per hill made the yield of the oldest transplants on par with that of younger seedlings planted singly. Our findings suggest that transplanting younger seedlings under the SRI management may not necessarily
enhance grain yields.

Knowledge, technology, and the politics of rice


by Harro Matt

The current financial crisis in Europe brings out politics as we know it. The political leaders of nation states deliberate lessons from the past and negotiate solutions for a new future. We are intrigued by the moves of presidents and prime ministers and expect their decisions to affect our personal economic situation. Reversely, we blame the politicians for the loss of jobs, increase of rent or governmental restrictions. It helps to express anger and frustration, but does it help in negotiating with our employers, landlords or administrators?

The gaze towards the top is a common feature in our understanding of political processes. The politics of knowledge and technology is no exception. What is peculiar here is that the fascination applies to both politics and science and technology. The dominant image is that of ‘big science’ and top-notch technologies dealt with by high-level politics.The dominant focus on advanced technologies and higher-level politics, I argue here, has limited value for understanding crucial elements in processes of technological change that take place in society, therewith touching upon key democratic values. This is illustrated with introduced changes to rice cultivation. Technological change is often associated with innovation.

Think nuclear energy, hydro-electric dams, biotechnology or nanotechnology, and the association is political leaders and ministers confronted by protest and opposition. This is not just an image evoked by the media. It is also engrained in theories and concepts that we use in our understanding of the politics of science and technology.

Driven by images of progress and an urge to outstrip competitors, the only way forward is to get rid of old ideas or cranky tools and embrace novelty and rapid change. This, it seems, is the course of history. Just as steam locomotives replaced draught animals, a better future lies in advanced scientific knowledge and technical novelties. By definition, innovations are unfamiliar to the wider public. This is why financial support from investors and patronage from ministries and political leaders is required. The pattern is visible in the introduction of short-straw, fertiliser-responsive rice varieties (known as high-yielding varieties or HYVs) in the late 1960s. HYVs are innovation. Indeed they were, back in the 1960s, radically different from the rice types grown in most places. Thus, it was thought, HYVs would quickly replace existing (old) varieties simply because what was there could never compete with HYVs. However, HYVs have not fully replaced other rice varieties because in some places they never arrived, in other places they lost to competition with the old (but apparently better) varieties, and even in those many places where HYVs did yield well, other varieties never entirely disappeared.

Currently, the HYVs of rice have lost some of their grandeur. The high output is based on high input of fertiliser and water, making farmers dependent on economic factors, largely beyond their control. Environmental concerns increase the pressure to find alternatives. One alternative currently promoted is the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). Comprising of the use of young seedlings, wider-spaced square planting, reduced water requirements and mechanical weeding, SRI offers a set of techniques that is supposed to increase rice yields with less dependency on external inputs. Moreover, SRI is introduced mainly by civil-society organisations and less so by research institutes. SRI thus seems to move away from too high expectations on advanced science and novelty. However, SRI promoters are not entirely void of the pitfalls of innovation thinking. There is active lobbying for political and donor support to promote SRI. Currently, several governments of states in India and elsewhere are actively engaged in its distribution. Besides SRI being presented as innovative, farmers are commonly considered as traditional or stubborn when expected higher yields do not occur or when they disregard (parts of) the SRI method.

The dominant focus on advanced technologies and higher-level politics, I argue here, has limited value for understanding crucial elements in processes of technological change that take place in society, therewith touching upon key democratic values.

The introduction of SRI reveals the shortcomings of innovation thinking. Innovations need venture capital and institutional support to quickly access markets and convince customers. Science, technology and democracy in this context implies using the leverage of political power and donor money to offer users a simple choice: innovate or remain backward. The organisations pushing the HYVs for rice were good in making a political case for innovation. Persuasion was labelled as ‘training and visit’. SRI is introduced in very similar ways in some places.

In several states in India, we see newly emerging partnerships between organisations promoting SRI and state governments. This, it is thought, helps to distribute SRI and thus improves rice farming across the country.

Leaving aside the question of what we can expect from politicians and ministers, taking the route of high politics drags us further into innovation thinking. Preliminary findings from a research programme on SRI in India suggest that farmers in many places are instructed to take up SRI in very similar ways as they were instructed to plant HYVs in previous decades.

Analyses of processes to enhance public engagement in science and technology in various parts of the world have shown that under the label of participatory processes, powerful actors like governments, companies or other large organisations push for certain decisions or solutions. Not only are views and preferences of people disregarded, there is also underestimation of the knowledge and solutions people have developed themselves. The science and technology of the people are usually adequate for context-specific challenges.

Depending on folk wisdom or existing techniques therefore is not about being backward or not being able to escape old patterns. It is simply asserting that change is not about throwing away everything and starting all over again.

What is the role of science? It is not helpful to oppose scientific knowledge and local or indigenous knowledge. Nor is it useful to oppose innovation and stagnation. Science can help to understand what works where and how. This requires a social science understanding of technology-in-use as well as an understanding on how processes of change work. An on-going research project between our university and several partners in India has taken up this challenge for the changes in rice cultivation induced by SRI. Changes in rice cultivation taken up by farmers are not about rejecting or accepting an innovation. Nor is the politics of rice about meetings and consultation processes on what methods or varieties farmers want. Understanding science, technology and democracy in rice cultivation is about understanding the very changes in the techniques and derived insights from farm-based experimental practices as employed by the farmers.

Recommended reading
Berkhout, E. and D. Glover. 2011. The evolution of the System of Rice Intensification as a sociotechnical phenomenon: A report to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Wageningen, the Netherlands: Wageningen University and Research Centre.
Chataway,, J., H. Maat and L. Waldman (eds.). 2007. Understanding participation through science and technology. IDS Bulletin 38(5). Brighton: IDS.
Edgerton, D. 2006. The shock of the old; Technology and global history since 1900. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Paddy production: Bihar panchayat breaks China’s record



A gram panchayat in Nalanda district of Bihar has surpassed the Chinese record of paddy production, the Union Agriculture Minister Mr Sharad Pawar informed Parliament today.

“As per the reports received from the state government, the yield of wet paddy has been recorded at 22.4 tonnes per hectare and that of dry paddy at 20.16 tonnes a hectare in the district of Nalanda, Bihar…,” Mr Pawar said in a written reply to Lok Sabha.

The record yield was achieved under demonstration on System of Rice Intensification (SRI) which was organised at farmer’s field during kharif 2011, he added.

“It has surpassed the yield of 19 tonnes per hectare which was recorded earlier in China,” Mr Pawar said.

This rare feat has been achieved by Darbespura panchayat in Katri Sarai block of Nalanda, which is also native district of the Chief Minister Mr Nitish Kumar.

India is estimated to have produced a record 102.75 million tonnes of rice in the 2011-12 crop year (July-June).

On incentives provided to increase paddy output, Mr Pawar said the government has been providing financial assistance of Rs 3,000 for organising demonstration of 0.4 hectare each on SRI under National Food Security Mission-Rice (NFSM-Rice) in identified districts of 16 states.

The states included Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Gujarat, Jammu & Kashmir, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and others.

Similarly, under the sub-scheme “Bringing Green Revolution in Eastern India” of Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojna (RKVY), rice crop promotion programmes including SRI are being extended to farmers in the seven states namely Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, Eastern Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal.

Punjab: DECLINING WATER TABLE Reduce area under paddy, water board tells govt



Another wake call on Groundwater use in Punjab: CGWB says in 84% area the level is going down (in 14% it is too brackish to be useful), 103 of 137 blocks are in over exploited, five in critical and four in semi critical category, 73% of irrigation is coming from Groundwater, not canals and Punjab needs to reduce area under Paddy.


Reduce area under paddy, water board tells govt
Sarbjit Dhaliwal
Tribune News Service

Chandigarh, February 24
Expressing concern over the declining water table in the state, the Central Ground Water Board has recommended reducing area under paddy by more than 10 lakh hectares to achieve sustainable growth. In a detailed report submitted to the state government, the board has drawn a road map for the state for ground water management.

“The present state of development and management of groundwater resources in Punjab is a matter of concern for the future of agriculture in the state.There is an urgent need to evolve an optimal ground water management strategy to tackle the problem of the declining water levels,” says the report.

Dwelling on crop diversification, the board says the area under paddy (rice), which consumes six times more water than maize, 20 times more than groundnut, and 10 times more than other kharif crops, has to be reduced.

The board has urged the state to shift from flood irrigation to underground piped water, furrow irrigation and drip and sprinkle irrigation. Punjab is the largest contributor of rice to the central pool.

Educating farmers about the declining water table, regulating power supply, artificial recharge, provision of deeper aquifers and groundwater regulation are the other measures suggested by the board for ground water management.

The board says the groundwater level in Punjab has fallen in about 42,170 sq km area in the north, northeast, central and southern parts, which constitute about 84 per cent of the total area.

The worst affected districts are Nawanshahr, Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Moga, Patiala, Ropar, Fatehgarh Sahib, Sangrur, Mansa, Bathinda, Hoshiarpur, Gurdaspur and Amritsar.

There is only 14 per cent area where ground water level is rising owing to less extraction of water because of its brackish quality, which is unfit for use for both domestic and irrigation purposes. In some pockets in Mansa, Moga, Bathinda, Muktsar, Faridkot and Ferozepur, the water level has gone up. The water level in the state ranges from 0.20 metre below ground level (bgl) in Ferozepur district to 32.28 metres bgl in Fatehgarh Sahib district.

The report says that the annual average rainfall has decreased by 45-50 per cent during the past two decades.

It was recorded 755 mm in 1990, 375 mm in 2004 and 420 mm in 2009.

About 97 per cent of the net sown area is irrigated and 80 per cent of the water resources available are used for the farm sector.

Contrary to the impression that the canal system is a major source of irrigation in Punjab, only 27 per cent area is irrigated with canal waters and the remaining 73 per cent area by groundwater pumped out through tubewells. Of the 137 blocks assessed by the board, 103 fall under “over-exploited” category, five in critical and four in semi-critical categories.

The water table is declining at a faster rate in urban areas and industrial towns. “The water level is declining at the rate of 0.50 to 0.60 metre per year in some urban areas and industrial towns”, says the report. However, potable water is available in 84 per cent of state’s total area.

The board says that the main source of pollution is domestic and municipal waste, agriculture practices and industrial activities.

“Untreated effluents from industries have resulted in increased levels of heavy metals like lead, cadmium, manganese, iron, chromium and copper,” says the government report.

Alarming Facts

Area under paddy consumes six times more water than maize, 20 times more than groundnut and 10 times more than other kharif crops

The groundwater level has fallen in (42,170 sq km area) about 84 per cent of the state’s total area

The worst-hit districts are Nawanshahr, Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Moga, Patiala, Ropar, Fatehgarh Sahib, Sangrur, Mansa, Bathinda, Hoshiarpur, Gurdaspur and Amritsar

The remedy

State told to shift from flood irrigation to underground piped water, furrow irrigation and drip and sprinkle irrigation

Regulate power supply, opt for artificial recharge and deeper aquifers

Damage Control: Committees under DCs set up in 12 blocks

The Central Ground Water Authority has notified 12 blocks, Nakodar, Shahkot, Lohian, Phagwara, Khanna, Nihalsinghwala, Patran, Sunam, Barnala, Sherpur, Dhuri and Malerkotla. It has authorised the Deputy Commissioners concerned to impose restrictions on the construction/installation of any structure for the extraction of groundwater. Committees headed by the DCs have been empowered to regulate and manage the groundwater. Without the permission of the committees, no tubewell or any other source for extracting groundwater can be set up in the notified areas.

Experts voice apprehension over food security : 100 yrs of paddy research and beyond


Government officials and ICAR experts today urged rice scientists to wake up to reality and ensure food security for all in the coming years.

In a nutshell, the officials, while stating that the foodgrain production scenario looked comfortable at present, voiced apprehension about the future in view of the erratic weather patterns on the one hand and the need for meeting the demands from the rising population on the other.

Mr V. Venkatachalam, Special Secretary, Department of Agriculture and Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, said that while there has been a four-fold increase in rice production from 1950 onwards, the challenge would be in increasing productivity in the coming years in the face of changing climate and scarce water resources.

He was speaking at the Centenary Celebration of the Paddy Breeding Station and Inauguration of ‘International Symposium on 100 years of Rice Science and Looking Beyond’, at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University here.

“By 2050, foodgrain production would have to double to ensure food security to meet the growing population needs, which is expected to increase by almost 50 per cent. This increase in food grain production would not be possible if we do not make any breakthrough in research, make use of bio-technology, genomics, genetic engineering techniques and so on.”

“We have to strive to increase rice productivity and this cannot happen from increase in area under rice, but through crop intensity,’ he continued and highlighted the Government of India schemes such as the National Food Security Mission and Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana.

He urged the scientists to evolve multi-stress tolerant varieties, such that it resists all types of natural calamities and climate change.

The Agricultural Production Commissioner and Secretary to Government of Tamil Nadu, Mr Sandeep Saxena, said the State’s mandate was in doubling foodgrain production and trebling the income of farmers, albeit with the support of the farm varsity.

“To make this possible, we will have to follow the scientific techniques in cultivation to bridge the yield gap. The State would address this issue by bridging the gap first at the village level, before moving to the block and district level and so on, so, Tamil Nadu is in the forefront in productivity of almost all crops within the next five years.”

Thus stating, he cautioned the scientists of the huge challenge that they would have to face in view of changes in climate. “The number of rainy days in a year are shrinking but intensity of the rain is on the rise; normal weather pattern is changing,’ he said adding ‘the cyclone Thane destroyed almost 2.2 lakh hectares of food crop in the State. We were sailing very well towards achieving a food grain target of 150 lakh tonnes till the three districts of Cuddalore, Nagapattinam and Vizhupuram were hit badly by the cyclone, which devastated all crops.”

“These are furies of nature which may become more frequent in the times to come; the scientists will have to develop suitable varieties with properties to withstanding storm, wind and the challenges of water,” Mr Saxena said.

Dr Swapan K. Datta, Deputy Director-General (Crop Sciences), Indian Council of Agricultural Research, said “even as we march towards achieving rice production target of 100 million tonnes this year, we should remember that a right policy would be driving force for tomorrow’s research and productivity.’

He said how with scientific intervention, policy decisions and management initiatives, the country’s rice productivity levels had risen from 800 kg/hectare to3.7 ton/hectare, while emphasising the need to remain more focused on basic science and rice research.

Organic rice cultivation transforming lives of Damoh farmers

The longer organic variety of rice versus HYV variety. Photo: Mahim Pratap Singh
The HinduThe longer organic variety of rice versus HYV variety. Photo: Mahim Pratap Singh

Till last year, Shiv Singh, a landless labourer from the Pinarayi village of Damoh district knew of only one survival strategy-migrating to Delhi to earn his living as a construction worker.

This year, with the Rs. 8,000 he had saved from his Delhi earnings, Shiv took a 3-acre piece of land on lease and grew rice on it. The harvest in September fetched him Rs.55,000 besides enough rice for his family to last for a year.

But, unlike most success stories, his is not an isolated case.

Several villages of Damoh, which was last in news for being the hub of farmer suicides earlier this year, are witnessing a small, quiet, yet successful green revolution-of the organic kind.

Farming has not been a successful proposition in this very backward district of the parched Bundelkhand region of Madhya Pradesh since the late 1980s due to a rapidly receding water table and scarce rainfall.

Last December and this January, Damoh witnessed the first of the several farmer suicides across Madhya Pradesh when large tracts of pulses crop perished owing to frost bite.

But over the last year and a half, over 1200 farmers of 32 villages of the Tendukheda block of Damoh, have taken to farming rice organically. Most of them are small and marginal farmers; some, like Shiv Singh, are even landless labourers.

Helped by Gramin Vikas Samiti, a local pro-organic farming organization, and People’s Science Institute, a Dehradun based non-profit, these farmers together cultivated rice on a total of over 1500 acres.

The trend started with just four farmers of Beldhana village and has now spread to other villages like Ajitpur, Hardua, Harrai etc.

The farmers in these villages shunned the High Yielding Varieties and the “progressive”, high-input, fertilizer-pesticide dominated farming practices often advocated by the government and took to completely traditional methods along with a set of cultivation practices collectively called System of Rice Intensification (SRI), initially developed in the early 1980s by a French priest in Madagascar.

The results have been more than encouraging.

While the average rice yield in Bundelkhand is around 17-20 quintal/hectare, these villages recorded average yields of at least 75-80 quintal per hectare this season. While the lowest yield in these 32 villages was 44 quintals/hectare, the maximum yield stood at 115 quintals/hectare.

Even agriculture scientists, who usually advocate modern and scientific farming over traditional practices, agree.

“These are miraculous results, considering the low rice productivity found in most of Madhya Pradesh and the extremely low productivity found in Bundelkhand,” says Dr. Sanjay Vaishyampayan, Senior Scientist, Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Damoh, which comes under the Jawaharlal Nehru Agriculture University, Jabalpur.

“Moreover, these farmers used very less seed, 2.5 kg/acre compared to 40kg/acre required in non-traditional methods. They also saved on pesticide and fertilizer costs as they only used organic manure,” says Dr. Sanjay.

The farmers used traditional varieties of rice like Lochai, Ganjakali, Kesar etc which they found in the neighbourhood homes of Gond adivasis.

Along with that, they used organic manure prepared from household ingredients like cow dung and urine, lemon juice, banana pulp, milk and curd etc which were all mixed together in specific quantities and kept under a lid in an earthen pot (matka) for about 15 days.

“Earlier, most farmers of our village were hesitant so we used these techniques on a small part of our lands. Last year I cultivated half an acre. After seeing the good yield, I have brought two acres under this system,” says Moolchand of Ajitpur village, who owns four acres.

The plant thus grown is 6 feet long compared to the 3.5 feet long HYV variety and has over 300 grains compared to about 100 grains in the latter.

“This is entirely the result of the hard work of these farmers, we only suugested them to take to organic farming and use other SRI which involves planting less seeds, planting them in rows spaced 10 inches from each other and using organic manure,” says Govind Yadav of Gramin Vikas Samiti.

The new methods have also made lives simpler for women, who used to toil hard, standing for hours in ankle-deep water taking out the weed. That task (taking out the weed) is now done by the menfolk with the help of a locally made de-weeder, which costs about Rs.1000.

The farmers don’t want to form a cooperative yet, but they are seriously thinking about setting up a seed bank of traditional varieties, “which are so hard to find these days”.

The little success story of these farmers is like a ray of hope in Madhya Pradesh where rice productivity is far from satisfactory, especially since the high-productivity areas split to form Chhattisgarh.

Rice 2.0

Of the world’s 50,000 edible plant species, only a few hundred find their way to menus around the globe. Of those, just three — rice, wheat and maize — make up two-thirds of the human food supply. And only rice is responsible for feeding half the world, or more than 3.5 billion people. In other words, rice is important. So important, in fact, that a tweak to the way rice is grown, sold or eaten can send ripples through the world economy. Rice 2.0 is GlobalPost’s look at a tiny grain with a giant footprint.Rice 2.0: Golden rice a golden opportunity?

Genetically modified golden rice could save millions of lives, but in India it may never get into the ground.

November 28, 2011 06:28

Editor’s note: Of the world’s 50,000 edible plant species, only a few hundred find their way to menus around the globe. Of those, just three — rice, wheat and maize — make up two-thirds of the human food supply. And only rice is responsible for feeding half the world, or more than 3.5 billion people.

In other words, rice is important. So important, in fact, that a tweak to the way rice is grown, sold or eaten can send ripples through the world economy. Earlier this year, government subsidies for rice in Thailand, where 30 percent of the world’s crop originates, did just that. Prices everywhere shot up, though it looks like any looming instability has been offset by other exporters, namely India, steadying the market.

Still, the point is rice in one place affects millions. Tainted crops in China mean two-thirds of the country’s people ingest toxins everyday. In Japan, global warming changed rice and an entire culture. Rice 2.0 is GlobalPost’s look at a tiny grain with a giant footprint.

NEW DELHI, India — When Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer unveiled genetically modified golden rice a decade ago, they promised to save millions of lives across India and other developing countries by providing the poor and malnourished a ready source of betacarotene.

But in India, opposition to genetically modified organisms (GMO) may well kill the initiative before it takes off.

“I have no hesitation in saying that we will make all efforts to stop it,” said Devinder Sharma, an agricultural researcher and farmers’ advocate based in the Punjab.

In many respects, golden rice represents the fantastic potential of GM foods. But because of the method used to create it — piggybacking genes from the common daffodil on a kind of bacteria found in the soil to induce the plant to produce betacarotene in the rice kernel — opposition remains fierce.

Environmentalists fear the new variety might spread and overwhelm other native crops. Anti-globalization activists fear that the new technology represents the thin end of the wedge for multinational corporations seeking to make slaves of the small farmer. And advocates of organic farming fear that “tampering with nature” may result in unknown health costs.

“Sensible people should be aware that this [opposition] is not scientifically justified at all,” said Adrian Dubock, executive secretary of the Golden Rice Humanitarian Board and the architect of the project designed to distribute golden rice to the world’s poor.

“The reasons for objections are complicated. Sometimes they’re religious. Sometimes they’re related to fears about globalization.”

And those fears could be costly, according to Dubock. While the vision problems associated with Vitamin A deficiency are better known, it also causes immune system problems that are especially vicious among pregnant women and newborn children.

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“The latest WHO figures [from 2005] have shown that between 23 and 34 percent of child mortality could be prevented by having a universal source of vitamin A,” Dubock said. “Similarly, with mothers about 40 percent of maternal mortality could be prevented.”

Proponents of technological solutions to the world’s food and nutrition problems believe golden rice could be the answer.

After some tweaks to the original strain, the latest generation of the genetic modification — known as the r event — promises to provide as much as 50 percent of the recommended daily allowance of Vitamin A for poor people who consume as little as 40 grams of golden rice a day. At least one study of a theoretical plan to give the modified rice to poor farmers claims that it would be 50 percent more efficient than the current efforts to provide dietary supplements.

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And the technology’s inventors compelled the owners of the patent, a biotechnology company called Syngenta, to allow poor farmers around the world free access to the new variety as long as they earn less than $10,000 a year — ostensibly eliminating fears about industrialized agriculture that have plagued other GMO crops like Monsanto’s Bt Cotton.

“All the normal arguments don’t apply here,” said Dubock. “This is a gift from the inventors.”

Here in India, however, farmer advocates and environmental activists view that gift as a Trojan Horse.

“They are using the humanitarian window to actually push for GM acceptance. This is a PR exercise, nothing beyond that,” said Sharma. “Once you accept golden rice, you’re accepting all kinds of GM crops. That’s their agenda.”

How paranoid that sounds depends on your faith in the world’s multinational corporations and multilateral aid agencies. According to a Golden Rice Project backgrounder, “If golden rice is successfully introduced, it will additionally facilitate similar projects in the future.”

Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, research is already underway on genetically modified bananas, cassava and sorghum — as well as another version of golden rice that incorporates iron, zinc, protein and Vitamin E. And Bayer, Mogen, Monsanto, Novartis and Zeneca all waived patents to allow golden rice to be given away free to poor farmers. That was not the case for Bt Brinjal or Bt Cotton.

Researchers in the Philippines are optimistic that they will submit all the necessary safety information to the government as early as 2013 and many believe that the introduction of golden rice as a staple crop will follow in short order.

But in India — where the problem of Vitamin A deficiency is much larger in scale — it promises to take much longer.

India has already introduced the golden rice gene into locally grown varieties in isolated greenhouses, as mandated by law. But before it can be distributed to farmers, researchers must conduct additional trials in real-world conditions in isolated fields and satisfy additional safety regulations.

Assuming that goes well, then planners must work out a strategy for introducing the crop without damaging India’s lucrative export trade in Basmati rice — since contamination of a single shipment with a few grains of GMO rice could scare off importers in the European Union, where consumer anxiety over GM food is high.

“Currently we can say we are in the product development phase,” said S.R. Rao, who in his former role as director of India’s Department of Biotechnology first pushed for introducing golden rice in India.

“The future of golden rice will depend on how we address regulatory concerns, how we communicate to the public and how we generate public acceptance. That is the challenge.”

In India, opposition to GMOs has never been stronger. Despite three years of research that cleared a GM variety of eggplant as safe for cultivation and consumption, last year activists succeeded in blocking the introduction of Bt Brinjal — a pesticide-resistant strain developed by Monsanto and Maharastra-based Mahyco.

Opposition to Bt Cotton — which now accounts for more than 40 percent of the cotton grown in India — has also gathered steam as activists link corporate control over seeds to debt-related farmer suicides that have killed upwards of 5,000 farmers in the cotton-growing region of Maharashtra since 2005, though researchers have attributed the problem to various other causes as well.

As New York Times columnist David Rieff argued recently, advocates of organic farming are gaining sway over the technology-friendly agriculturalists bred by the green revolution with the ascendency of India’s right to food movement.

“Because of the Bt Brinjal fiasco, there is a lot of demoralization in the scientific community,” said Rao. “While the regulatory system is working to an extent and the guidelines are getting slowly, slowly built up, at the end of the tunnel there is no light.”

For golden rice, that leaves a complex web of opposition that goes beyond health and safety concerns that GMO proponents argue have no foundation in science.

For example, initially Indian opponents of GMOs used some cocktail-napkin math to claim poor women would have to eat seven to nine kilograms of rice per day to get the benefits that golden rice advocates promised. When researchers created new varieties to deliver more betacarotene, their opponents moved the goalposts, introducing the problem of too much Vitamin A — which can reach toxic levels through supplements, but not from the body’s conversion of betacarotene.

Simultaneously, critics question whether the poor people targeted by the program have the reserves of body fat needed to absorb and process a micronutrient like betacarotene into Vitamin A. Moreover, they argue that pushing a “monoculture” that would reduce the biodiversity of rice might put India at risk of an ecological disaster like the Irish potato famine — in which a potato blight killed around a million people dependent on a single staple crop for food.

“We are faced with what happened during the potato famine at any time,” said Sharma, in a characteristic example of the activist reaction to technology-based solutions. “It can happen in the case of rice. The narrower the genetic base, the greater the problems you are facing.”

That’s an alarmist view. Despite decades of industrialized agriculture around the world, there has been no event similar to the potato famine since the 19th century.

However, some farmers and health workers in India and other countries have noted detrimental effects from the so-called monocultures brought about by the introduction of high-yield hybrids — particularly during India’s green revolution.

In the Garwhal region of the Himalayas, for instance, activists from Beej Bachao Andolan (Seed Savers) re-introduced indigenous strains of rice after a drought decimated the green revolution’s high-yield hybrids. And in the breadbasket region of Haryana and Punjab, environmental groups allege that high rates of certain cancers are the result of the massive doses of chemical fertilizers and pesticides required for green revolution crops.

That means that, at least in India, golden rice could face a long wait.

“It’s still in the advanced research stage,” said Rao. “We want to determine by the end of the year whether we are ready to enter the regulatory approval phase, through field trials. So we are scheduled for a major review in the next month.”