Breeding challenges: Hybrid rice clicks better in poor than agriculturally prosperous states
The poorer a state, the less are the chances of its farmers adopting high-yielding seed technology, right? Well, not when it comes to hybrid rice at least.
Out of the country’s total estimated area of 65.8 lakh acres (26.6 lakh hectares) under hybrid paddy — the un-milled grain containing roughly two-thirds rice and one-third husk and bran — nearly 83% is accounted for by Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha. These are states, whose farmers aren’t as well-off as their counterparts in Northwestern and Southern India, and crop yields well below even that of West Bengal (India’s No. 1 rice producer).
What accounts for this seeming paradox — of relatively poorer farmers taking to planting of hybrids, as opposed to conventional open-pollinated varieties (OPV)?
Hybrids are produced by crossing genetically diverse plants even within the same species. The first-generation or F1 offspring from such crosses tend to have yields higher than what either of the parents (both OPVs) individually can give. Unlike OPVs, though, the grains from hybrids aren’t suited for saving and re-use as seed by farmers. The resultant plants will not have the same hybrid vigour as the F1 offspring. Farmers will, hence, plant hybrid seeds — which, have to be purchased each time — only if the grain yields from them are substantially higher over OPVs.
“In the not-so-prosperous belts of eastern and central India, paddy yields from OPVs average 15 quintals per acre, whereas, with hybrids, farmers can harvest 25 quintals,” notes Ajeet Chahal, Head of Seeds Marketing (South Asia) at Bayer AG.
The German multinational has a 35% share in the Indian market for hybrid paddy seeds, which, at 38,000 tonnes and an average maximum retail price of Rs 250-300/kg, is annually worth around Rs 1,000 crore. Besides Bayer, the other significant players in this market include DuPont Pioneer, Syngenta, Tata-Metahelix, Kaveri Seeds and VNR Seeds.
The seed requirement in hybrid paddy is low — about 6 kg per acre, as against 20-30 kg for OPVs — but yields are higher because the plants produce more tillers (stems). The better tillering ability means farmers need to transplant only one hybrid seedling per rice hill, while it is 2-3 in OPVs. At Rs 355/kg — the MRP for Arize 6444 Gold, Bayer’s best-selling hybrid that covers some 20 lakh acres in India — the cost of 6 kg seed comes to Rs 2,130 per acre. But given the extra 10 quintals yield — whose value, at the government’s minimum support price of Rs 1,550 per quintal, works out to Rs 15,500 — it may be worthwhile for farmers in Jharkhand or Odisha to spend that money before every planting season.
An Indian Express from Nabarangpur in Odisha showed how this district (which happens to be India’s poorest, with a predominantly adivasi ) alone has a hybrid paddy seeds market of 600-650 tonnes, covering over one lakh of its total 2.5 lakh acres area (goo.gl/sEhQcs).
Chahal, however, admits that there is not all that much of a yield advantage from hybrids in the traditional Green Revolution regions, where farmers follow high-management agronomic practices with assured irrigation facilities. “In Punjab and Haryana, you get 30 quintals-plus yield per acre from even OPVs. Hybrid paddy may give 10% more, but farmers will switch only if yields are 40 quintals, not 33 quintals,” he points out.
India has hardly three million hectares (mh) out of its total rice area of 44 mh under hybrids, while the corresponding numbers for China are 18 mh and 30 mh respectively. China’s average paddy yields, at 6.75 tonnes per hectare (27.3 quintals/acre), are way above India’s 3.6 tonnes (14.6 quintals) and its farmers also typically harvest 10 tonnes per hectare (40 quintals/acre) from hybrids.
“The Chinese mostly produce medium-bold coarse grain (with length-to-breadth or LB ratio below 3), which is liked by consumers there and also more amenable to higher yields. In India, the preferences vary from short-slender rice (fine grain below 5 mm length and LB ratio above 3) in the South and medium-slender (slightly coarse grain below 6 mm length and LB ratio above 3) in the East, to long-slender (6-7 mm length and LB ratio above 3) and extra-long slender (fine basmati-type grain more than 7 mm long and LB ratio above 3) in the North. There are also varieties such as Parmal, which are in between medium-slender and long-slender. Such diverse requirements across geographies makes hybrid breeding a real challenge,” explains Chahal.
A.K. Singh, the head of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute’s (IARI) Division of Genetics, identifies grain quality as a major cause for the low rate of hybrid paddy adoption. “The hybrids bred initially had poor milling quality, with low head rice recovery and high percentage of broken grains. The newer generation of hybrids are far superior, yet the perception among millers, of the grain quality not meeting the standards for government procurement, remains,” he says.
IARI, in 2001, had released Pusa RH-10, the world’s first-ever basmati-quality aromatic hybrid rice. With a paddy yield of 7 tonnes per hectare and maturing in 110-115 days from seed to grain, it outperformed then blockbuster Pusa Basmati-1 variety that produced 6 tonnes over 135-140 days. However, this hybrid lost out to two basmati OPVs that IARI subsequently released: Pusa-1121 and Pusa-1509. “Although they yielded between 5 and 6 tonnes per hectare, the milled rice from these varieties had an average grain length of 20 mm on cooking, as compared to 15 mm for Pusa RH-10,” adds Singh.
The future of hybrid rice in India lies in breeding not just for yields, but also for quality, regional preferences, and pest and disease resistance. “Last year, we launched Arize AZ 8433 DT, a hybrid with strong tolerance to both brown planthopper insect pest and bacterial leaf blight disease attacks. In this kharif season, we are introducing AZ 6633, a hybrid in the short-slender fine grain segment for South India. Besides, we have bred a short-duration Parmal-quality hybrid AZ 6508, yielding 30-32 quintals per acre over 115 days. Farmers in Haryana can harvest this by mid-September and then sow potato in October,” claims Chahal.