GI status to Pokkali rice to ensure higher mkt access, returns

Written by Commodities Bureau | Kochi | Updated: Dec 30 2008, 04:35am hrs
At a time when the world fritters time and money on researching new varieties of paddy that are flood and saline resistant, an indigenous organic variety in coastal Kerala that thrives on salinity and water is finding survival a tough proposition. The cultivation system, Pokkali, which alternates paddy and prawns, is practiced in the wetlands of Alappuzha, Thrissur and Ernakulam districts.

With 'Pokkali rice' getting the GI (geographical indication) status, experts hope that it will ensure higher market access and returns.

The Pokkali system of rice farming in coastal Kerala is a highly commended farming system that effectively complements the natural system.

The nearness to sea and subsequent periodical seawater inundation ensure the uniqueness of the rice varieties cultivated, and contribute to the high degree of specialisation in the cultural practices followed.

The rice cultivation compliments prawn culture, which follows it, making it a unique agro-ecological continuum that is traditionally organic. After the harvest, the decaying stubbles of paddy serve as food for prawns and likewise prawn excreta makes the field fertile. Farmers abstain from using agrochemicals in growing rice, which hampers the productivity of the succeeding crop.

Paddy cultivation is practiced in Pokkali tracts during the low saline phase and prawn farming is practiced during the high-saline phase.

It is also globally well known for its salt-resistant genes that have been studied using modern biotechnological tools by the University of Arizona. In the international plant breeding labs, it is the gene of the Pokkali paddy that is used as the parent gene to culture saline and flood-resistant paddy.

Pokkali system of cultivation is giving way to the untenable monoculture of prawn due to economic reasons. Though this provides higher net returns over the traditional rice-prawn culture in the short run, it is found to be unsustainable in the long run, in both the ecological and the social context.

Unavailability of farm hands, hard labour and the returns on the commodity are not encouraging says farmers. The total area under Pokkali has shrunk from 25,000 hectare a few decades back, to a mere 5,500 hectare now. Despite Kerala government's direct intervention, that has made the monoculture illegal, more area is being gradually brought under fallow-prawn and prawn-prawn systems.

The decline of Pokkali cultivation has in turn affected prawn farming. The juvenile prawns do not get the high protein from the decaying stubbles, and are rendered vulnerable to diseases.

Developing a market for organic rice, where a higher price is ensured, is expected to make the Pokkali rice farming profitable in the long run. Pokkali rice is distinguishable in taste, quality and utility from the conventional rice.

Studies by the Kerala Agricultural University and other experts report that consumers are willing to spend a price premium of 60% for the organic attribute.

The market mechanism, involving a price premium for the branded rice, can be seen as an efficient alternative for conservation, complementing the government regulations.