Sub-sea-level farming could improve rice output: Swaminathan

Written by M Sarita Varma | Thiruvananthapuram | Updated: Jan 9 2010, 04:15am hrs
Below sea-level Research and Development Institute for rice farming proposed at Kuttanad (Kerala) could feed not just Indian mouths, but those in its neighbourhood like Bangladesh, Maldives and SriLanka too, says World Food Prize winner and eminent agriculture scientist MS Swaminathan.

Another major rice farming research centre could be in Sunderbans, another below sea-level spot, he added.

An international institute on rice R&D has been proposed at Kuttanad, worlds largest area under cultivation below sea-level. Bangladesh has one-third of its land below sea-level.

When Mahatma Gandhi went on his famed Dandi March, he was asserting that sea is a social resource that cannot be taxed. But then, this also implicitly conveys that sea as public resource needs to be optimally tapped, Swaminathan who was here recently for the Indian Science Congress told FE.

Developing seawater farming and below seawater farming techniques are vital for combating climatic changes like storms and famines. Kuttanad, one of Indias 25 Ramsar sites, could be a suitable spot for an international below sea-level farming research and extension centre, he said. Ramsar sites are wetlands of international importance, by the resolution of Ramsar Convention 1971.

What is unique to Kuttanad was that its rice cultivation practice was not evolved by scientists, but by local farmers. The farmers use a combination or rotation of paddy or fish to get maximum yield from their lands. This is found effective in checking weeds, pests and diseases.

Swaminathan has also recommended that coastal defences be strengthened against more frequent storms and tsunamis through setting up bio-shields of mangrove species.

He said wheat yield in rainfed areas of the country could fall by 44% in 2050 if adaptation steps were not taken.

About 50% of Indias wheat-growing areas are heat- stressed lower potential areas. For every 1 degree Celsius rise in mean temperature, the wheat loss is around 6 million tonne per year.

North India was vulnerable to stem rust disease in wheat, if temperatures shot up b 2 degree Celsius. Compared to wheat, rice is a more climate-resilient crop. According to Swaminathan some solutions to the continuing climatic issues and food shortages were setting up pulse villages (to tackle nutrition deficiency) and a movement to plant 1 billion fertiliser trees (to boost soil nutrition status and sequester carbon).

But at the consumption level, the food basket has to be broadbased, Swaminathan argues.

This means, like wheat and rice, millets and raggi too can be distributed through PDS. When hunger strikes, it is survival rather than nutrition that is significant as is illustrated by the forest-dwelling communities relying on species like yams, roots and tubers.

At the state-level, governments need to reward tribal cultivators who take initiative in preserving endangered species of crops like varieties of yam and colacasia, he says.