In Rajasthan’s Bhan-swara district, small farmers — who mainly grow food to eat, not sell — are learning to do in their backyards what’s fairly high-skilled, if not high-tech, stuff: crossing two sexes of maize lines to produce a new protein-punched variety.
This harsh summer, millions of impoverished rural households fretting over a lumbering drought, wondering what to grow and how to beat high food prices, could fare better if they knew what to grow: some old, hardy and underrated crops re-packaged by science. The monsoon is officially forecast to be deficient this year, amid fears of a drought.
While a tiny minority of big farmers relies on government sops and manages with higher investments when rains are patchy, it is the 80% of small farmers who stoke a rural crisis.
Maize is a favourite rural snack and quality protein maize (QPM) has double the shot of amino acids. It could give Bhanswara’s vegetarian tribal population a culturally acceptable alternative to eggs and raise their earnings too. Bhanswara is officially designated one of India’s 240 poorest districts.
The QPM maize developed by Mexican farm scientist Evangelina Villegas and her Indian partner Surinder Vasal fetched the duo the 2000 World Food Prize. It lay untapped, until the Rajasthan government and a farm NGO created a value chain.
Under this, farmers would produce QPM seeds and sell to the government at R60 a kilo in winters, while in summers they would grow QPM plants.
“Maize, being a staple in many belts, occupies 9% of the national food basket. It is better at tackling droughts than rice and used in a range of commercial products like soft drinks too,” said Bhagirath Chowdhury, a farm scientist who taught farmers how to make on-farm hybrid maize.
Such ‘bio-fortified’ as well as common hardier varieties form India’s best bet for poor peasants during a drought. Pearl millet or bajra, a warm season, grassy crop, thrives in harsh environments. Millets were a staple of the poor, until they began appearing in middle-class diets as a high-fibre breakfast cereal.
A zinc-fortified millet variety promoted by ICRISAT and HarvestPlus, two organisations affiliated to the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, could help tide over high food costs. The state-developed Pusa Composite 612 millet variety is another sturdy crop to grow during poor rains. A late-sown variety, it can be tried when everything else fails.
During a poor monsoon, rice is risky. But well-off farmers with access to irrigation can bank on Pusa Basmati 1509, which matures faster and requires fewer rounds of watering. “A drought needn’t be the end of farming. Farmers need good education and services,” said HS Gupta, director of the Borlaug Institute of South Asia.