A study by SPWD indicates that the use of hybrid seeds in rice raises concerns regarding the inputs required and their overall effect on human health, the soil and environment. The study titled ‘Effects of hybridisation on secondary characteristics of rice plants’ assesses the effects of rice hybridization, and its harmful effects on the quality of straw, taste of food, storability of cooked food and nutritional content.
Discussions in scientific journals, papers and reports generated by agricultural institutions generally take a simplistic view of the problem of rice breeding, reducing it to the number of quintals of grain required to feed people. This reductionist line of thinking leads to development of higher yielding varieties of rice.
After the introduction of high yielding varieties, which dealt with the problem of lodging and low yields in rice came the turn of the new techno-fix — hybrid seeds. The name was so, because it took advantage of the ‘hybrid vigour’ effect, also known as heterosis. This differentiates them from the open-pollinated high yield and traditional varieties, and guarantees a bumper harvest. Though hybrids, like the high yield varieties, demand generous amounts of fertilizer, pesticides, and irrigational facilities; they also appear to perform well in the short term with limited inputs. This made them ideally suited to vast tracts of India, specifically eastern India.
The market push
Though a good yield is obtained, the downside is that the effect does not last after the first generation itself. This means that the seeds can only be used once, and thus must be purchased afresh each year; a factor which appeals to the main producers of the hybrid seed, the private sector.
Hybrid seeds give better yields than high yield varieties but they require more inputs. To gain more production using hybrids it is mandatory to use urea and DAP, which increases the cost of production. The agriculture department is pushing for the adoption of hybrid seeds to increase production.
Hybridisation generates something akin to sterility in plants, because the seeds from a hybrid cannot be advantageously saved for re-planting. Thus hybrid seeds offer corporations a captive market. Significantly, the same multinational corporations who control much of the hybrid seed market are also the world’s biggest pesticide and biotechnology companies (Kuyek et al., 2001). The government has been supporting the corporations, partly because their success in raising yields has covered up the lack of progress made by the government in the farming sector. Another reason could be the amount of money swishing around in this industry.
Secondary characteristics ignored
The study by SPWD indicates that the authorities and corporations promoting hybrid rice do not pay much attention to the importance of other qualitative aspects of the cereal, such as the taste of the grain when cooked, its nutritional content, the storability of cooked food, the quality and nutritional content of straw. Loss of seed biodiversity is another overlooked aspect.
The set of farmers who were part of the study in Angara and Bedo blocks of Ranchi appreciated the value of these qualities in traditional rice varieties, and feared their disappearance due to the unregulated replacement with hybrids. These farmers had been growing both hybrid and traditional varieties of paddy. They stress the need to ensure that rice remains a wholesome food and a source of wealth to the farmer for centuries to come.
The study reaffirms the view of earlier studies that the secondary characteristics of hybrid rice are hardly acceptable. Hybrid seeds are being planted by farmers because of the promise of higher yield and also because they have limited choice. Many farmers have lost access to the traditional seeds which they earlier planted year-after-year. The market supplies hybrid seeds in abundance, whereas high yielding seed is not as much available and traditional seeds are hard to come by in most villages. The number of villagers planting traditional seed varieties is decreasing fast with a consequent loss in biodiversity.
Government policy does not seek to preserve biodiversity, but rather narrowly focuses on promoting hybrid seeds via the private market for better productivity. Though the secondary characteristics are desirable and important from the farmers’ view, they have been neglected by policy makers who consider food security in simplistic terms, equating it with abstract numbers, considering only the yield aspect to the neglect of secondary attributes.
Although there is little doubt that we need to produce more to feed the growing population, to say that hybrids are the only way to achieve this goal would be a fallacy. The productivity of hybrids in rainfed areas are lower than what was promised and only farmers with irrigation facilities are ensured of a good crop, which is a cause of concern. This implies that a policy of enhancing production only through use of hybrids is not self-sustaining. To sustainably produce food in the future, alternatives to the short-sighted obsession with hybrids are required.
The study report was published in the Jharkhand Journal of Development and Management Studies, XISS, Ranchi, Vol. 14, No.2, June 2016, pp. 7009-7021 and can be downloaded here
By Sanjay Kumar and Sanjay Singh
Image courtesy: International Rice Research Institute, Creative Commons