Climate-resilient traditional rice poised for comeback in Sri Lanka

by Amantha Perera | @AmanthaP | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 11 October 2013 07:15 GMT

A farmer holds rice plants destroyed in floods in Sri Lanka's northeastern Polonnaruwa District. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Amantha Perera

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As farmers struggle with increasingly extreme weather, old rice varieties may be an answer

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Ankumbura, a remote village in Sri Lanka’s Central Province, has a unique feature: It has resisted the mass shift to hybrid rice varieties that has swept Sri Lanka in the last six decades.

Sri Lanka’s first hybrid rice variety was unveiled about 60 years back. It was a harbinger of change and since then over six dozen new rice varieties have been released.

Today about 15 hybrid varieties dominate Sri Lanka’s staple rice harvest, expected to reach over 4.5m metric tons this year, rice experts say. These varieties account for over 70 percent of the harvest, and are valued because of their high production and quick growth, with the most popular varieties maturing in less than three and a half months.

But traditional rice varieties – like those grown in Ankumbura – may be poised for a comeback in the face of growing climate change pressures. Experts say most are much more resilient to Sri Lanka’s increasing extreme weather – and can offer higher incomes to growers and health benefits for those who eat them.

“They are extremely strong and can withstand drought and flood much better than the popular varieties,” said Chatura Rodrigo, a research economist at the Colombo-based Institute of Policy Studies.

Soon after gaining independence from colonial rule in 1948, Sri Lanka set about improving rice production, particularly by introducing new varieties that could produce a high yield in a short growing season.

As farmers took up the new varieties, old traditional varieties suffered. By 2009, they accounted for less than 1 percent of Sri Lanka’s total rice production.

But in Ankumbura, they have survived. Manjula Wijesinghe, an agrarian instructor with the government-run Agriculture Service Centre said that there were around 100 farmers who continue to grow traditional varieties.

BENEFITS OF OLD VARIETIES

“This is a very traditional village, and most of the production is for the growers’ consumption,” Wijesinghe said. Recently, however, local farmers have been able to make inroads into broader markets as traditional rice varieties are recognised for their health benefits, including low sugar content, which can appeal to diabetics and those looking to lose weight.

“There is some demand for traditional varieties as a much more healthy choice. It’s growing slowly,” Wijesinghe said.

But the ability of traditional rice varieties to resist weather extremes may be their biggest attraction.

In a recent research paper titled Use of Traditional Paddy Cultivation as a Means of Climate Change Adaptation in Sri Lanka, Rodrigo explained that the traditional varieties could be kept in seedling nurseries for as long as three months while the hybrids do not last longer than four weeks.

“In a case of drought, heavy rainfall, or floods, the traditional varieties are capable of surviving in the nursery until the field conditions are favourable for planting,” Rodrigo explained.

The researcher said that the traditional varieties are taller and have a stronger stem, allowing them to withstand rains, winds and heavy evaporation. Having been developed in Sri Lanka, they are also particularly suited to the region, he said.

“These are varieties that were grown in Sri Lanka for centuries before being replaced quite rapidly in the last sixty years,” he said.

Rodrigo said that planting of traditional rice varieties should be promoted, given the vulnerability of the country’s vital rice crop to extreme weather events. In the last three years, the rice harvest has fluctuated, sometimes wildly, after heavy rains and droughts destroyed crops.

BUT POPULAR?

Nimal Dissanayake, the head of the country’s Rice Research Institute, agreed that traditional varieties could withstand rough weather better than the hybrids, but said that rebuilding their popularity would be a stiff task.

“People would have to develop a taste for the traditional varieties,” Dissanayake said,  noting that 90 percent of paddy land in Sri Lanka is today  planted with popular hybrid varieties that mature quickly and taste sweeter than traditional varieties.

Dissanayake also pointed out that paddy cultivation has become heavily dependent on fertilizer and pest control to maximize yields, and traditional varieties normally were grown without fertilizer or pesticides before they fell out of favour.

He said the best locations to bring back growing of traditional varieties would be in particularly wet zones that account for about 20 percent of national production.

Due to poor soil quality, yields in wet zones are low, and traditional varieties could make inroads in the region because they can be sold for a higher price, earning farmers a bigger profit, he said.

Traditional varieties are twice as expensive as some hybrid varieties in some of the country’s markets.

But persuading farmers to begin growing traditional rice varieties will need “a long-term plan and incentives for the farmers to shift,” he said.

Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka. He can be followed on Twitter at @AmanthaP

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