Baldev Kumar is a confused man these days. The source of it is a recommendation that experts made at a recent workshop conducted by the All India Rice Exporters Association (AIREA). The 36-year-old farmer, who attended the workshop not far from his village of Lali in Ratia tehsil of Haryana’s Fatehabad district, was told not to spray the fungicide Tricyclazole beyond 70-75 days after transplanting of the popular Pusa-1401 basmati paddy variety.
“It’s difficult to follow this recommendation. In some seasons, especially when humidity levels are high, we may have to spray the fungicide (against leaf and neck blast disease in rice) even 3-4 times. And that could be even after 90 days,” Kumar told The Indian Express over phone.
The ongoing “farmer awareness” camps — AIREA has already held five of them in Sirsa, Fatehabad and Kaithal, districts having significant acreages under Pusa-1401 and Pusa Basmati-1 varieties that are particularly vulnerable to blast — follows a recent European Union (EU) decision to bring down the maximum residue limits (MRL) for Tricyclazole in imported rice shipments to 0.01 parts per million (ppm). This is as against the existing tolerance level of one ppm (one ppm is 1 mg/kg; 0.01 ppm equals 1 mg/100 kg).
“Out of India’s annual 40 lakh tonnes (lt) basmati exports valued at around Rs 22,000 crore, 3.5 lt goes to the EU. Much of it constitutes Pusa-1401 and Pusa Basmati-1 rice. The EU action reducing the MRL for Tricyclazole to default levels can significantly affect our shipments and amounts to a non-tariff barrier. Our government should take this up, more so because not a single health-related incidence has been reported from the use of this cost-effective fungicide,”, said Vijay Setia, president of AIREA.
The blast fungus primarily infects the leaf and neck nodes of the main stem from which the grain-bearing earheads or panicles emerge. The infected tissues after a point turn black and shrivel, causing the stem to break.
The panicles may have partially formed grains in their early milky stage. Either way, the end-result is severe yield loss.
The AIREA workshops have been focusing on educating farmers about the EU decision and advising them to spray Tricyclazole just once before the ‘boot leaf’ stage, while the developing panicle is still to emerge from the stem. Booting happens about 70 days after transplantation (or 100 days from seeding in the nursery), which leaves another 45 days for flowering, grain-filling and final ripening.
“Tricyclazole residues remain in the plant for 30-35 days. So, if spraying is done at booting stage, the molecules will break down and there will hardly be any residues during maturity. Farmers now are applying even at grain-formation stage,” explains A.K. Gupta, director of the Basmati Export Development Foundation, a society under the Union Commerce Ministry’s Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority.
Farmers are, however, not fully convinced. “The scientists are saying that just a single spray is enough. But what if there is a severe attack of gardan-marod (the local term for blast, literally meaning “curling of neck”), which is always possible in varieties that take 145-150 days to mature? If this EU decision was known earlier, I wouldn’t have sown Pusa-1501. There is nothing more effective against gardan-marod than Tricyclazole,” claims Baldev Kumar who has planted the long-duration improved basmati on 16 out of his 22-acres holding.
He sums up the dilemma now facing farmers like him: “If we go against the recommendation of the exporters and scientists, we will lose our market. But if we follow their advice, we may even lose our crop”.
Jaspal Singh from Nangal Shama, a village in the outskirts of Jalandhar, has been cultivating basmati on three out of his six-acre farm for the past 15-odd years. He has also been spraying Tricyclazole on his crop 2-3 times, often even 80-90 days after transplanting.
“We spray whenever some blackening of the leaves (for leaf blast) or stem (for neck blast) is visible. Nobody from the Punjab Agricultural University or the state agriculture department has provided us any guidelines on application of this fungicide. But suddenly now, we are being told to limit its spraying,” he remarked.
Jaspal Singh fortunately grows Pusa-1121, a basmati variety less susceptible to blast, unlike Pusa Basmati-1 and Pusa-1401 that are more widely cultivated in Haryana; Sirsa district alone has an estimated 60,000-70,000 hectares under the latter two varieties. At the same time, Pusa-1121 is prone to bacterial blight attacks that cause wilting of seedlings and drying of leaves.
A K Singh, head of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute’s genetics division, feels that farmers cannot risk too much of pesticide applications in basmati, given the huge export market for this rice and the need to preserve its premium quality character.
The New Delhi-based institute, which has developed all the well-known Pusa basmati varieties, has in recent times been working on “breeding for disease-resistance”, as an alternative to spraying of pesticides. Such breeding involves introduction of genes, from both traditional landrace cultivars as well as wild relatives of paddy, into existing high-yielding basmati varieties. The transfer of the
target genes from resistant donor lines is being done through advanced molecular breeding based on marker-assisted selection.
“We have just released three such varieties bred specifically for resistance. The first is Pusa-1637, which is an improved Pusa Basmati-1 incorporating resistance to neck and leaf blast. The second is Pusa-1728, an improved Pusa-101 variety having bacterial blight resistance. The third, Pusa-1718, is Pusa-1121 that is also resistant to bacterial blight,” he informed.
As these varieties get planted in fields — their seeds have already been supplied to select farmers and companies for multiplication — there should hopefully be less need to spray chemicals encountering increasing buyer resistance in Europe and other premium-value markets.