The Rice Project of the Academy of Development Science
09 / 1997
The rice project of the Academy of Development Science - based in the Konkan region of Maharashtra - evolved out of a necessity to secure farmers’ access to indigenous rice seeds. For some time, certain farmers had been noticing a stagnation in their rice yield, despite the increasing use of chemical inputs (fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides). Rice cultivation based on minimal genetic diversity was conducive to pest proliferation, which in turn called for a greater consumption of pesticide. The high costs of inputs and relatively low rates of return was making rice cultivation practically unviable economically.
This situation made it clear that an alternative to the intensive cultivation of high yielding varieties had to be found. Trying to sow locally adapted varieties seemed a desirable alternative to some farmers. In 1988, the Academy of Development Science therefore took up a rice conservation project inspired by the work of R. H. Richharia.
The first task consisted in collecting seeds of indigenous varieties in the four districts of the Konkan region during rice harvesting season (early and medium duration varieties are gathered in September-October, and late maturing varieties towards November). The idea was to create a community genebank, with an eye to evaluate the performance of local varieties and distribute seeds to farmers. This ’philosophy’ of seed conservation greatly differs from that of conventional genebanks, mandated to preserve the genetic variability of crops in the long-run, with some degree of accessions to breeders from the public and private sectors.
After seed collection tours comes a thorough work of cataloguing and storing at ADS. Some 250 indigenous varieties are kept in the seedbanks, and a number of these are grown yearly in what can be called a field genebank. When maturation time nears, farmers from neighbouring villages visit the fileds to assess the varieties. Seed multiplication is carried out in accordance with local farmers’ seed requirements. During the months of March and April, seed distribution camps are organized: cloth bags containing one or two kilos of seeds are handed out to farmers who test them in their own fields. In order to ensure a constant flow of these varieties, for every kilo of seeds sown, farmers bring back 1. 5 kilo of seeds to ADS after harvest or they give these seeds to a neighbouring farmer. Thus, on-farm conservation becomes a dynamic process.
Evaluation of indigenous varieties is carried out in terms of their overall performance, and not solely on a grain yield criterium. Nutritional characteristics, pest and disease resistance, religious relevance, aroma, processing or cooking qualities of local varieties are underlined, which goes to dismantle the myth that yield is the prime determinant of the worth of a variety.
The project, which evolved under the guidance of Dr. R. H. Richharia, has a component of rice hybridisation based on the techniques he developed. Hybridisation serves to improve productivity. Several successful crosses have been performed at ADS. Similarly, cloning technology is practiced for large scale multiplication of rice seeds.
In order to create stronger linkages between conservation and use of biodiversity, varietal options made available to farmers should be enlarged. The yellow stemborer being a major pest in the Konkan region, ADS would ideally like to offer farmers varieties that are resistant to the yellow stemborer. To date, this has not been possible. Developing such varieties would require some institutional collaboration between the organisation and formal breeding institutes. Yet ADS is faced with the reluctance of the breeding sector, which has historically avoided working on location-specific varieties in a decentralized manner. Here again, economies of scale are invoked as a rationale for a largely centralized breeding approach.
The Academy of Development Science is also involved in organizing training and education camps in the region. These serve to create awareness on the merits of conservation, and to provide advice on the methodology of setting up local genebanks.
The replication of such initiatives is indeed necessary to ensure that farmers retain access to diverse seeds in various regions of India.
Community genebanks represent a valuable alternative to the cold storage genebanks managed by the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources. They secure location specific conservation while increasing people’s control over genetic resources. On-farm conservation also makes it possible to produce seeds locally, which increases farmers’ autonomy. However, this model of conservation remains marginal, as national policies tend to favour more centralized models.
Personal study on biodiversity in India. A book is on the point to be published in India. For further information, please contact the author (see address)or Fph.