- Bangladeshi farmers very much grow rice using the government-developed BRRI-28 and BRRI-29 varieties, although there are more than 100 alternative varieties, some of which are more suited to changing climate patterns.
- Yields decline for these two popular varieties as fertile soils become saltier, drier, or submerged due to extreme weather phenomena.
- The scientists behind the various varieties blame the low popularity of climate-resistant varieties on the failure of government agencies to produce and promote them to farmers.
- But officials dispute this, saying they are meeting farmers’ demands for the two dominant varieties.
Dhonjoy Mondol, 52, grows rice on his land in Sunamganj district in northeastern Bangladesh. This year, he harvested 12 metric tons of rice from a plot of 4 hectares (10 hectares); a few years earlier, the same plot of land would have yielded twice that amount.
“I’ve had pest attacks for the past few years, but this year was the worst,” Mondol said, adding, “I can’t even recover my costs from such low yields.”
Mondol is not alone in this predicament. Over the past three decades, millions of farmers in Bangladesh such as Mondol have cultivated only two varieties of rice, known as BRRI-28 and BRRI-29, in a country of more than 130 varieties. Now, with increasing pest infestation and crop loss as a result of monocultures, yields of both varieties have decreased dramatically.
“These two varieties have reached the end of their life cycles,” said Jibon Krisna Biswas, former director general of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), which developed the two varieties. “Moreover, the dominance of several varieties has damaged the balance of cultivation.”
A 2019 study also blamed monoculture and suggested adopting different alternative varieties to avoid risks, including pest attack and low yields.
Observers say this situation could have been avoided. BRRI has developed 108 different rice varieties, while the Bangladesh Institute of Nuclear Agriculture (BINA) has developed another 24 varieties. Some of these varieties have shown a high tolerance for extreme weather conditions. However, farmers in Bangladesh are still too dependent on BRRI-28 and BRRI-29.
In 2019-2020, during wasteful the season which runs from around December to May, Bangladesh Agricultural Development Company (BADC) distributes 55,500 metric tons of rice seeds to farmers. Of this amount, BRRI-28 contributed 25,633 metric tons, and BRRI-29 as much as 26,555 metric tons.
Of the 36 million metric tons of rice that Bangladesh produces annually, 19 million metric tons are harvested during the low season, 14 million metric tons during the low season. ammon (July to December) and 3 million metric tons during aush (April to July), according to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics data for 2020-2021.
Over the years, BRRI-28 and BRRI-29 have enjoyed great popularity because they are easy to handle and grow on all types of land. Biswas, the former head of BRRI, blamed government agencies, particularly BADC and the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE), for failing to properly produce, market and distribute other varieties.
“Most of the varieties haven’t reached farmers because not enough seeds are produced and there isn’t enough publicity,” said Biswas, who currently serves as executive director of the Krishi Gobeshona Foundation (Agricultural Research Foundation). “BADC is more interested in producing popular varieties than trying to produce new ones and distribute them.”
Biswas said he hopes the situation will change soon, as some of the new varieties on the market are region-specific and target-oriented, such as tolerance to saline, drought or submerged conditions.
Little request for other varieties
The Bangladesh Institute of Rice Research and the Bangladesh Institute of Nuclear Agriculture among them have developed around 25 rice varieties designed to tolerate extreme weather since 2003. The aim is to propagate them in areas where regular varieties cannot produce high yields due to changing climate patterns. .
However, this variety has not yet attracted the attention of farmers, so vast agricultural lands throughout the country are either underutilized or barren.
Data from various government agencies reveal that among the country’s total arable land, about 2 million hectares (nearly 5 million hectares) are vulnerable to saline, drought and waterlogging.
With a defined seed quantity per hectare of land at around 22 kilograms, or about 20 pounds per hectare, the country needs about 44,000 metric tons of extreme climate tolerant rice seed, according to BRRI estimates.
However, BADC only sold around 1,300 metric tons of this variety in 2019-2020.
Scientists from BRRI say farmers know very little about these alternative options. The Department of Agricultural Extension, the organization responsible for popularizing the variety, says farmers make decisions based on what they think will give them the best yield.
“Making a new variety popular usually takes time,” said Md Hamidur Rahman, former director general of the Agricultural Extension Department.
“Farmers are the best judges of a variety because they cultivate it for profit. They only accept the varieties that will give them the best results in the shortest time,” he added.
BRRI scientists also blamed BADC for failing in its responsibilities to produce and distribute seeds. BADC denies this.
“We produce and distribute seed varieties based on farmers’ requests,” said Pradip Chandra Dey, general manager of BADC. He added, “We cannot produce any varieties unless there is a request from the farmers, to avoid financial loss.”
Dey said BADC has stock of seed varieties that are tolerant of extreme climates, but their popularity among farmers is low.
BADC officials told Mongabay that the weak demand for these more climate-resilient varieties was the result of poor publicity by the Department of Agricultural Extension, which is solely responsible for making farmers aware of new varieties and their characteristics.
Habibur Rahman Chowdhury, a director at the Agricultural Extension Department, denies this, saying that they have run an adequate publicity campaign and field training program among farmers to introduce each new variety. He said farmers have somehow not received the new variety but will hopefully do so soon.
“Given the crisis with the BRRI-28 and BRRI-29 varieties,” said former BRRI Head Biswas, “the government must drastically reduce their sales and increase the availability of alternatives.”
Banner image: Farmers process their harvest next to a rice field in Bangladesh. Image by Abu Siddique/Mongabay.
Tisdell, C., Alauddin, M., Sarker, MAR, & Kabir, MA (2019). Agricultural diversity and sustainability: General features and illustrations of Bangladesh. Continuity, 11(21). doi:10.3390/su11216004
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