Sovereignty and rice

Farida Akhter | Published: 22:01, Dec 15,2019


FORTY-EIGHT years ago in 1971, Bangladesh emerged as a sovereign nation through a bloody liberation war, Mukti Juddha. We are now a sovereign country with our own flag of red and green, a defined territory, a national anthem and the state with a constitution. But the notion of ‘sovereignty’ is a contested notion in the era of neo-liberal globalisation. Apart from the issues of political and economic sovereignty there are major issues related to protection of vital resources such as water, seeds, natural resources and biodiversity. The very notion of defending the ecological foundation of life is absolutely integral to understanding of the meaning of ‘sovereignty’.

Let’s take the issue of seeds. Seeds and genetic resources are not mere inert input in farming, but ‘sovereign’ in the sense that we survive as a life-form because they are integral to our biological existence. Even ensuring the ‘rights’ of the farmers as the producers of food does not guarantee people’s sovereignty to exist as biological beings. The notion of political sovereignty thus must be extended to include the sovereignty of seeds and genetic resources.

In practical terms, farmers must have their own seeds or access to open pollinated varieties that they can save, improve and exchange. Seed sovereignty ensures food sovereignty, to save, breed and exchange seeds, to have access to diverse open source seeds which can be saved and therefore, they must not be patented, genetically modified, owned or controlled by corporate business giants.

The 50 years of Bangladesh’s independence is going to be celebrated in the year 2021. I doubt, if we can really say at the 50th birth anniversary of the country that we are seed sovereign country as well, or in other words, are capable to defend our biological foundation of the nation. We were separated from Pakistan and became independent nation in 1971, but we did not give up the destructive agricultural and seed policies followed by the Pakistani military regime. We followed the policies of modern agriculture of HYV seeds, along with use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. In the independent Bangladesh, the modern rice varieties are grown on around 66 per cent of the rice land, giving less emphasis on the farmer saved landraces.

Our policy emphasis was quantitative increase of cereal production. Total rice production was about 10.59 million tonnes in the year 1971 with the country’s population of about 70.88 millions. For the newly independent country devastated by the war, the immediate need after liberation was to ensure self-sufficiency in food. This was a big challenge, now in 2018, the government claims rice production came to 36.2 million tonnes, far above domestic needs (29.1 million). But quantitative increase of cereals also contributed to the reduction of other vital crops such as lentils, oilseeds, vegetables, etc. The surplus also achieved at the cost of losing the traditional varieties and vital nutritional needs. Health and nutrition are at stake now. More importantly increase in cereal production came with the environmental and ecological disasters.

Bangladesh has extensive rice diversity. Despite being a very small country with only 8.6 million hectares of cultivable land, of which rice covers about 75 per cent has shown a huge diversity. It is known to have 15,000 landraces of rice in the early part of the 20th century. In the National Gene Bank of Bangladesh Rice Research Institute about 4500 indigenous rice varieties of Bangladesh origin and 3500 collected varieties, ie a total of 8000 varieties are preserved. Instead of doing research on the rice landraces, Bangladesh Rice Research Institute has developed 94 ‘new varieties’ of rice. The new seeds were provided to the farmers to boost productivity. What is lost in the process is rice sovereignty. Do the farmers decide which variety should be grown more than the others? The new varieties of BRRI are all chemical-dependent, which are the main reasons for health, environmental and climate disasters.

Rice plays a vital role in the livelihood of the people of Bangladesh. Small (up to 2.4 acres) and medium (2.5 to 7.4 acres) farming households have been producing rice and other crops and are supplying the food for our people. They are growing different varieties of rice, as well as the ‘modern varieties’. Researchers concerned with only food production in quantitative terms think about rice as an ‘abstract seed’. The scientists and researchers only talk about ‘modern varieties’ vs ‘traditional varieties’ and strongly believe that the former is better than the latter. They are happy that small and marginal farmers and tenancy cultivation in agrarian structure are adopting modern rice varieties in Bangladesh. But that is not entirely true. Statistics show that the farmers adoption rate of two Boro varieties — BRRI Dhan 28 and BRRI Dhan 29 — was respectively 40.14 per cent and 28.51 per cent in 2014–15. Other rice varieties such as Aman BRRI Dhan 11, Aman BRRI Dhan 49 and Aus BR 26 respectively have adoption rate of 11.6 per cent, 11.07 per cent and 8.75 per cent. Mostly, the adoption rate is below 10 per cent (Dhaka Tribune, September 19, 2016).

‘Dhana-dhanya-pushpa-bhara’ — Bangladesh is a country of rice with a glorious history of rice varieties. Rice is interwoven with Bengali culture. It is the symbol of wealth. Husked dhan or paddy is chaul or chal. Cooked chal is bhat. Bangalee means ‘Bheto Bangalee’, if fish is added then ‘machhe-bhate bangali’. Bangladesh’s topography is very suitable for rice cultivation. It consists of low, flat, fertile land. There are over 230 rivers and their tributaries across the country flow down to the Bay of Bengal. The flood during the rainy season is a blessing bringing the alluvial soil which is continuously enriched by heavy silt deposited by the rivers. The subtropical monsoon climate is blessed with six seasons including three prominent seasons of summer, monsoon, and winter.

Rice is grown as three major seasonal crops such as Aus, Aman and Boro which many people mistakenly take as the varieties. There are over 80 landraces of Aus rice in farmers’ collection in different agro-ecological zones of the country, while only four varieties developed by BRRI.

Aman season of rice is the main rice growing season and has many different varieties of deepwater rice. This deepwater rice can survive in more than 50cm water for one month or a longer period during the growing season. That is these are flood resistant varieties. There are more than 2,000 deepwater rice cultivars in Bangladesh and more than 6,000 in Asia. In Bangladesh, deepwater rice occupied 2.09 million hectares (21 per cent of the total rice area) in the late 1960s. The area has now shrunk to about 0.85 million hectares because of cultivation of high yielding varieties under irrigation in deepwater rice fields in the dry season (boro). High yielding modern deepwater varieties developed from the traditional varieties are Dulabhog (BR 5), Kiron (BR 22), Dishari (BR 23) are promoted by the government.

Boro Rice is grown in submerged land lower in elevation. Boro rice has always been grown in only low lying areas such as Haors and had many traditional varieties. But the government policy to promote Boro rice is given the highest priority by providing irrigation facilities all over the country. It now means that the irrigated rice variety paving the way for hybrid rice, which is supposed to produce 15–20 per cent more yield compared to their inbred counterparts. On the other hand, local Boro rice varieties in Haors are disappearing due to badly planned infrastructure development.

Boro rice is increasingly under strain due to the high level of irrigation it uses. Most of the popular varieties of Boro rice such as BRRI 28 and BRRI 29 were developed by the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute and were meant to deal with cultivation in waterlogged areas. But Boro paddy needs intensive irrigation, requires about 3,500 litres of water to produce one kilogramme of rice (The, July 14, 2016).

As a result of the introduction of modern varieties in the name of higher yields, many indigenous rice varieties have completely disappeared or are on the way of extinction. The traditional varieties are not promoted by the government as they have comparatively lower yield of the grain. But other systemic yields of these varieties such as the fine quality, better straws, and susceptibility with climate are ignored. Yet farmers’ conservation of rice genetic diversity has continued managing landraces in the agro-ecosystems and communities where they have evolved historically. Despite of low yield one of the major reasons for continuing production of local varieties is varietal adaptation to soils and other environmental, social, cultural and religious factors. The total number of landraces as well as the area planted to landraces in Bangladesh is also declining over time. For example, local variety Aus has declined from 7 million to 5.2 million acres, ie dropped by 25 per cent; local variety Aman rice dropped from 31 million acres to 27 million acres, ie dropped by 13 per cent; and local Boro rice dropped from 1.7 million to 1.1 million acres, ie dropped by 35 per cent during recent years 2011–12 to 2015–16. The major decline occurred already before this period. This only shows that the decline is a continuous process. On the other hand HYV and hybrid varieties are increasing for Aman and Boro season.

Bangladesh Rice Research Institute is the custodian of rice varieties deposited in the gene bank. Unfortunately, farmers do not have access to the rice germ plasm collected in the gene bank while other breeders (known as scientists) are using the local races for developing improved rice varieties. Studies show that many of these landraces such as Lati Shail and Niger Shail have been used by rice breeders as donors to develop elite lines that have been used as parents for popular improved rice varieties grown throughout Asia.

Farmers in Bangladesh grow BRRI-developed varieties in four-fifths of the total rice lands, fetching 91 per cent of their yearly rice output. Although all the BRRI varieties did not gain popularity, BRRI dhan 28 and BRRI dhan 29 became popular among the farmers since their release in 1994 for their high yield potentials. These two varieties are grown in over 60 per cent of rice lands during the Boro season. Despite being popular among the farmers, BRRI scientists are developing other HYVs BRRI dhan 88 and 89 as replacements to BRRI dhan 28 and 29. This is not only because productive rice varieties are losing potential due to ageing and have diminishing returns, but because these varieties are already being used for developing Golden Rice, a beta carotene-rich rice genetically modified as a remedy against vitamin-A deficiency. The vitamin A-rich rice is named Golden Rice for its golden colour.

The BRRI 29, a HYV rice variety is no longer under the control of Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, so it has to be replaced by other variety. It is now a big philanthropy of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that sanctioned a grant of over $10 million to IRRI to develop and evaluate Golden Rice varieties for Bangladesh and the Philippines. The technology developer is a biotech giant Syngenta, which is at present generously declaring that it will allow ‘a royalty-free access to the patents, the new rice would be of the same price as other rice varieties once released for commercial farming in Bangladesh, and farmers would be able to share and replant the seeds as they wish’ (Dhaka Courier, September 21, 2018).

International scientists are now considering engineering rice plant in the context of ever-growing demand. So the plan is to convert rice into a photosynthesis-efficient plant, which would produce substantially more grains using the sunlight. At present rice uses the C3 photosynthetic pathway, which in hot and dry environments is much less efficient than the C4 pathway used by other plants. Experts noted that successful completion of engineering rice into a C4 plant would be a ‘game-changer’ since the 1960s when scientists had first developed semi-dwarf rice varieties heralding the famous ‘Green Revolution’ (Dhaka Courier, September 21, 2018).

Rice in Bangladesh, therefore, is not in the control of the farmers, nor even in the control of the state. These rice germplasms are already in the hands of International Rice Research Institute. From there these germplasm are transferred to Fort Knox, USA and finally to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway mostly controlled by the international agencies and the biotech giants. Bangladeshi farmers have already lost the rights to grow the rice varieties they would like to grow; they are given the chemical-dependent varieties developed by BRRI and agro-industries.

Our Muktijoddho is not over yet, it has to be fought for the sovereignty of the rice, the main source food and livelihood of our people.


Farida Akhter is the executive director of UBINIG and organiser of Nayakrishi Andolon.

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