Time to revive traditional rice varieties

N Lalitha / Soumya Vinayan | Updated on February 27, 2020

Deceptive lush: Paddy growers contend with shrinking varieties   -  THE HINDU

Nutritional and hardy, many of these have been lost to monoculture. GI tagging can arrest further loss and protect biodiversity

Asia is the largest producer of rice in the world, with India, China, Taiwan, Indonesia and Bangladesh being among the top producers. Rice plays an important role in Indian agriculture, occupying close to 45 million hectares and yielding 111.52 million tonnes in 2017-18.

However, research indicates a change in cropping pattern due to economic considerations, out-migration, and lack of social values and traditional knowledge. Population growth and land fragmentation have also led to the loss of traditional crops and germplasm. The Green Revolution has contributed to the disappearance of many heritage varieties, which were pest resistant, tolerant to salinity, could grow in deep waters as well as in inland areas, besides possessing medicinal, nutritional and aromatic properties.

The outcome has been a monoculture of paddy cultivation of only a few varieties while thousands of varieties have disappeared from the farmers’ land. When varieties disappear, the loss is also of the associated traditional knowledge. This phenomenon is now common to all the rice-growing regions like Taiwan, Japan, and Bangladesh.

Research indicates that in Bangladesh, the monoculture of HYVs (high yielding varieties) has resulted in the loss of more than 7,000 types of landraces. To maintain food security for the growing population and for ecological stability, plant biodiversity is essential in agriculture. Conservation efforts in India include the setting up (in 1976) of the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources (NBPGR) in New Delhi, which has more than 45,000 rice accessions.

Though India had been rich with such a wide range of landraces, very few varieties are now being cultivated. Research on NBPGR collections indicates that about 2,000 local landraces are available and they form about 60 per cent of all rice sown on a small scale by the marginal farmers. Implicitly, marginal farmers act as custodian of the rich legacy and heritage. There are several legal frameworks to protect such varieties — essentially involving documentation of the characteristics of the available varieties that are on the verge of extinction. One such mechanism is to acquire the Geographical Indications (GI) tag.

A product recognised by GI registration not only protects farmers’ ownership over the product through conferring commonly held intellectual property rights but also recognises through documentation the uniqueness, cultural and traditional knowledge and practices that are involved in producing the product. Therefore, any effort to maintain the uniqueness of the product results in protecting agro-biodiversity.

Registered varieties

There are about 15 rice varieties registered with the GI Registry of India. These include Jeeraphool (Chhattisgarh), Katarni (Bihar), Tulaipanji and Gobindabhog (West Bengal), Joha (Assam), Ambemohar and Ajara Ghansal (Maharashtra), Basmati (Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Uttarkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir), Kalanamak (Uttar Pradesh) Kaipad, Wayanad Jeerakasala, Wayand Gandhakasala, Palakkadan Matta, Pokkali, and Navara (all from Kerala).

The number of registered varieties is very small compared to the rich bio-diversity of India. However, for filing the GI, research must be undertaken to determine the uniqueness — linking the product with the origin and determining the geographical boundaries. Further, only an association which adequately represents the interests of the producers can apply for GI. Hence, the growth in the number of products registered so far has been pretty slow.

It must be noted that Jeeraphool, Katarni, Ambemohar, Ajara Ghansal, Kalanamak, Jeerasala and Gandhakasala are also aromatic rice varieties but are not available beyond their geographical regions. As compared to these, Basmati is widely known and available within the country as well as in the international market.

Pokkali and Kaipad cultivation involve the unique rice-fish culture. Ernakulam, Alappuzha, and Thrissur districts of Kerala practice Pokkali cultivation while Kannur, Kasargod and Kozhikode practice Kaipad cultivtion. The Pokkali tract is ideal for cultivating paddy during monsoon (June to October) when the salinity in the water is reduced due to the rain.

The post-monsoon period (November to April), when higher salinity prevails, is suitable for prawn cultivation. Pokkali has medicinal properties and its higher value of antioxidants and low carbohydrate content makes it preferable to those on a low sugar diet. The preparation of land and the seeds involve rich traditional knowledge.

There are additional varieties that may be registered under the GI. For instance, the rice-fish culture practised by the Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, who cultivate Mipya and Emu wet varieties of rice along with fish, is a potential candidate for GI. The Sundarbans region of West Bengal also has Malta, Getu and Hamilton varieties of rice, which can tolerate higher salinity.

The agriculture sector in India faces increasing threats due to climate change and other challenges from increasing urbanisation and industrialisation. With frequent droughts, salinity ingress is rapidly increasing in many areas which may hold potential for such saline-resistant varieties. NBPGR rice accessions may form the basis for further research as well as registration of more varieties under GI. Registering the different rice varieties under the GI makes known to the world the uniqueness and importance of a particular rice with a region. This would also contribute to the diversity in crops that are essential for agricultural development, to meet future needs and challenges.

The rice varieties registered under GI are also part of the efforts to maintain biodiversity because not all the registered varieties are produced on a commercially viable scale. However, how effectively GIwould help guard biodiversity depends on the its implementation in terms of safeguarding the ecological balance, including protecting the region as a heritage or fragile zone where no competing commercial interests would be entertained.

Creating awareness

In this regard, consumer awareness is an important factor to increase the demand for such varieties. For instance, the Edible Archives Project spearheaded by two chefs and two food writers tries to focus on bringing back on the plate not-so-popular rice varieties and, thereby, strengthen the livelihood opportunities of farmers who are small in number, but grow these varieties. The project formally opened in the Fourth Kochi-Muziris Biennale showcasing two rice varieties every day, which also figured the GI tagged Tulaipanji rice from West Bengal.

Spirit of Earth is yet another initiative, which collects artisanal rice varieties from across farmers in the country and sells them to consumers. The Slow Food movement, which originated in Europe with the aim of educating its members about the origin and consumption of locally-produced food, is spreading the same in India among a section of the consumers.

If India also utilises GI recognition like some of the European countries, there will be increased demand based on the unique quality of the rice, which could lead to farmers producing these varieties again and, thereby, check the trend of landraces from getting extinct.

Lalitha is Professor, Gujarat Institute of Development Research, Ahmedabad, and Soumya is Assistant Professor, Council for Social Development, Hyderabad

Published on February 27, 2020

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