Rice farmers need more than just higher productivity

Along with enhancing crop productivity, increasing farmer’s income too should become a research priority now

Update: 2023-10-19 18:50 GMT

The increasing use and abuse of chemical pesticides on rice is a growing concern. It is time to develop rice varieties that require less water

“I don’t know why we keep on applying more pesticides on rice,” wondered Dr Gurdev Singh Khush, world’s top-most rice scientist, when I met him at the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) at Ludhiana early this week. “We scientists, as plant breeders, develop insect and disease-resistant rice varieties and yet we see the usage of pesticides on rice increasing year after year.”

Dr Khush worked with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, for over 35 years.

Called ‘Paddy Daddy’ by some, Dr Khush has developed 328 rice varieties, including the block-buster IR-36, and also IR-42 and IR64 varieties which together cover nearly 60 per cent of the area under rice cultivation. Right from India to Indonesia, and from Vietnam to China to Mozambique, these varieties became immensely popular. So much so, that a former Agriculture Minister of Indonesia had once joked with the then Director General of IRRI saying that IR36 had given them a lot of headaches. “We have so much rice now, we don’t know where to store it,” he had then clarified his statement.

IR36 was planted in more than 11 million hectares globally in the 1980s, the largest area under any crop variety. Agricultural economists had worked out that Asian farmers additionally produced 5 million tonnes of rice each year, earning more than $1 billion every year. The disease resistance that IR36 provided saved farmers nearly $500 million in insecticides costs a year. An external review of International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Los Banos in the Philippines, in 1982, observed: “The impact of IR36 alone would more than justify the investment in IRRI since its establishment 21 years ago.” This is where Dr Khush’s contributions remain unparalleled. So when he expresses concern at the increasing use and abuse of chemical pesticides on rice, it is time to sit back, think and take notice. I remember, Dr Robert Cantrell, a former Director General of IRRI, had once said: “Pesticides on rice in Asia are a waste of time and effort”. Farmers in the Central Luzon province in the Philippines, farmers in Vietnam and also in Bangladesh have conclusively shown that pesticides on rice are not required, and even without these pesticides farmers have achieved a higher productivity.

Dr Cantrell and I were members of the Central Advisory Board on Intellectual Property Rights of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), the governing body of the 15 international agricultural research centres, about two decades back. We would often worry about the harmful environmental impacts arising from the unnecessary push that the pesticides manufacturers were able to make, both among agricultural scientists and the policy makers. He would always express his dismay at the reluctance of the national agricultural centres from moving away from pesticides.

With the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) now dedicating an institute – Gurdev Singh Khush Institute of Genetics, Plant Breeding and Biotechnology - and a museum in his name, who also happens to be alumni, the University in reality did itself the great honours. Recipient of the 1996 World Food Prize (along with mentor Henry Beachell), the Japan Award in 1987, Borlaug Award in 1977, he was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1995. Well, knowing these impeccable credentials, by dedicating an institute at PAU in the name of a doyen among agricultural scientists is certainly a distinction cast in stone.

Talking about the depleting ground water resources, Dr Khush agrees that the time has come to develop rice varieties that would require less water. In any case, he is not in favour of flooding of the rice fields for most part of its cultivation. When I specifically asked, given the food system transformation that the world is talking about, the need is to evolve rice varieties which require less of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and water, his initial reaction was that ‘it’s a good idea’. “This is only possible when we educate farmers not to burn the paddy stubbles but instead plough it in the field. This will add enough nutrients to the soil, and would therefore require less chemical inputs.” In the days to come, we can surely look forward to shift in rice research (at the PAU at least) from chemical to non-chemical rice farming.

The real solution to the crisis emanating from Stubble burning lies in in-situ management of the paddy straw. Given that Punjab alone produces 200-lakh tonnes of paddy residues, the industrial application in the form of energy production would at best remain limited, he agreed on the need to provide farmers with an incentive to enable them to adequately manage the biomass. This becomes necessary given that farmers are junking the machines that were initially brought in to manage farm fires.

There was a time when rice was linked to poverty. But with the evolution of high-yielding rice varieties, rice is no longer associated with poverty. In his autography “Gurdev Singh Khush – a rice breeder’s odyssey” (published by Punjab Agricultural University, 2019), he says that farmers now harvest five to seven tonnes of paddy per hectare compared to 1-3 tonnes in the 1960s. This huge transformation in rice productivity has increased the total rice production from 257 million tonnes in 1966 to over 720 million tonnes in 2014-15. The increase has happened more importantly in Asia, where more than 95 per cent of the global rice production takes place.

While paddy is no longer connected with poverty, but I feel the need today is that the focus of rice scientists and economists must in addition shift to the economic gain that rice farmers are left with. All our emphasis has so far been on increasing productivity while the economics of rice production has merely received lip sympathy. Higher productivity alone cannot be seen as a pathway to achieve higher income. If this was true, rice farmers in India would have been among the rich farmers. Also, if rice production had turned profitable, I see no reason why China should be one of the biggest providers globally of subsidy support to farmers.

In India, while the paddy production has increased by 4.5 times over the 1960s, farm income for an average rice growing household has been on a decline. The research focus has to now look at the policies which have deliberately kept agriculture impoverished. Along with enhancing crop productivity, increasing farmer’s income too should become a research priority. After all, let’s not forget: ‘No farmers, no food’.

(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)


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