Five new varieties to expand India’s Basmati platter
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IARI developed five seeds in 2020 and 2021, which are now ready to be used in fields after all trials; these paddy seeds can resist diseases and herbicides

October 24, 2022 01:43 am | Updated 10:57 am IST - New Delhi

Dr. Ashok Kumar Singh, Director of Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) at a paddy field site of Pusa in New Delhi on October 19, 2022.

Dr. Ashok Kumar Singh, Director of Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) at a paddy field site of Pusa in New Delhi on October 19, 2022. | Photo Credit: SHIV KUMAR PUSHPAKAR

Five new varieties of seeds of Basmati rice, developed by a group of scientists led by the Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) Director Dr. Ashok Kumar Singh in 2020 and 2021, are all set to bring revolutionary changes in the way Basmati rice is cultivated in the country.

Three of the five varieties can resist two common diseases of paddy (one bacterial and one fungal). The other two varieties can save 35% of water as the method of Direct Sowing of Rice (DSR) can be used to raise them. These two seeds are resistant to herbicides too, helping the farmers control weeds more efficiently.

In the next three years, all of the five seeds will have the combined qualities of disease and herbicide resistance, says Dr. Singh.

“This is a landmark achievement. We started the research in 2008. This is 100% indigenous revolution using indigenous breeding programmes,” Dr. Singh tells The Hindu. “This will help in increasing farmers’ income by reducing the cost of cultivation, by improving production and by realising price of their labour and input cost. The cost of cultivation will be reduced. It will reduce the use of pesticides and water. If the production is free from residue, it will get better prices,” he explained.

Export in mind

India is known for its Basmati rice, with seven States — Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand — earmarked for geographical indication. Basmati, known for its mouthfeel, aroma, length of the grain when cooked and taste, has a market abroad and brings about ₹30,000 crore foreign exchange every year. While 75% of the export is to West Asian countries, European Union countries also import Indian Basmati. However, recently, the export to EU countries faced certain hurdles due to the increase in the pesticide residue levels in the rice from India.

Dr. Singh says that over a period of time, as the area of cultivation increased, traditional varieties become susceptible to two major diseases — bacterial leaf blight (BLB) and blast (leaf and collar) diseases caused by the fungus Magnaporthe oryzae. Pesticides and fungicides used against these diseases increased the residue levels permitted in developed countries.

“Achieving the permitted levels is very difficult if we are using pesticides for controlling pests. The only way was that we bring in genetic resistance so that we do not have to spray pesticides and fungicides. So, from Pusa Basmati 1121, we developed Pusa Basmati 1885; from Pusa Basmati 1509, we developed Pusa Basmati 1847; Pusa Basmati 1401 was improved to develop Pusa Basmati 1886. All these varieties have two genes to resist BLB and two genes to resist blast disease. Farmers need not use pesticides and it will decrease the cost of farming by ₹3,000 per acre. Because of effective disease control, production will increase and most importantly, there is no question of pesticide residue and our consignments will not be rejected,” Dr. Singh says.

The IARI provided one kilogram each to about 10,000 farmers in these seven States in 2021. “They had grown these crops during this kharif season. In the last week of September, I travelled 1,500 kilometres to see for myself how the crop is doing and to hear the feedback from farmers. I stayed at the residences of farmers. There is phenomenal response for these varieties. I am hoping that from next year, these varieties will change the scenario of Basmati cultivation and it will directly help in terms of addressing the problem of pesticides residue,” Dr. Singh says, sharing hopes of an increased coverage area in the next crop year. “I have asked farmers to keep this year’s produce for next year as seeds,” he adds.

The IARI developed Pusa Basmati 1979 and Pusa Basmati 1985 as herbicide tolerant rice by improving the Pusa Basmati 1121 and Pusa Basmati 1509, respectively. The traditional way of paddy cultivation relied on transplanting the plants into a water-filled field midway through the cycle. “Around 3,000 litres of water is required for one kilogram of Basmati rice. This has impacted the groundwater table of States like Punjab and Haryana. We have to change the practice of cultivating transplanted variety of paddy to direct sowing of rice (DSR). Water saving is 35% in DSR and the requirement will be 2,000 litres of water for a kilogram of rice. The second advantage is that the green house gas emission is reduced by 35% as water is not stagnating in this process. Labour cost of transplantation, which is about ₹3,000, is also saved. Overall, saving will be at least ₹4,000 per acre. Just do the sowing in the field and let the crop grow there,” he says.

However, one of the major problem in the DSR is weeds. Without the water acting as a herbicide, the DSR method allows for lot of weeds to crop up in the field. “So, we transferred a gene that is resistant to a herbicide. So, when farmers spray herbicide, weeds will be killed, not paddy,” he says.

Process in place

The first process in developing these two varieties was to do a mutation breeding using a chemical called Ethyl Methanesulfonate (EMS) to identify a variant in the plant that survives the application of herbicide.

“Last year, we released the seed to farmers on an experimental process. This is a non-genetically modified herbicide-tolerant seed. GM is a good technology but many markets such as European Union doesn’t accept GM rice. We get about ₹8,000 crore from exporting Basmati rice to EU countries. A minor step is incomplete, which is making an application to the Central Insecticide Board’s registration committee to allow us to expand its label claim to this variety. The process may take some time. We have to submit dossiers about the efficacy of the seed. The data has been submitted. We hope that all formalities will be cleared by next crop season. This year, we have done trialling under control. Everything is fine. It provides effective weed control. The cooking quality is also excellent. There is no residue of any kind of herbicides,” Dr. Singh says.

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