The conservation efforts of rice farmers Suren Bora and Manik Saikia from North Lakhimpur, Assam demonstrate the role of natural capital within sustainable seed innovation. In terms of natural capital, agro-biodiversity means climate-resilient crops, food security, and nutritional security. Moreover, these two farmers work as collaborative scientists with staff from the region’s research station to develop new varieties. Both farmers have received Genome Saviour Farmer Recognition for their conservation efforts, each of them conserving varieties of very different types of rice.
Suren Bora conserved and developed Sali rice variety Solpona and the varieties Borhahinga, Biroi, and Jurai Khowa.
Manik Saikia conserved Negheri Bao a deep water, low lying rice variety. His variety was a donor parent in development programmes resulting in two new Bao varieties for flood prone areas of Assam.
A rice for every reason
To say that rice is a staple of the Assamese diet, would be an understatement. The Assamese consume rice at each meal, for snacks and even in beverages. For every reason, a different type of rice exists. The stickiness of the indigenous Bora rice makes it ideal for snacks and breakfast food as well as a staple in festivals and ceremonies. Bao rice has become more widely popular due to superior nutritional qualities, specifically high levels of B vitamins, vitamin A and iron. While Bao rice varieties often appear red due to the pigment Anthocyanin, the aromatic Joha rice has a black hull. The 43 varieties of Joha recently received Geographical Indication specific to Assam and recognition for an aromatic quality that differs from basmati. By contrast, consumers outside of Assam do not yet fully appreciate Chokuwa rice. Chokuwa rice’s semi-waxy quality permits locals to process the rice into a powder to then use as a type of instant rice when needed.
A rice for every season
The many tributaries of the braided Brahmaputra river deposit fertile soils within the 100 km wide Brahmaputra valley. The Himalayas rise in the background of this landscape. At one moment the river provides the very material permitting the cultivation of rice, in the next moment the river can devastate crops with floodwater. Rice cultivation happens in a wide range of geographical situations from hill slopes, to drought impacted uplands, to rain-fed lowlands and finally to very deep-water environments. Three distinct growing seasons of rice have developed from the wide variety of geographies and climatic conditions.
Season 1: Ahu rice sown in February-March and harvested by June.
Season 2: Sali rice sown in June, transplanted in July and harvested by November. The most diverse rice includes varieties that grow in shallow, semi-deep, and deep-water environments.
Season 3: Boro rice sown in the month of November and harvested by May/June. This type of rice is not as diverse, but is very high-yielding due to fewer insects in the winter months, no flooding conditions and clear skies.
In addition to these 3 seasons, Bao rice fulfils a specific need, sown in season 1 but harvested later.
Deep-water rice: Bao rice sown in March with Ahu, but harvested by December. The climate resilience of Bao is why it is so important. This deep-water rice floats and tolerates submergence as well as being drought resistant. The elongation ability of the plant allows it to increase in height as the water level increases. Once the waters recede, the plant develops roots at the nodes becoming erect. In other words, the plant can now stand independently where once supported by water. Therefore, even in the worst climatic conditions, Bao provides some sustenance at the time of harvest. While providing a typically low yield, due to the now recognised nutritional qualities, this rice can fetch double the price at market.
Conservation and Scientific Collaboration
Manik Saikia cultivates Bao rice only. Due to low-elevation lands, the water levels in his fields are too deep to permit the cultivation of any other type of rice. He found success in farming by following the procedures taught to him by his ancestors. Indeed, in Assam most farmers practice chemical-free traditional farming. (The one exception being herbicide-use within the tea gardens.) The water in rice fields ensures an anaerobic environment preventing the weed seeds from growing and thus not necessitating herbicide use.
While Suren Bora cultivates rice at a slightly higher elevation, floods still affect his lands. Therefore, his favoured varieties also tolerate flooding; moreover, Solpon performs well even during drought conditions. He has farmed since childhood learning the ancestral practices from his father. On a single plot of land, he diligently works to conserve 17 varieties of rice. Suren remains committed to maintaining the highest standards of purity by carefully collecting the best panicles, drying them and not threshing them to prevent mixing with other varieties. Moreover, researchers comment that they have seen one variety of rice growing at his house only. This variety performs well even in very marginal soils, under drought conditions and when submerged in water.
Researchers at the regional agricultural station need farmers like Suren and Manik to continue to conserve indigenous varieties. From time to time, they release new varieties for testing in farmers fields and find them infected by disease or encountering another problem, while indigenous varieties continue to perform well in these same field conditions. The researchers then re-examine the indigenous variety to understand the factors contributing to its success. If a farmer’s variety has potential, it can then become a parent stock in breeding programmes to develop new varieties.
Moreover, when the research station no longer has seeds to provide to farmers, they know that they can tell farmers to see Suren Bora or Manik Sakia for quality seeds. The farmers therefore provide natural capital in the form of seeds to other farmers in need.
Importantly, when we think of rice as a staple item for the diets of millions, we need also to remember that agro-biodiversity and plant varieties are the staple of life. Diverse varieties ensure continued food production in even the most difficult climatic conditions as demonstrated in Assam.
References and further reading:
GI Tag for Joha Rice
Status Paper on Rice in Assam