Plant protection: The next blockbuster basmati

Breeding for resistance, rather than spraying pesticides, is the way ahead to secure a $ 5-billion export industry.

Onkar Singh has been cultivating Pusa-1121 — the basmati variety that, till recently, accounted for nearly three-fourths of India’s exports of the aromatic rice ($ 4.71 billion in 2018-19) — since 2008.

This year, the 53-year-old from Majitha village in the same tehsil of Amritsar district, has slashed his Pusa-1121 acreage to two acres, from 10 acres in 2018. Simultaneously, his area under Pusa-1718, a new improved basmati bred by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in New Delhi, has expanded five-fold to 10 acres.

“Pusa-1718 is essentially Pusa-1121, which they (scientists) have made more disease-resistant. You don’t need to spray any pesticides now. I tried it out first last year and got an average paddy yield of 23 quintals per acre, against 18-20 quintals from Pusa-1121. Also, the crop tillered better (more side stems produced from the initial parent shoot),” says Onkar, who grows the short-duration Pusa-1509 basmati variety on the remaining 33 acres of his total 45-acre holding.

Onkar Singh farms only basmati paddy, which has no assured government procurement at minimum support prices (MSP). “Pusa-1509 matures in just 115-120 days, from the date of nursery sowing to harvesting. I can transplant it from June 10 to June 25 and harvest between mid-September and early-October. It gives the flexibility, then, to plant matar (pea) in September and potato in October for harvesting by late-November/early-December. There is time to sow wheat, winter maize or ajwain (celery) even after that,” he explains.

Pusa-1121 is a longer-duration basmati (140-145 days, seed to grain), mostly transplanted during June 10 to July-end for harvesting towards October-end and mid-November. It leaves scope only to sow wheat. “Yields, too, are lower than the 24-28 quintal/acre from Pusa-1509. The only advantage is price. Last year, I got Rs 3,600-4,000 per quintal for Pusa-1121, whereas Pusa-1509 paddy fetched Rs 2,600-3,000,” he adds.

This is where the new variety could make a difference.

“Pusa-1121 was susceptible to bacterial blight. We have basically made it resistant to the pathogen by introducing two genes Xa21 and xa13, derived from a wild rice species (Oryza longistaminata) and a traditional land race (BJ1), respectively. The resultant variety (Pusa-1718) also possesses a non-lodging habit from a strong culm (stem). It is, hence, less prone to falling and can withstand heavy rain or water-logging better than Pusa-1121,” A.K. Singh, head of IARI’s Division of Genetics, tells The Indian Express.

Davinder Singh (30), of Khabba Rajputan village in Tarn Taran district and tehsil, agrees. This farmer has dedicated 20 acres to Pusa-1718 in the current season, from last year’s two acres, while halving it from 40 acres to 20 acres for Pusa-1121.

“I did it after seeing how the new variety stood tall, despite being submerged under water for a week after incessant rains in September 22-24. And my yield was 27 quintals/acre, compared to 18-19 quintals of Pusa-1121,” states Davinder, whose total 150-acre holding also includes 50 acres each under Pusa-1509 and non-basmati paddy varieties, and 10 acres of other crops (maize, vegetables and pulses).

Onkar and Davinder Singh are both bullish on Pusa-1718, which also matures 10 days earlier than Pusa-1121. “The traders are paying Rs 200-300/quintal lower for the new variety, just as they once tried to beat down the price of Pusa-1509. But the grain quality of Pusa-1121 and Pusa-1718 is just the same,” claims Onkar.

According to Davinder, the economics of basmati cultivation today is superior to non-basmati. A yield of 25 quintals/acre from Pusa-1509 and Pusa-1718, at an average Rs 3,000/quintal rate, gives more return than from non-basmati varieties even at a guaranteed MSP of Rs 1,835/quintal on 34-35 quintals/acre. Progressive farmers like him are able to harvest high yields through practices such as incorporating crop stubble into the soil (rather than burning) and applying farm yard manure, in addition to granular sulphur and other secondary nutrients.

Talwinder Singh of Nauli village in Jalandhar district/tehsil is growing Pusa-1718 on three of his nine acres this time. Amarjit Singh from Viram in Amritsar’s Majitha tehsil has, likewise, halved his Pusa-1121 area to five acres, while planting Pusa-1718 on five and Pusa-1509 on his balance 18 acres. Both have cited the same reasons — better disease resistance, less lodging-prone and more tillering ability.

Farmers in Punjab have sown a total basmati area of 6.29 lakh hectares (lh) this kharif season, 1.92 lh more than last year, while bringing it down under non-basmati varieties from 26.66 lh to 22.91 lh. They have also stepped up cotton acreage from 2.67 lh to 3.91 lh. The reduced non-basmati area would mean less pressure on government procurement agencies. Within basmati, a significant switch from Pusa-1121 to Pusa-1718 has taken place. G.S. Bal, chief agricultural officer of Amritsar, estimates the new variety to cover 30-35% of the district’s basmati area of 1.39 lh this time.

Increased planting, of course, comes with price risk. Farmer realisations have been good in the last couple of years due to a rebound in basmati exports (see table). The value of shipments have marginally slipped during April-June ($ 1,255 million versus $ 1,285 million in the same quarter of 2018-19), with the payment problems in Iran adding to the uncertainty.

One way to protect the country’s export interests is by preserving basmati’s premium quality attributes — aroma, long kernel length, linear elongation on cooking and fluffiness — and minimising use of chemical pesticides. The Punjab government, last month, issued an advisory to farmers not to spray formulations of five insecticides (acephate, thiamethoxam, triazophos, buprofezin and carbofuran) and four fungicides (tricyclazole, thiophanate-methyl, carbendazim and propiconazole).

An alternative approach to pesticide application is to “breed for disease resistance”. This is what IARI scientists have sought to do through transfer of specific disease-resistance genes, from landrace cultivars and wild relatives of paddy, into existing high-yielding basmati varieties. Pusa-1718 is a result of such marker-assisted backcross breeding, which helps avoid use of streptomycin or tetracycline combinations to control bacterial blight.

A similar variety Pusa-1637 has been bred by incorporating a ‘Pi9’ gene, sourced from Oryza minuta (a wild relative of the normal cultivated Oryza sativa paddy), into the popular Pusa Basmati-1. This gene provides high-to-moderate resistance against leaf and neck blast, obviating the need to spray fungicides such as tricyclazole, azoxystrobin and picoxystrobin.

Vijay Setia, president of the All India Rice Exporters Association, feels Pusa-1718 is a “good variety”. But he emphasises that farmers should not put all their eggs in a single variety, while advocating tough action against companies aggressively marketing pesticides. So long as an insect’s population is below the “economic threshold level” — at which the value of the crop destroyed exceeds the cost of controlling the pest — there is no need to spray at all, he points out.

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