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How rice cultivation in Punjab has become environmentally sustainable

Farmers in the state are now growing recently developed new rice varieties that are not only high-yielding but also of shorter duration requiring less water


Updated: June 7, 2018 6:22:44 am
Farmers return after purchasing seeds from PAU in Ludhiana. Gurmeet Singh

Written by Gurjit Singh Mangat

Since the initiation of rice research at the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), right from its establishment in 1962, there have been tremendous achievements in both varietal development, and standardisation of production and protection technologies in the crop. The impact can be seen from milled rice production in Punjab rising from a mere 6.88 lakh tonnes (lt) to 132.58 lt between 1970-71 and 2017-18, with average per-hectare yields, too, going up from 1,765 kg to 4,325 kg. This jump in output and productivity has been due to the untiring efforts of rice researchers as well as the state’s technology-savvy farmers.

The breeding strategies have, moreover, been fine-tuned from time to time, depending upon emerging challenges and for meeting the diversified needs of millers and consumers. In recent times, a major concern has been the declining water-table in the state. It has, therefore, led to a reorientation in the focus of breeders towards the development of short-duration varieties that require less water, but without compromising on yields. Recently released rice varieties from the PAU mature in 123-145 days and have been widely adopted by farmers, as they are also high-yielding and generate savings in water, fertiliser, pesticide and labour use.

The new non-basmati varieties — namely PR 121 (released in 2013), PR 122 (2013), PR 123 (2014), PR 124 (2015) and PR 126 (2016) — mature one to five weeks earlier than the earlier popular varieties such as PR 118 (158 days maturity seed-to-grain) and Pusa 44 (160 days), while yielding almost the same. The yields are actually much higher in terms of per unit area, per unit time and per unit of inputs. Also, these varieties possess marker-assisted pyramided bacterial blight disease-resistant genes (Xa4/ Xa5/ Xa13/ Xa21). They are, hence, resistant to all the ten known bacterial blight pathotypes prevalent in Punjab.

During the 2012 kharif cropping season, 39% of Punjab’s total non-basmati paddy area was covered by the long-duration, late-maturing Pusa 44 and 33% under PAU (PR) varieties. The balance 28% was accounted for by other publicly bred and private sector varieties/hybrids. But in the 2017 season, the area share of PAU/PR varieties was 68.5%. In kharif 2018, this is expected to further go up to 75-80%. Simultaneously, the share of Pusa 44 fell to 17.7% in 2017 and is expected to decline below 10% in the ensuing kharif season.

PR 121 has now emerged as the most popular variety among Punjab’s farmers due to its short duration, yield stability across cropping environments, and bacterial blight disease resistance and good milling qualities. With an average paddy yield of 30.5 quintals per acre and maturing in 140 days, this variety (its actual yield potential is 38 quintals, more than the average 32 quintals for Pusa 44) was planted in over 7 lakh hectares or 27.9% of Punjab’s non-basmati rice area in 2017. The other new PAU varieties with their respective area shares included PR 126 (13.6%), PR 124 (8.3%) and PR 122 (6%). All these varieties are now gaining popularity in other states.

Due to the large-scale adoption of the new short-duration, yet high-yielding varieties, Punjab registered an all-time-high paddy productivity of 6,488 kg per hectare (4,325 kg of milled rice) during kharif 2017. The state also achieved a record paddy production of 198.87 lt (132.58 lt in terms of rice) last year. If one considered only non-basmati paddy, Punjab’s average per hectare yields have increased from 64.21 quintals in 2014 to 65.96 quintals in 2015, 65.93 quintals in 2016 and 68.92 quintals in 2017. Also, it is worth noting that the state’s contribution of rice to the central pool in 2017 was 118.33 lt, again a record. All this reflects the impact of the new short-duration PR rice varieties.

The yields from the new varieties, as already pointed out, are almost on a par with the earlier popular long-duration varieties. However, by maturing 2-4 weeks earlier, they yield more per unit area, per unit time, and per unit of fertiliser, pesticide and water (see table). Thus, these are more efficient, a prerequisite for crop breeding today. By maturing in 125-140 days, which allows for the fields to be vacated by the first week of October, the new varieties give farmers at least a 15-20 day window to manage the leftover stubble from harvesting using combines. Farmers, then, don’t have to resort to the burning of the residual paddy straw and they can also undertake timely sowing of the succeeding wheat crop.

The writer is head of Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics, PAU, Ludhiana

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