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Agroecological landscapes: Conserving indigenous rice in Coastal Sundarbans

Infrastructural and technical problems that plague small farmers attempting to use chemically-intensive farming methods for cultivating hybrid and HYV rice also hinder their ability to fully convert to global-style organic farming and propagating native species more sustainably. In particular, problems in accessing knowledge and technical inputs are likely to translate into difficulties in adopting and maintaining organic production practices. A locally developed model based on low-cost, local resources and disseminated through local information networks with substantial farmer participation may offer a more viable alternative.

Adoption of certified organic farming, as commonly understood in the global context, presents a host of challenges to small-scale farmers in the developing south. Organic farming appears to offer a simple anecdote to the problems generated by the intensive model of agriculture, such as decline of soil organic matter and nutrient-holding capacity, over-exploitation of groundwater, pesticide resistance, toxicity from pesticide exposure etc. However, many of these constraints are similar to those hindering the improvement of chemically-intensive farming systems; inadequate extension capacity, lack of technical training materials, and shortage of capital to purchase costly inputs.

The result is that the spread of organic farming in many developing countries has been slow. In India, for example, the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements estimates that an area of about 150,790 ha is under organic farming, representing only about 0.1% of the total cultivated land. Moreover, more than half of India’s organic production consists of export crops such as tea, coffee, and spices. Organic rice has a market potential, but needs strategic interventions for promoting the same.

To illustrate the challenges of a transition to organic farming in India and other developing countries, we draw from a case study in West Bengal, India where an effort is being made to spread sustainable alternatives to chemical-intensive farming through traditional organic farming in conserving indigenous salt resistant rice varieties of coastal Sundarbans.

Fieldwork was performed in 2010-12 in Saatjelia village of Gosaba block in the district of North 24 Parganas in southern West Bengal. Further to this, societal impact assessment studies were made through individual and group interviews conducted with leaders of farmer groups (Farmer’s Clubs) receiving support in sustainable agriculture techniques from National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD). Also consulted were local, state, and central government officials in charge of agricultural extension (ATMA program), researchers at state agricultural universities, and staff of other rural development CSOs. Participant observation was conducted at Farmer Field School-type extension meetings through Focussed Group Discussions (FGDs) and Participatory Vulnerability Analysis (PVA).

The initiative

Global organic model, which is highly dependent on specialized, knowledgeintensive techniques and expensive inputs, does not offer a true alternative for the developing country context.

Saatjelia village of Gosaba block in the district of North 24 Parganas in southern West Bengal is characterized by a population density of 3034 persons/sq km. Approximately, 75% of landowning households own less than one hectare of land. Over 60% of the cultivated land is under irrigation, and most of this land produces one crop per year. The advent of a dry season rice crop was fostered by the government in 2011 and 2012 through programs which distributed kits with seeds of high-yielding varieties as well as fertilizers (both organic & chemical) and chemical pesticides.

Cultivation of native varieties was initiated to promote a seed village program under organic farming. Seven indigenous varieties of rice that are locally grown and supposedly partially resistant to soil salinity, were cultivated with organic manures (Vermicompost) and bio-fertilizers (Nitrogen fixing and Phosphate Solubilising microbes). The foundation seeds have been collected from Chinsurah State Rice Research Institute, West Bengal and the potential growth parameters of biomass and yield (kg/acre) were recorded against control experiment and compared to two hybrid varieties.


Table 1 shows that the local varieties though less water intensive compared to the hybrids, has equipotent sustainability of growth in partially saline soil (average measured salinity 8.6 mmhos/cm) compared to hybrid rice. Local indigenous varieties like Jaminadu and Gobindobhog are at par in yield with hybrid varieties.

These hybrids initially produced a spike in rice yields which continued for 5-8 years; however, farmers in the study reported 35-70% decline in yields in recent years. Zinc and iron micronutrient deficiencies are common because of farmers’ heavy dependence on commercial fertilizers such as urea phosphate.

In addition, farmers require increased application of pesticides for the same level of pest control, especially in vegetable cultivation. Some farms are even reducing their area under eggplant, one of the highest-value cash crops, due to mounting costs of production inputs in hybrid rice and increasing difficulty controlling pests.

Table 1: Comparative Growth & Yield of Native & Hybrid Rice in Sundarbans
Name of
No of
Hamilton 107 1670 22.8 12
Matla 110 1830 37.2 18
Taalsaree 115 675 14.2 8
Gobindobhog 100 2400 25.5 22
Getu 110 1189 18.8 18
Hybrid 1 95 146 5.8 10
Hybrid 2 100 2350 18.4 15

A comparative study on yields of select local varieties and hybrids with organic and chemical fertilizers against control experiment shows equivalent production potentials in local varieties using traditional organic farming method compared to hybrids with chemical fertilizer dosing. Taking the cost-benefit analysis into count, it reveals that production inputs in one acre land at the Sundarban intervention site in raising hybrid rice with chemical fertilizers are 68% more expensive compared to indigenous rice with organic farming. However, the high cost of de-husking and polishing the grains and low market returns per quintal of processed rice does not allow substantial profit margins compared to hybrid rice. Only in case of organic aromatic rice the profit margin is as high as INR 23 to 30 per kg, wherein it is just INR10-15 per kg in general hybrid grains.

The onset of the pesticide treadmill has been hastened by a lack of information about active ingredients and their modes of action. In the absence of adequate government extension capacity, local pesticide retailers are the most common sources for advice on pest management. Interviews with shopkeepers suggest little understanding about the importance of rotating pesticides based on different active ingredients. Furthermore, the newer generation pesticides that are more selective and have different modes of action are either unavailable or unaffordable.

Given this inability of public extension and private sector industry to educate farmers with appropriate information about products that have been used for decades, the information vacuum for farmers trying to convert to organic agriculture is even greater. For example, having depended on broad-spectrum pesticides for more than two decades, farmer understanding of pest identification and invertebrate ecology is rudimentary, especially with respect to predatory insects. None of the CSOs engaged in IPM extension had good quality pest and predator identification guides for distribution to farmers. Government agriculture officials promoting IPM through Farmer Field School-type trainings also admitted to a lack of appropriate educational materials, in local language.

Moreover, both government officials and CSOs themselves have difficulty finding locally relevant information on organic methods and biodynamic farming. Lack of retail supply chain of beneficial microbes, dosage and preferential application norms of biofertilizers and availability of bio-pesticides are the immediate constraints in organic farming practices.

In addition, just as they are unable to access newer generation synthetic chemical pesticides, local farmers have little access to high-tech organic farming inputs commonly used in developed countries, even when they have knowledge of these inputs. For example, a Farmer Field School training session organized by the Kolkata-based, government-run IPM Centre provided farmer trainees with detailed information about the use of pheromone traps and their function to monitor insect pest populations. However, these “natural” pesticides are often costlier than synthetic chemical pesticides. The price of a litre of a product containing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a natural pesticide commonly used by organic farmers in developed countries, cost up to Rs 1,000. Moreover, bio-pesticides such as ‘Bt’ has very low shelf-life and break down quickly, especially in high temperatures, making rural distribution problematic. In addition, quality control is lacking in India’s biopesticide and biofertilizer industries, often resulting in ineffective products. Finally, the fees set by accredited organic inspection and certification agencies are prohibitively high for most farmers in West Bengal. Under current government policy, it takes at least three years for a farm to be certified as organic. The cost of inspection and certification for smallholder groups is around Rs 5,000/day, excluding travel expenses and other fees. These charges, together with the initial transaction costs of organizing into groups of 25 to 50, place a high burden on small and marginal farmers, which renders organic farming to be a non-feasible option.

Move towards agro-ecological practices

The few local farmers who are successfully producing organic commercial crops are innovative individuals who do not use any of the above inputs. Instead, they capitalize on their small size and grow polycultures, use cow dung and urine, and continually experiment with home-crafted products like fermented neem leaf compost. Local CSOs are finding more success by building on the examples of these innovators and following a step-by-step approach that focuses first on eliminating pesticide use and improving soil health with underutilized resources, such as cow urine, crop residues, and tree leaves, before promoting completely synthetic-free production.

With the loss of many traditional varieties and indigenous knowledge of earlier farming methods, the CSOs hope to foster a gradual transition to organic farming, built on locally developed and tested techniques. This approach has already proven fruitful in reducing input costs and pesticide use, while also reversing the decline in yields, thereby increasing profitability and safety, especially in the input-intensive dry season rice crop. These results are consistent with other research findings that show that transitions to organic, agro-ecological methods can increase productivity and improve livelihood in developing countries.

As a part to this end, organic farming for in-situ conservation of local rice germplasms that has resilience to the local climate vulnerability has a significant impact in developing food security in the changing ecological paradigm, if not for market extension and outreach, as because this is a low cost place based adaptive mitigation to downscale climate impacts in coastal Sundarbans.

To overcome extension constraints, the CSOs are also organizing farmers into groups, meeting with them over a whole growing season or longer, encouraging them to learn from each other, and helping them to become volunteer trainers for other farmers. Their approach is loosely based on the Farmer Field School model, widely considered a more successful methodology for introducing complex crop management approaches like IPM. By following this approach, CSOs have helped many local farmers adopt simple seed selection techniques to improve stand development, add micronutrients to the soil, improve plant spacing to reduce disease problems, and use more natural and locally-available materials for pest control.

Only by understanding the factors underlying farmers’ problems with high-input, chemical-intensive agriculture will we be able to avoid the same types of problems in promoting organic methods in developing countries. Organic farming is not a monolithic model that can be transferred, as is, from one part of the world to another. Nor can success be achieved by “reverting” to older farming methods based on pre-existing indigenous knowledge.

In many areas of the developing world, especially in Asia, the Green Revolution so drastically altered the agricultural landscape that the only way to move forward with organic farming is to work with local farmers to craft a new knowledge base that starts with key agro-ecological principles and incorporates elements of traditional knowledge and new technology in a process of continuous adaptation and innovation.

Dipayan Dey

Chair, South Asian Forum for Environment
P-32, Panchasayar
Jadavpur Housing Cooperative Society Near Peerless Hospital
Kolkata – 700094
Email: deydr@yahoo.co.in


– Kumar, Shiv; Subhash Chandra, D.R. Singh, and K. R. Chaudhary (2013), Contractual Arrangements and Enforcement in India: A Case of Organic Basmati Paddy Farming, Indian Journal of Agricultural Economics, 68(3):4

– Pretty, J.N., Morison, J.I.L. and Hine, R.E. (2003): Reducing food poverty by increasing agricultural sustainability in developing countries. Agriculture, Ecosystems, and Environment. 95(1):217-234.