Rice created to tolerate droughts and salt will help keep production up but not ensure food needs are met, scientists say
DHAKA (AlertNet): Bangladesh is about to release five new drought- and salt-tolerant rice varieties to help farmers cope with rising salinity and more frequent droughts - but some scientists and researchers say the yields are little better than those of current types and will not be sufficient to meet rising demand in the face of climate change.
Climate scientist Ahsan Uddin Ahmed, executive director of the Centre for Global Change, told AlertNet Bangladesh is now self-sufficient in rice production but needs urgently to look ahead to 2040-2050 when climate change will have a greater impact on food production and when ensuring food security, particularly for the country’s poorest, will be more difficult.
Ahmed said Bangladesh needs to adopt a long-term food plan very soon, and it must ensure, among other things, that no more arable land is taken for industrialisation or urbanisation.
That will be a challenge as urbanisation continues in the country, including of farmers displaced by climate impacts and pushed into Bangladesh’s cities.
Of the five new rice varieties to be released soon by scientists at the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), four are high-yielding and the fifth is a hybrid. They will increase overall rice output by three million tonnes a year if they are widely adopted, the BRRI director general told reporters.
The research institute has released 61 high-yielding modern varieties of rice since 1970, and 80 percent of the country’s rice-growing land is currently cultivated with BRRI-developed varieties.
Extreme drought and the contamination of paddy fields by salty water as a result of flash floods and storm surges have become very common in this low-lying country, one of those most severely affected by climate change.
Of the new rice varieties developed by the rice institute, hybrid varieties had yields of 6.5 to 9 tonnes per hectare, compared with 4 to 7.5 tonnes per hectare from other varieties. Despite their high yield, Bangladeshi farmers are less interested in growing hybrid varieties because producing and collecting seeds is more complicated.
Experts said the yields of the new varieties is not much higher than that of old types, but their advantage is the lower chance of losing crops because of saline water intrusion or drought, making them a worthwhile replacement for traditional varieties.
That may help keep up harvests in some instances of severe weather, but will not be sufficient to meet growing demand in the country in the face of a wider range of climate impacts, including more temperature extremes, experts warned.
“The yield of newly invented varieties is still not very attractive. So how can they ensure food security when the impact of climate change is adversely affecting us?” asked Atiq Rahman, executive director of Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies.
Rahman told AlertNet that climate change would reduce the output and availability of rice in many areas and would affect wheat production in drought-prone areas.
NOT SUFFICIENT FOOD SECURITY
“With the resistant varieties (of rice) we can cover the loss, but we can’t increase production to a level that can ensure food security,” Rahman said. “Adequate production of other crops also matters for ensuring food security,” he said.
Wais Kabir, executive chairman of the Bangladesh Agriculture Research Centre (BARC), however, told AlertNet that drought- and saline-tolerant varieties of rice are helping to keep up production levels despite the increasing impact of climate change.
“It’s one kind of technological backup so that farmers don’t lose their crops and can avoid financial hurdles. Earlier, we noticed paddy plants wither and die before maturity as those were not drought or saline tolerant. Now farmers rarely face the problem, after introduction of these varieties,” he said.
Kabir said rising temperatures particularly affect wheat at the flowering stage. “We develop the varieties taking into consideration all the aspects,” he said. “We are now giving priority to inventing a quick-growing variety so that one Rabi crop (winter wheat crop) can be cultivated between two rice harvests.”
“Since Bangladesh is not at the stage of mitigating the impact of climate change, our effort is to adapt to the changed environmental conditions,” Kabir said. Efforts are also being made to change the cultivation process, for instance by using less water and emitting less greenhouse gas, he said.
Climate scientist Ahsan Uddin Ahmed said part of the challenge was in ensuring an adequate supply of a range of crops to poor people, to ensure overall food security.
Thanks to the invention of new varieties, Bangladesh is well placed to meet its food needs until 2035, he predicted.
“But by 2015 we have to be prepared for 2040-2050, when the impact of climate change will affect us more adversely and will surpass our present achievement in the crop sector. Food production will be hampered and poor people will face further obstacles in food collection,” Ahmed said.
Syful Islam is a journalist with the Financial Express newspaper in Bangladesh. He can be reached at: email@example.com
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