Updated: September 30, 2021 8:37:24 am
Indian agriculture’s major challenge in the initial decades after Independence was to increase crop production and yields at any cost. Today, it’s about boosting farm incomes, while simultaneously ensuring production that is cost-competitive, resource-use efficient and climate-smart. The release of a new herbicide-tolerant rice variety by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) that can be directly sown, instead of requiring transplantation, is therefore welcome. Farmers transplant and grow paddy in flooded fields mainly to control weeds, which cannot emerge under water that acts as a natural herbicide. The IARI variety contains a mutated gene making the paddy plant “tolerant” to Imazethapyr, a herbicide effective against a wide range of weeds. This chemical when now sprayed will kill only the weeds, while the paddy can be cultivated without any nursery preparation, transplanting, puddling and flooding. Farmers would save about 30 per cent water, Rs 3,000-per-acre labour costs and 10-15 days’ time from direct seeding, compared to conventional transplantation.
The IARI variety — there’s a need for many more of these — highlights the importance of investing in public agricultural research. The first challenge that India confronted, of feeding its population and achieving a modicum of grain self-sufficiency, couldn’t have been met without the high-yielding semi-dwarf varieties bred during the 1960s and 1970s. The same goes for today’s challenges, especially from climate change. Average temperatures are rising, winters are getting shorter and the number of rainy days is falling even with overall “normal” monsoons. Growing crops and rearing animals under such circumstances — of extreme hot and cold or prolonged dry weather and intense downpours — is becoming increasingly tough, with farmers also facing problems of depleting water-tables, soaring energy costs and emergence of new pests and diseases. Coping with these stresses requires new breeding approaches (including gene modification and editing) and low-input, high-output agriculture technologies.
All this also means putting farm research on centre stage just like during the Green Revolution. Agriculture and climate change are too important to be left only to generalist bureaucrats, economists and activists. Research, unlike subsidies and welfare schemes, may not yield political dividends or pay in the short run. But the returns from farm research — IARI varieties alone account for over 95 per cent of India’s Rs 32,000-crore annual basmati rice exports and nearly half of its total wheat area — are more sustainable.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on September 30, 2021 under the title ‘No more puddling’.
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