- Bangladesh, the fourth biggest rice-producing country in the world, produces around 39 million tons of rice annually to feed its 170 million people, with 130 lab-developed high-yielding varieties.
- For higher production, farmers have turned to a few high-yielding varieties, despite having around 1,000 indigenous varieties that have better adaptive quality amid changing climatic patterns; the trend has forced many traditional varieties to go extinct.
- By cultivating indigenous rice varieties, some farmers are fighting back against monoculture, and a few nongovernmental conservation organizations, as well as individuals, are creating awareness about protecting local varieties.
- Bangladesh Resource Center for Indigenous Knowledge (BARCIK) alone is conserving more than 600 local rice varieties and engaging with farmers across the country.
Salinity intrusion triggered by different factors, including sea-level rise, commercial shrimp cultivation and a decrease in water flow from transboundary rivers upstream, has directly affected agriculture in the southern coastal districts of Bangladesh — some of which are also major producers of rice, the national staple.
Government agencies have been desperately trying to invent and promote high-salinity-tolerant paddy varieties, with some degree of success. However, there are no evident shifts in agricultural patterns, as traditional paddy growers generally switch to other saline-friendly crops, or different professions, when faced with difficulties in growing rice.
Yet one man — who surprisingly lives in one of the worst salinity-hit areas in Bangladesh — stands out as a stark exception.
As traditional paddy farmers in his area are switching to other crops, Sirajul Islam, a middle-aged farmer from Shyamnagar Upazila in Satkhira, has been collecting and preserving seeds of indigenous salinity-tolerant paddy breeds. So far, he has collected a staggering 218 different varieties of paddy. He does not just collect the seeds; he also encourages fellow farmers to cultivate them.
“Once, I had to travel 100 kilometers [60 miles] to collect a particular kind of seed. I took the trouble because I heard it could significantly resist salinity,” Sirajul said.
Many of these paddy varieties were nearly out of use, as farmers in recent decades leaned heavily toward high-yielding varieties. That makes Sirajul’s seed bank even more important.
Usually, after collecting a particular kind of seed, he cultivates it on a small piece of land. If the results are good, he recommends it to his fellow farmers.
“I have cultivated some varieties on shrimp beds to check their ability to withstand salinity. The salinity level in shrimp beds is often as high as 20 dS/m [deciSiemens per meter, the measurement for salinity],” he said.
To promote indigenous paddy varieties, Sirajul formed a voluntary organization called Sheba Songothon. The organization now has 197 members, all farmers from the Haibatout and Nakipur villages in the Shyamnagar Upazila.
The rise of Sirajul Islam and many others across the country is the result of the Bangladesh Resource Center for Indigenous Knowledge (BARCIK)’s farmer-led rice breeding initiative, which is empowering farmers through capacity building, to revive confidence in solving seed-related problems on their own and break the monopoly of scientists over science.
Since 2005, BARCIK, a nongovernmental development organization, has collected 653 (as of 2020) rice landraces from farmers, from different parts of the country, which are regrown during different seasons to keep them alive. These are also used for farmer-led rice breeding as well.
As a result of hybridization through breeding undertaken by these farmers, 88 breeding lines are under the selection process for distribution to the farmers at four agroecological zones in Bangladesh.
“We are treating this approach as a nonformal, problem-solving, on-farm research, which is designed, executed, managed and led by farmers to explore location-specific adaptive indigenous crop varieties (landraces) for minimizing production cost (agrochemicals), as well as ensuring diversity,” said Pavel Partha, director of BARCIK.
Rice production and increasing monocrop culture in Bangladesh
Bangladesh, the fourth-biggest rice-producing country in the world, produces around 39 million tons of rice annually to feed its 170 million people, with mostly 130 laboratory-developed high-yielding varieties.
The country has been leaning heavily on high-yielding rice cultivation for higher production, despite having around 1,000 indigenous varieties that have better adaptive quality in changing climatic patterns.
Farmers are cultivating some of these indigenous varieties in less suitable areas such as coastal regions, lands with no irrigation systems as well as in deep-water conditions for their wide adaptability, superior grain quality and resistance to abiotic and biotic stresses, as noted in a study on rice cultivation in Bangladesh.
According to the Global Sustainable Development Report 2015, 75% of the genetic variety of agricultural crops has been lost over the last two decades, a loss that has increased 100- 1,000 times over time. This pattern has degraded the performance of other ecosystem functions as well as the ecosystem’s capacity to produce food for people sustainably.
Due to the success of crop breeding and the widespread adoption of intensive farming techniques, many traditional crop types have been replaced by a few enhanced, high-yielding varieties with the advent of modern agriculture.
Research has suggested that widespread cultivation of high-yielding, pest-resistant crop varieties developed scientifically has made a significant contribution to the world’s food production. However, this practice has also resulted in serious “genetic erosion” — the disappearance of traditional varieties from agroecosystems — which impedes efforts to further improve crop varieties.
“Reliance on a narrow spectrum of cultivars grown in monoculture has also been linked to increased pest problems and to vulnerable agroecosystems,” the study reads.
Farmers, as well as the researchers, believe the secured return on investment is a major reason for the shift to monoculture. Higher cost of production and lack of fair price together have forced farmers to turn to popular and reliable varieties.
Ahsan Uddin Ahmed, a researcher on environment and climate change issues, blamed government policy for monoculture, and said it has failed to address the farmers’ interests.
“If farmers cannot get a fair price for their produce, they will definitely go for those that will give them the best yield,” he said, adding that the problem can only be solved if farmers have enough options within a profit range.
“The government should introduce a mechanism so farmers will get fair prices. Otherwise, they will choose the variety that will ensure their profit,” said Jiban Krishna Biswas, a former director-general of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI).
“For instance, for the last 30 years, farmers have been extensively cultivating BRRI 28 and BRRI 29 out of 130 lab-developed varieties, as only these two paddy varieties can give them a comparatively better return on their investment. Eventually, this tendency leads to monocrop culture, which will cause ecological damage in the long run,” he added.
Banner image: Farmers winnowing harvested rice. Image by United Nations/M. Yousuf Tushar via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Lack of finance prevents Bangladesh farmers from diversifying their rice crops
Shelley, Israt J., Takahashi-Nosaka, M., Kano-Nakata, M., Haque, M. S., and Inukai, Y. (2016). Rice Cultivation in Bangladesh: Present Scenario, Problems, and Prospects. Journal of International Cooperation for Agricultural Development. Retrieved from https://icrea.agr.nagoya-u.ac.jp/jpn/journal/Vol14_20-29-Review-Shelley.pdf
F. S. R. K. Dewi, G. A., & Gonzaléz, V. A. (n.d.). Conserving Traditional Seed Crops Diversity. Retrieved from United Nations Division for Sustainable Development website: https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/5739Conserving%20traditional%20seed%20crops%20diversity.pdf
Zhu, Y., Wang, Y., Chen, H., and Lu, Bao-Rong. (2003). Conserving Traditional Rice Varieties through Management for Crop Diversity. BioScience, Volume 53, Issue 2, February 2003, Pages 158–162, doi:10.1641/0006-3568(2003)053[0158:CTRVTM]2.0.CO;2
Shahabuddin, Q., Rahman, A. (2017). Agricultural and Food Policy Framework in Bangladesh: An Assessment. The Bangladesh Development Studies, March-June 2017, Vol. 40A, No. 1 & 2, Agricultural Transformation, Structural Change and Policy Reforms (March-June 2017), pp. 27-51. Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2307/26572743
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