By Syful Islam
DHAKA, Bangladesh (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Indigenous varieties of rice are making a comeback in Bangladesh as farmers abandon high-yielding hybrid rice in favour of more resilient varieties that can cope with more extreme climate conditions, researchers say.
About 20 percent of the rice fields planted in the low-lying South Asian nation now contain indigenous varieties that can stand up to drought, flooding or other stresses, said Jiban Krishna, director general of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute.
At its peak, high yielding varieties of rice accounted for 90 percent of total rice grown in Bangladesh.
"In places where newly invented varieties fail to cope with stresses, farmers cultivate local varieties," Krishna told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.
Bangladesh's government first introduced high-yielding rice in the 1960s, in an effort to promote food security and meet rising demand, Krishna said. Over time, most farmers adopted the new varieties, which brought in higher incomes.
But in recent years, as climate change has brought more irregular rainfall - including worsening floods and droughts - farmers have had more difficulty producing consistent crops of high-yielding varieties.
That has led to a growing share of farmers returning to more resilient varieties capable of coping with the extreme conditions, or planting both old and new varieties side by side.
The switch back to traditional varieties has happened with the help of non-governmental organisations that have reintroduced the varieties in an effort to protect "heritage" species and help farmers cope with adverse weather conditions , Krishna said.
In C'Nababaganj district, for instance, the Bangladesh Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge has helped farmers return to planting varieties that had almost vanished.
'Saika' rice, for instance, ripens in just 60 days - well short of the 90 to 110 days needed by hybrid varieties used in the area - and 'Sashi Mohon' needs hugely less water, said Pavel Partha, coordinator of the centre's food security programme.
CHANGE IN GOVERNMENT POLICY
The government previously never promoted such varieties, considering them too low-yielding, he said. But in the face of growing climate impacts, it is now actively encouraging their cultivation as part of efforts to help farmers adapt to climate change, Partha said.
Farmers say returning to the old varieties has been a big help in ensuring they get a harvest each season.
"Cultivation in this area is facing immense trouble due to low and irregular rainfall. Even cultivation of rain-fed Aman (rice) is now totally dependent on irrigation which raises production costs," said Hasan Ali, a farmer in Barandra village.
"In this situation we have brought in these indigenous aromatic varieties which are tolerant to many stresses," he said.
Another farmer, Anisur Rahman, said cultivation of the old varieties is expanding in part because they need almost no chemical fertiliser or pesticides - which makes them cheaper and easier to grow - and because their yields are good in tough conditions.
Abdus Sattar Hiru, a farmer in Traltalia village in Tangail district agreed that the 'Afsara' traditional rice he is now cultivating has brought in consistently good crops.
"The variety (grows over a) short duration and can be cultivated once the rainy season is over and water starts receding. In that period, modern or high yielding varieties can't be cultivated but this local variety can," he said.
Returning to 'Afsara' rice has also allowed him to bring back into production land previously left barren because high-yielding rice varieties did not grow there, he said.
(Reporting By Syful Islam; editing by Laurie Goering)