Return of the native: This group is bringing back lost rice varieties to the plate
How many varieties of rice can you name? Five, ten… a dozen? How many would you say there are?
India used to grow, and consume, thousands of varieties of rice. Some were thin and long-grained, others came in shades of red, black and brown.
In West Bengal, where a meal is still incomplete without rice — as in many states in India — there are still specific varieties associated with certain occasions. “For celebrations and religious offerings, we use aromatic varieties like Gobindobhog, Radhatilak or Kaminibhog. Thinner varieties like Chamarmani, Dudheshwar and Sitashal are meant for guests. And red varieties like Hetumari, high in anthocyanin, were the daily staple,” says Anupam Paul, assistant director with the Government Agricultural Training Centre in Phulia.
The Green Revolution of the 1970s and ’80s, with its focus on high yields, changed things. The types of rice you can name are the ones that were promoted, many of them hardy, high output hybrids.
Now, a group that call themselves FIAM (Forum for Indigenous Agricultural Movement) — made up of school teachers, professors and doctors mostly in their 30s and 40s — is trying to revive the grains we nearly lost on the path to self-dependence.
It started a decade ago, when school teacher Chinmoy Das and a group of friends began talking about organic farming.
“We heard about these lost local varieties of rice and started looking for traces of them in North Dinajpur, where we live,” Das says. “We were fascinated to find that even now local varieties of paddy were being cultivated, but only where water was plentiful, and usually by farmers who could not afford pesticide and fertilisers.”
By 2013, FIAM had collected information on 10 such varieties grown in the plains of West Bengal. They pooled resources and leased a one-hectare plot, on which they sowed flood-resistant and aromatic Gochi, Kalojira, Chyanga, Malshira, Khasha, Josho and Banshphul .
They began meeting with local farmers to discuss interest in indigenous rice varieties, and some farmers began to grow these on parts of their land too. Now, 70 farmers across 20 villages cultivate indigenous rice varieties over 13 hectares of land.
SOWING THE SEEDS
Paul prefers to call these “folk varieties” because they are closely associated with the local culture. “We are also finding out now that many of these varieties are quite hardy, and are better suited to new challenges, like irregular rainfall patterns.”
These rice varieties can also be an important step in fighting micronutrient deficiency,” says Dr Sudeb Saha, a general practitioner and vice-president of FIAM.
“This kind of research and revival is vital,” says Claude Alvares, director of the Organic Farming Association of India. “The modern approach reduced the vast genetic spectrum of rice in the subcontinent to just a few varieties. This makes rice more prone to pest attacks. Earlier one could find a different kind of rice being cultivated every kilometre. Now if there is a pest attuned to a certain variety, it can destroy the crop for miles.”
But how far can such a project as FIAM’s go? It’s a problem the organic movement also faces: scalability, and price. To sell their produce, FIAM posts notices on WhatsApp groups and takes their produce to their small centre in the market in Raiganj.
Batches are small. Tushar Saha, a contractor from Raiganj, who has been buying indigenous varieties from the market for three months says they taste different. “I’ve been having the black rice for breakfast for some months. It gives me a light feeling and I plan to continue,” Saha says.
Sales so far are largely limited to the district and Kolkata. “We still aren’t growing enough to take big orders,” says Sudipta Mukhopadhyay, a founder member of FIAM. “Recently, we had to turn down an offer from Pune. But in a few years, we hope to be able to meet larger and larger targets.”