IS HYBRID RICE A SOLUTION FOR EASTERN INDIA ?

In many states of eastern India, including in eastern Uttar Pradesh, hybrid rice is being promoted as a way to increase productivity by various governments. The Government of India wants these states to emulate the ‘Chinese Model’ of adopting hybrid rice on a large scale to spur productivity in the name of ‘bridging yield gaps’. Rs. 400 crores have been allocated in the Union Budget of 2010 for extending the Green Revolution in eastern Indian states and in 2011, another 400 crores have been announced. 63% of the funding is for intensive technology promotion in rice and wheat, on nearly 4 lac hectares. Hybrid Rice is being made into a major strategy for promotion of productivity of rice in the region. This brings to the fore many questions including what constitutes productivity, at what expense can productivity increases be attempted in an unqualified fashion, whether the eastern region can afford a repetition of the Green Revolution model of the past with its excessive thrust on Rice and Wheat, seed diversity and sovereignty issues with this promotion of hybrid seeds, medium and long term sustainability etc. This brief note attempts to situate the concerns around hybrid rice in the context of these larger questions.

 ABOUT HYBRID RICE & ITS ADOPTION IN INDIA:

 India was one of the first countries to have initiated hybrid rice research at the Central Rice Research Institute, in the 1950s. R & D efforts have resulted in 43 hybrids being released in India between 1994 and 2009, both by public institutions and private sector players. 28 of these have been developed by the public sector[1]. It is estimated that 90% of the hybrid rice planted belongs to private companies. Most of the hybrids have been created to respond to chemical fertilizer use. Thousands of hybrid rice varieties have been tested in coordinated trials across the country for decades now, with the results being unsatisfactory and the number of hybrids released after so much R&D effort is an illustration of various problems with hybrid rice.

Hybrid rice adoption has been very slow amongst farmers and this speaks about the various problems related to the hybrids in India – this includes grain quality, pest and disease resistance, cost of seed, farm economics etc. Many published reports indicate that the earlier hybrid rice varieties were not suited to the irrigated rice lands of southern and northern India. The search for markets for Hybrid Rice has now moved to eastern India, considered as favorable rainfed areas. In front of the base yield of existing rice varieties in these areas, yield gains with hybrid rice appear to be around 30-35% as per some reports. In general, hybrid rice is reported to provide 15-20% yield gains.

To promote hybrid rice, governments started providing a slew of incentives and subsidies. It is reported that 3.2% of India’s rice land is planted to hybrid rice in 2008 (on 1400,000 hectares, out of around 44 million hectares of rice cultivation, up from 50,000 hectares in 1996 where in the first decade it did not cross the one million mark). Hybrid rice is reported to contribute 5.6% of India’s total rice production, nearly 15 years after its introduction and promotion. Chattisgarh, Bihar and Eastern Uttar Pradesh have the largest concentration of hybrid rice cultivation in the country, where it has failed to meet farmers’ expectations in remaining parts of the country. In eastern India, hybrid rice covers 7% of the total rice land, accounting for nearly 13% of the output of the region. Adoption is reported to be concentrated with farmers who have financial capacity to invest, in fields with favorable water supply and with farmers who are market-oriented. This may not be the category into which most of our small and marginal farmers of the eastern region might fit into.

THREAT TO NATIVE DIVERSITY

The Eastern Region in India is the last bastion of rice diversity in the country, so to speak. To this day, it is estimated that more than 3500 varieties are cultivated in this region, where there used to be an estimated 110,000 land races of rice cultivated in India at one point of time[2]. Chattisgarh alone was supposed to have housed over 22000 rice landraces with West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand and Odisha having nearly 15500 landraces until 1975. The extant varieties include flood-tolerant, drought-tolerant, salt-tolerant, aromatic, medicinal, biotic-stress-resistant, high-yield varieties!

The aggressive promotion of hybrid rice poses a threat to this invaluable diversity. While hybrid rice is being promoted mainly in the name of higher yields, it is important to note that numerous traditional rice varieties like Ashphal, Bansh Pata, Bokva, Patnai, Ganga Sal, Bahurupi and Nagra have an impressive number of nodal number of productive tillers per hill and panicle density (grains per panicle), often significantly higher than released varieties, with their yield matching such other varieties (7+ tonnes per hectares)! This is true for grain weight too[3].

When it comes to grain yields, it is important to remember that when objectively measured in terms of output per unit of chemical fertilizers, hybrids and HYVs are significantly outperformed by traditional varieties. Chemical fertilization is a process which is already posing serious questions about its impacts on soil health, impacts on GHG emissions, public financing burden, farm economics burden etc. Hybrid technology and yield improvements therefore cannot be assessed in isolation from these other emerging issues.

Further, the issue of yield is not just grain yield but total bio-mass from unit land. When it comes to food security, it is important to note that we cannot ignore that food security is also about nutritional value of such grains. It is widely acknowledged that the high nutritional value of traditional landraces and varieties has supported indigenous communities in terms of basic nutrition[4] and the same cannot be said of hybrid rice. It is important therefore to re-look at hybrid rice in this rice diversity-rich region of eastern India.

SEED PRICES/CHOICES/SOVEREIGNTY:

It has to be remembered that hybrid rice price is significantly higher than inbred rice, nearly 6-fold higher. The cost of seed is around Rs. 150-200/- per kilo in the private seed market, with the recommended seed rate being around 15 kilos per hectare. The seed component alone will then cost upto Rs. 2250/- to Rs. 3000/- per hectare. A more important aspect to remember is that private proprietary seed prices have been on the rise almost exponentially elsewhere too and there are no laws at present to regulate seed prices in the country. While subsidized projects might lure farmers towards hybrid seed adoption, the real costs will hit the farmer in the medium term and there would be no seed left with the communities to fall back on, at that point of time.

Hybrid rice means that farmers have to buy seed every season and have to have the financial capacity to do so in the first instance. Timely availability of seed could be a major issue once the dependency on such hybrid seed is established. Seed choices for farmers would certainly be eroded and markets will dictate what will be available and sown, at what time and price. Given that a major food crop in the country is being directed towards proprietary hybrid seed markets, this whole push towards hybrid rice poses serious seed and food sovereignty questions.

HIGHER COST OF CULTIVATION & CHEMICALISATION OF AGRICULTURE

While some reports indicate that the additional net profit for a farmer by cultivation of hybrid rice over other varieties in experimental trials ranges from RS. 2781 to Rs. 6291/- per hectare, the real picture from the ground is different. It is seen that yield gains show a variable performance with an average increase of 15-20% more (4-13% as per some studies). However, input costs also increase, in addition to poor grain quality fetching lower prices for farmers with hybrid rice[5].  Cost difference ranged from 16% to 25% with hybrid rice cultivation requiring more investment from the farmer.

Another recent study with sample farmers from Chattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana showed that cost of cultivation in hybrid rice is higher than in inbred rice cultivation[6]. In Chattisgarh, for instance, total input costs were higher by 29% for hybrid than inbred rice cultivation. Differences in net returns were variable and ranged from 1.9% in Haryana to 33.3% in UP, in favor of hybrid rice. Earlier studies showed that net returns are lower in hybrid rice, ranging from -5% to -14.8%, even though there were some yield gains. This was mainly due to lower market price fetched by hybrid rice and higher input costs – these ranged from 3% to 29% in the IRRI-supported study.

Nitrogenous fertilizers are recommended upto at least 150 kilos per hectare for hybrid rice cultivation.  This, at a time when the ill-effects of such fertilizers are clearer than ever before.

With the kind of intensive, external-input driven cultivation that drives yield increases in hybrid rice, productive resources are going to be adversely affected sooner or later. Apart from variable and even negative farm economics, hybrid rice cultivation poses a question on sustainability of incomes of farmers.

YIELD GAINS – WHAT IS THE TRUE STORY?

Reports indicate that the yield gains are just 4-13% in India. Importantly enough, states like Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka which have the highest productivity in the country, did not attain that productivity gain through hybrids. Yield gains come at the expense of more chemicalisation of our agriculture. This will obviously not sustain itself in the future.

Studies show that such yield gains are a direct factor of management intensity (management responsiveness in hybrid rice is reported to be around 30-35% compared to conventional varieties; in fact, at ‘average management levels’, yields are lower than HYVs), chemical fertilizer response and irrigation provision to hybrid rice. Similar investments, through agro-ecological approaches like SRI would yield higher productivity of course, even as non-chemical SRI with varieties would conserve our resources.

An earlier point that we made, of productivity having to be re-understood especially in the context of food security and livelihood for the poorest, becomes relevant. Productivity increases cannot also be at the expense of agro-diversity and seed sovereignty since such gains will only jeopardize the food security and livelihoods of our people.

LACK OF CONSUMER PREFERENCE:

Poor grain quality, no taste, poor cooking and keeping quality, no flavor, stickiness etc. are all reported to be problems with the grain quality of hybrid rice. While issues like breakage of grain and poor milling returns are being addressed by improving technologies at the processing end, it might be important to ask ourselves why we are propping up a not-so-successful technology in the first instance, in the name of productivity.

REAL SOLUTIONS:

    • Since Food Security and Productivity cannot be defined as just grain yields of only rice and wheat, various other foods, especially of the poor have to be promoted and encouraged since productivity gains are after all sought for enhancing food security.
    • Within rice, it has to be understood that the vast diversity of paddy in the country, especially in the eastern states, is what will hold future solutions for our poor farmers, especially in the era of climate change. This rice diversity reflects variation in yields but also reflects stress tolerance (both biotic and abiotic), higher nutritional qualities and medicinal properties. Therefore, programmes should be taken up to conserve the diversity in farmers’ fields, by working on productivity improvements through agro-ecological approaches.
    • Seed sovereignty issues can be addressed by working along with farmers to evolve seed banks and community level seed production and distribution systems.
    • Public sector can be strengthened with the resources being invested on hybrid rice, to evolve systems that will strengthen farmer-level seed self reliance even as productivity is also improved.
    • Intensification of ecological farming with local, diverse landraces will increase productivity, which needs to be supported by adequate marketing and income support.

 [1] ‘Guidelines for Seed Production of Hybrid Rice’, National Food Security Mission, Department of Agriculture & Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture, Govt of India, 2010

[2] Heirloom AgroBiodiversity Vs. Green Revolution, Debal Deb, Centre for Inter-disciplinary Studies, Presentation in the National Workshop organized by ASHA on “Green Revolution: Eastern India now on disastrous path of Punjab?”, July 8th and 9th, 2011, Patna

[3] The Diversity of Traditional Rice Varieties in India, PANAP Rice Sheets, 2009

[4] Nutritional and medicinal values of some indigenous rice varieties, Shakeelur Rahman, MP Sharma and Suman Sahai, Indian Journal of Traditional Knowledge, Vol 5(4), pp. 454-458, October 2006

[5] Economics of hybrid rice: Issues & Opportunities, Sushil Pandey and Humnath Bhandari, IRRI, 5th International Hybrid Rice Symposium, Changsha, Sep14, 2008

[6] Hybrid Rice adoption in India: Farm level impacts and challenges, Aldas Janaiah and Fangming Xie, IRRI Technical Bulletin No. 14, 2010

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