Dr. Riaz A. Mann
Basmati rice is treasured around the world for its blessed characteristics of long slender grains that elongate twice of their original size with fluffy texture upon cooking, delicious taste, superior aroma (due to predominantly presence of a chemical, 2-acetyl-1-pyrroline) and unique flavor. The distinctive qualities are due to a complex combination of factors including its inherent genetic characteristics, the environmental conditions specific to the soil, climate and the growing practices that farmers developed over the centuries. Consequently, there has been limited success to cultivate basmati rice outside the Sub continent because of varying geographically-specific conditions. Fortunately, the “Kalar Tract”-the area between two rivers- Chenab and Sutluj is known as the native area of the basmati rice.
Over the last several years, basmati rice acreage and its production has continuously been declining. For instance, during 2008-09, the basmati crop was cultivated on 4.19 million acres (mac). In the following year-2009-10, area was declined to 3.80 mac and again, in the following year 2010-11, the area was reduced to 3.48 mac. Last year, 2015-16, basmati was only cultivated on 3.11 mac-almost 26% decline over the area during 2008-09. This decline shows a lack of farmers’ interest and can be attributed to several factors. The growers have to bear a negative return due to low basmati paddy yield; high cost of production and low prices. The Federal government did not fulfill its promise for compensation package of Rs. 5,000 per acre, and the farmers have been left alone to suffer the brunt, both of a reduction in yields and price. Where would this decline stop? With basmati on a decline, would Pakistan be able to sustain its rice export? Most probably it would not.
“Super basmati rice variety”, being the most sought after variety in the Basmati Group, was released about two decades back in 1996 and is still popular among the farmers, consumers, and traders or exporters. Although, two more basmati varieties namely “Basmati 2000” and “basmati 515” were released during 2001 and 2011, respectively but, both the varieties could not beat or completely replace the “Super Basmati” variety in the field. The average paddy yield at farm level is much lower than its potential yield. The key issues are low plant density, labour shortage, water scarcity, and pests and diseases. Conventional method of manually rice transplanting, unbalanced use of fertilizers, Continuous practicing of cereal-cereal cropping system, use of old harvesters designed for wheat, and lack of storage facilities further add up to the problems. Thus, high cost of basmati production combined with low paddy prices has compelled the growers to shift to other short-duration, high-yielding non-basmati varieties such as Pusa 1121 (Indian variety), and 386. Both the varieties were banned and their cultivation was illegal, few years back. Recently, Pusa 1121 (formerly known as “Kainaat) and 386 have been approved by the Punjab Agriculture Department with the names of PS-II and 386. Both the varieties provide an opportunity for either growing a third crop (such as green peas) or sufficient turnaround period for land preparation and timely sowing of wheat crop. PS-II variety, due to extra-long kernel, is popularly used as parboil rice. On the other hands, maturity of the basmati varieties coincides with optimum wheat sowing period, hence causing delayed wheat sowing and declined wheat yield. It means farmers have to suffer multiple consequences, if they opt to grow basmati rice varieties.
Furthermore, the basmati varieties are highly susceptible to all insect pests and diseases. For the last six years, the RRI, Kala Shah Kaku in collaboration with other national institutions has been working to develop the BLB (Bacterial Leaf Blight) resistant basmati varieties but no success reported yet. The Author during 2013 motivated a local rice-exporting company and its European client to sponsor a project on improvement of rice varieties against BLB and flooding. Both the parties agreed to contribute 1.0 million dollars, and the IRRI, Philippines was ready to incorporate BLB resistant and flood-tolerant genes in four varieties (two basmati and two non-basmati) within a period of 18 months. Not a single penny of the Pakistan government was involved. The Pakistan Agricultural Research Council (PARC) had to play its role for local testing of the improved rice material by the IRRI. But, the then PARC Chairman refused to take up this activity and sign a MoU with other partners. One can’t imagine how much impact would have been on the national rice food security and farmers’ economy, if the PARC management agrees on that project. So, the dream remained a dream yet.
The Provincial research institutions are required to revisit their priorities and focus on basmati varietal improvement and cost-effective technologies on water, labour, fertilizer and pesticides uses. The innovative resource-conserving technologies such as direct seeding of rice and alternative wetting & drying need to be scaled up. Another area requiring intervention is to bring improvement in the harvesting system of basmati rice crop. Use of old wheat-combines, without proper adjustment, results into admixture of green trash and broken grains and losses of grains up to 5-10%. Mechanical harvesting of rice crop at high moisture level, untimely and poor drying and processing of paddy cause development of mycotoxins in the rice grains. That is why Pakistan’s rice consignments are rejected or fetched lower prices than those offered to our competitors such as India. The question now arises, what benefit growers receive when the crop is high? The answer is nothing. The Arthies/middlemen start a waiting game for picking up the produce and force the farmers to sell at the price dictated by the market.
A new model in rice sourcing, marketing and trading is taking place where farmers are required to produce quality rice in return for several incentives. The Rice Partners (Pvt) Limited (RPL) in joint venture with the MARS Foods, Belgium has taken an appreciatable initiative, bringing a paradigm shift in the rice industry by launching “Basmati Contractual Farming Prograame”, in which a field team of rice experts visit farmers’ sites to advise them for the best farming practices in compliance with the SRP (Sustainable Rice Platform) protocols. Payment of the paddy sale along with transportation/carriage cost is made through swift banking within 72 hours. A profitability analysis shows that a RPL-registered farmer can gain 18-23% higher profit than the resource-poor farmer who is dependent on Arthi for credit and input supply. Deduction of the Arthi’s commission (@ 5%), retaining of 40-80 Kgs paddy for the Arthi’s hired labour, and late payment are the problems associated with the traditional market system. Whilst, the contractual farming model has the potential to address such issues—taking farmers out of the middleman domain by providing them viable options to access technology, premium paddy price, timely payment, and purchase of seed or fertilizers for timely sowing of wheat crop. The RPL’s success story needs to be scaled up all around in the country for improving farmers’ livelihoods.
It is necessary that the government takes crucial steps to regulate the market instead of letting it being manipulated by few players under the visage of free market forces. In 2008, the federal government tried to impose a Minimum Export Price (MEP), but within four months it had bowed to pressure from the exporters and abolished the MEP. The REAP-an official body of the Rice Exporters, blames to the government for continuously neglecting the basmati crop and demand that RRI, Kala Shah Kaku should work on basmati varietal improvement (as its major mandate), increasing the input-utilization efficiencies, and improving paddy yield and quality. But, on its part, REAP has not played its pivotal role in averting the present scenario confronting to basmati production and market system. For instance, basmati-515 variety (released in 2011) is considered to be a superior variety to the Super Basmati in terms of unit grains weight, kernel length, and head rice recovery. But, the exporters have not yet realized its significance and farmers are deprived of getting premium price for its cultivation. Likewise, the rice R&D has been left as a sole responsibility of the public sector. Can the private sector in Pakistan, with possible backing from government funded agriculture research base, undertake fresh research on new varieties? The prospects are bright. It is, therefore, proposed that a high-powered “Rice Steering Committee (RSC)” at the provincial level may be constituted (with 50% members drawn from the public and 50% from the private sector) with the functions to improve research capabilities of our institutions, setup research priorities, and secure necessary funds. The Committee may act as a supervisory and advisory body to formulate farmer-friendly policies, and recommendations for the government. Public-private partnership in rice R&D is also required. We have sufficient level of know-how available within our research institutions which can be commercialized, provided a framework to reward innovation exists. The private sector may set up a special fund for capacity building of the young scientists, sending them abroad for short and long-term trainings, granting the best scientist awards, and fixing a certain quota for induction of the retired rice scientists in the rice industry. The Agricultural Extension Department has to play its role for providing technical guidance to the farmers, using modern and innovative tools such as farmers’ field schools, demo plots, and village-level trainings.
On the other side, without basmati, we will have to compete with the hybrid varieties where it simply stands no chance for a number of reasons. Far East countries, like China, Vietnam, have already leapt generations ahead — both in technology and new varieties. They have gone into super hybrid regimes and are getting yield of over 200 maunds per acre, against a paltry 70 maunds in Pakistan. The country cannot shift to a hybrid regime for two reasons, domestic consumption pattern and price difference between the two. Thus, a part of rice acreage would always be spared for basmati. It is sold in the world market at almost three-time higher price than the hybrids. Basmati rice will remain as an integral part of social and economic life. This natural advantage needs tending, not strangulation. All the stakeholders are required to play their due roles for protecting this valuable food commodity. With these steps, we can only boost up and sustain basmati production and regain its competitive status in the international market.
The author is a Principal Scientific Officer (PSO) and Ex-National Coordinator for Rice at Pakistan Agricultural Research Council, Islamabad.