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Two scientists, two blockbuster crop varieties

A basmati rice variety grown in 5 lakh hectares this kharif season, up from 5,000 last year; a repeat of the success of a new kind of wheat.

Written by Harish Damodaran | Panipat | Published: October 26, 2014 3:02:11 am
scientist-l Farmer Pritam Singh (left) with IARI head A K Singh (centre)

When A K Singh was appointed head of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute’s (IARI) Genetics Division last month, he got a congratulatory SMS from Baljeet Singh Virk, a farmer from Bathinda in Punjab, for becoming the top man at the “jenatics department”.
The message went on to say that Singh had not just given farmers paise or rupees, but had made them “lakhpatis”.

Virk’s praise wasn’t without reason.
Singh is the chief breeder of Pusa-1509, a basmati rice variety that farmers have grown on almost 5 lakh hectares this kharif season, compared to 5,000 hectares last year.

Pusa-1509’s advantage is its yield. The average 25 quintals paddy per acre from the variety are way above 10 quintals from traditional basmati varieties such as Taraori and Dehraduni. It surpasses even the 20 quintals for Pusa-1121, which now accounts for over half of India’s two-million-plus hectares sown with basmati.

Deepak Pental, professor of genetics and a former vice-chancellor of Delhi University, said Pusa-1509 represented “a very fine example of what publicly funded farm research can really do”.

No less a success story in public breeding is HD-2967, a wheat variety that was released for commercial cultivation in September 2011. In the 2013-14 rabi season, this variety — bred by IARI scientists led by its Joint Director (Research) K V Prabhu — was grown in about six million hectares.

No variety or hybrid of any crop has ever covered such a large area in as short a time; even Bt cotton took five years from 2002 to 2007 to cross six million hectares in India.

Pritam Singh from Urlana Khurd in Panipat’s Madlauda tehsil has harvested 27 quintals per acre with Pusa-1509 this time. Major Singh of Barsat, a village in Gharaunda tehsil of Karnal, has managed 29.5 quintals.

Both Pusa-1121 and Pusa-1509 have lower plant heights than the 160 cm levels for traditional basmatis, making them more responsive to fertiliser application. “The Pusa-1509 plant is only 80 cm tall, below even the 120 cm for Pusa-1121,” says A K Singh, who was also associated with the breeding of Pusa-1121, that generated three-fourth of India’s $4.9 billion earnings from basmati exports in 2013-14.

But yield isn’t the sole attraction. “Pusa-1509 matures within 120 days. Since transplantation can be done after monsoon arrival, I have to give only 10-11 irrigations, whereas it is 15-16 for Pusa-1121 that grows over 145 days,” said Pritam Singh.

Anil Mittal, chairman of KRBL Ltd, India’s largest basmati exporter, however, noted that Pusa-1509 paddy was currently selling at Rs 2,500-2,600 a quintal, below the Rs 2,900-3,000 for Pusa-1121. This, he felt, had to do with the higher percentage of broken kernels on milling.

“The head rice (i.e. unbroken kernels) recovery is only 47-48 kg from every quintal of parboiled Pusa-1509 paddy, while 53-54 kg for Pusa-1121. But from the farmer’s standpoint, the five quintals extra yield and 25 days less duration (in maturing) more than compensates for any lower price realisation,” Mittal said.

Pritam Singh estimated the total production cost for Pusa-1509 at about Rs 21,500 per acre. Given revenues of Rs 2,500/quintal, it translates into a profit of Rs 40,000-plus an acre.

Prabhu attributed HD-2967 wheat variety’s fast spread partly to farmers’ search for an alternative to PBW-343, a workhorse wheat released in 1993 that until recently occupied over nine million hectares.

“This was a popular variety, but had developed high susceptibility to yellow and leaf rust fungal diseases, affecting its yield. HD-2967 is resistant to these as well as Ug99, a deadly African race of stem rust already prevalent in central India,” said Prabhu.

HD-2967 is also the first wheat variety bred with what is called ‘adult plant resistance’. This was done through incorporation of ‘minor’ genes, which on their own may not protect a plant against rust attacks, but are effective in combination.

“Our idea was to breed a variety that may show low levels of disease susceptibility in early growth stages, but develop resistance at the adult (post-flowering) phase when the plant is most vulnerable to yield reduction,” Prabhu added.

Shamsher Singh Sandhu, a farmer with 35 acres in Mattdadu village in Dabwali tehsil of Sirsa, said HD-2967 gave 25 quintals per acre of wheat and an equal quantity of bhusa (straw). “With PBW-343, I wasn’t getting more than 20-22 quintals. The quality of bhusa too wasn’t as good.”

The best endorsement for HD-2967 comes from Balbir Jharia. The farmer with 30 acres in Dharamgarh in Punjab’s Fatehgarh Sahib district has two mobile phone connections with numbers ending in ‘2967’. He has even named his house ‘2967’. Last year, Jharia sold 600 quintals of seeds of this variety for Rs 12 lakh.

One indicator of the change that Pusa-1509 and HD-2967 have brought to agriculture in Punjab and Haryana is lease rents. “Two years ago, I was paying Rs 35,000 to lease an acre for growing two crops a year. Today, it is Rs 60,000,” said Pritam Singh, who farms 107 acres, including 77 acres taken on lease.

The fact that he is willing to pay the amount shows there is some money in farming now.

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