At a time when climate vagaries are posing a serious threat to farming in the country, a Kerala-based organisation named Thanal has embarked on a unique conservation experiment, planting 300 climate-resilient varieties of traditional rice on 1.5 acres of land at its agroecology centre in Panavally in the Wayanad district.
On December 12, Thanal gave the public an opportunity to experience their initiative by launching Ikki Jathre, or the Festival of Rice in tribal parlance. Throngs of farmers, researchers, environmentalists and students have been arriving at Panavally to take part in the festival, which concludes on Sunday.
The initiative aims to sensitise people to the significance of conserving traditional crops that have the ability to withstand harsh climatic conditions. Thanal has been organising annual “rice field weeks” since 2012. Floods in 2018 and 2019 and then the COVID-19 pandemic had put brakes on the festival, till the NGO decided to revive it this year.
The festival also sets the stage for knowledge sharing and co-creation of knowledge between tribal farmers and experts. “We launched the Rice Diversity Block (RDB) at Panavally under the Save Our Rice campaign in 2009, with a collection of 30 varieties of rice,” Thanal director S. Usha told The Hindu. It has now expanded to 300 varieties.
“Most of the varieties were collected from Kerala, Karnataka, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Arunachal Pradesh, Maharashtra and West Bengal. There are three traditional rice varieties from Vietnam and Thailand,” she said.
“Many varieties are drought-resistant and flood-tolerant, while others have aromatic and medicinal properties. When the farmers return home from the festival they would take back seeds and propagate them by exchanging them with their friends. Efforts are on to popularise traditional rice crops among consumers,” said Ms. Usha.
“Many farmers had stopped cultivating traditional rice seeds after hybrid rice varieties became popular, under the misconception that the former has low productivity. But this is not true. The Thondy variety, a traditional and popular rice among the people in Wayanad a few decades ago, could compete with any hybrid rice in terms of productivity,” she said. Moreover, the input cost of traditional rice cultivation is very low owing to its inherent resistance to pests and diseases. Also, its nutritional value is high, though studies are yet to be conducted.
A massive dip
Though many traditional rice varieties, especially black rice varieties, are already rich in minerals like zinc, iron and other nutrients, the government is now trying to supply fortified rice by artificially adding minerals and nutrients to hybrid rice varieties.
India had nearly 1.5 lakh varieties of rice, with about 3,000 varieties unique to Kerala. Many of these have disappeared. Only 6,000 varieties are currently being cultivated by the farmers in the country, said Ms. Usha.