For a second rice revolution

4th September 2014, BUSINESS STANDARD Better seeds and cultivation methods can be a game-changer The last few columns on innovation covered diverse aspects and examples of innovation.

4th September 2014, BUSINESS STANDARD

Better seeds and cultivation methods can be a game-changer

The last few columns on innovation covered diverse aspects and examples of innovation. The one on public sanitation demonstrated the endless nature of innovation (“‘Neat and clean’ innovation”, April 18), the drama of gas fracking showed how known ideas can coalesce to yield a new idea (“Time, patience & innovation”, May 16), the emergence of e-mail showed how many are involved in building the innovation “cathedral”, so many that it is unclear who built the cathedral (“The ‘I’ factor in innovation”, June 13), and the connection between foreign direct investment and innovation showed how ideas flow across borders without visas and passports (“Innovation across borders”, August 8). As several readers commented, innovation even in very old subjects goes on and on like a spaghetti. This is absolutely true as shown by the example this month of rice.

Rice is the highest produced cereal consumed by human beings. About half of the global population derives its core calorie intake from rice. In Africa, where one in three people depends on rice, the demand for rice is growing at 20 per cent per annum. Rice is a deeply emotional subject all over Asia. Much rice grows in the rich valleys of the Himalayan river systems such as the Ganga, Brahmaputra, Irrawaddy and Mekong. In India, rice connotes religious and spiritual attributes, for example, anna daata and anna praasanam. Even Honda and Toyota, which are car brand names mean rice fields in Japanese. Imagine an Indian car with the brand name Chawal.

Asia grows 90 per cent of the world’s rice and the per capita consumption of rice is flat. This means that as
the productivity of growing rice improves, the Asian population also increases by the same amount. Rice also consumes a disproportionate amount of water, which is becoming scarce all over the world. So, the world faces a twin challenge with rice: need for higher productivity but using less water.

A revolution in rice production can occur by producing better seeds or through better cultivation methods. The combination can deliver fantastic results. For sure, the world is seeking a second rice revolution.

Seeds: In the 1960s, a revolution in seeds occurred through high yielding varieties, followed by hybrid seeds. Traditional rice is a tall plant with a small grain and lots of body. In strong breeze, the plant sways and loses the grain. To solve the problem, either the root system could be strengthened or the plant could be made short and stocky. The discovery of a “short rice” variety in the fields of Taiwan helped produce dwarf rice on a big scale.

In the journey for better seeds, genetic modification arrived as a technique. Rice is the first cereal whose genome sequence has been cracked by science. Genome is a bit like the book of life. This book is in a language that has only four letters, A, G, C and T. “Codons” are formed by a combination of three of these four letters, each codon determining the building block of proteins. In rice, the genome consists of over 20,000 genes, which means that the code is now known for proteins that are involved in determining all aspects of growth and development. If a scientist wishes to make a drought-resistant rice, he or she knows which paragraph has to be modified or re-written. Likewise, with flood-resistant and salt-resistant rice.

In 2000, Science magazine published a paper about “Golden Rice”, a genetically modified rice with beta-carotene (Vitamin A) in the polished grain. With subsequent developments, it is possible to increase up to 23 times the level of this desirable beta carotene; golden rice is now a very potent tool to address the Vitamin A deficiency problem plaguing many parts of the world.

System: Apart from developing new rice varieties and hybrids, the system of growing rice has also attracted innovation. For centuries, the farmer was not too concerned about water or labour intensity. He would
plant the seedlings in a nursery. After a few weeks, when the plant is prone to weed attack, he would flood the nursery with water. After the plant’s delicate phase concludes, it is replanted into the normal field and tended for the next several weeks. This process has been developed over centuries and is considered robust, but it consumes lots of water and is quite labour-intensive.

In 1961, a Jesuit Father Henri de Laulanie, moved from France to Madagascar to work with the farmers there. He spent the next 34 years working there. In 1981, he established an agricultural school. Through his work and some serendipity, the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), was invented. Whenever such a process is established, discipline and order also contribute to the increased yield. The disciplined and orderly approach, along with a reorganisation of the way resources (rice plant, soil, water and nutrients) are utilised, contributes greatly to the higher yield.

However, the view that there is higher productivity is contested. A group of scientists believes that it is the additional care bestowed that gives more yield and not any science.

It is estimated that globally over five million farmers have already adopted SRI cultivation. In the 50 countries where SRI has been tried, 30-40 per cent saving of water has been demonstrated. Due to better husbanding of resources, the yield per hectare has doubled. SRI has thus become a poster boy for “more from less” and can justifiably claim to be a “climate-friendly, green rice.” Imagine the potential of such rice to save water and to deliver the marketing position of being an environment-friendly rice. In the consumer atmosphere of a rapidly urbanising India, this holds promise.

ITI and ATI: Over the years, like other agencies, Rallis India has deployed agricultural training institutes (ATIs), somewhat akin to the industrial training institutes (ITIs) for industrial skills training. The company experience has pointed to the need for skill training in agriculture just like unskilled industrial labour is prepared for industrial work in an automated factory. Here are the early lessons: first, an attitudinal and habit shift in the farming technique is required of the farmer; second, SRI involves skills in using mechanised transplanters (unskilled farm labour cannot implement SRI), so an intense re-skilling of the farmer is essential. Third, the package of practices must be closely taught by the SRI-promoting agency. The yield increases only with a confluence of all the factors of production.

However, whether with genetically modified seeds or SRI cultivation, the path to paradise is strewn with purgatory and pain. But this is true of all innovation, is it not?