Why this new variety of India’s iconic basmati rice is certain to boost exports

A new basmati variety, called Pusa 1718—which is an improved version of the iconic Pusa 1121—is set to sustain India’s aromatic and long-grained rice exports through higher yield and the ability to fight bacterial blight disease

Why this new variety of India’s iconic basmati rice is certain to boost exports
Illustration: Rohnit Phore

By Sandip Das

Last few weeks have been quite busy for Preetam Singh, who lives in the Uraland Khurd village, part of Panipat district, Haryana, as farmers like him from nearby villages make a beeline for buying paddy seed of a new basmati rice variety, called Pusa basmati 1718 (PB1718) developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI). Singh owns 32 acres of agricultural land—he has also taken 100 acres of land on lease for farming—and he is mostly engaged in producing seeds for basmati rice variety.

This new basmati variety, which draws its parentage from the widely-grown Pusa 1121 (PB1121), has been endowed with two extra genes to fight the bacterial leaf blight disease, thus preventing lodging, besides increasing the yield. “Farmers who had sown this new basmati variety (PB1718) in the kharif season (2018) say that it did not flatten during rain and hailstorm owing to its comparatively shorter length,” farmer Singh said.

Notified in 2017 by the agriculture ministry, PB1718 is gradually being accepted by farmers across Haryana and Punjab—the key aromatic and long-grain rice-producing region of the country. “The new paddy variety is characterised by its ability to fight bacterial blight, it prevents lodging and also increases the yield,” AK Singh, head, Department of Genetics, IARI, said. Farmers who have grown this new variety in the previous kharif season (2018) claim that the yield has increased to around 25 quintals per acre, as against around 18 quintals achieved for the widely-grown PB1121 (also developed by IARI).

Singh added that while traditional varieties of basmati had a yield of around nine quintals per acre, the short-duration variety Pusa 1509 (PB1509, developed by IARI) gives a yield of around 20 quintals per acre. According to official estimates, PB1121 was grown in around 10 lakh hectares of land, of the total basmati acreage of around 15 lakh hectares in the key growing states last year. The short-duration variety PB1509 was grown in around 3 lakh hectares and the new PB1718 in around 1 lakh hectares. The traditional variety of basmati was grown in less than 1 lakh hectares during last year’s kharif season.

Ritesh Sharma, principal scientist, Basmati Export Development Foundation (BEDF)—an affiliate body of the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA)—said there were no effective pesticides available to deal with the bacterial leaf blight disease in PB1121 variety, which has a major share in India’s exports of aromatic and long-grained rice. “We have been dependent on one variety of basmati rice (PB1121) for many years for sustaining our exports. With PB1718, we have an alternate variety in case of exigency,” Sharma said.

Another unique characteristic of the new basmati variety is that there is less grain-loss or lodging while harvesting at maturity, as compared to PB1121, which results in higher yield for farmers. “A new variety also takes 5-6 years to get the desired results; PB1718 has been introduced at the right time, and in the next couple of years is going to be widely cultivated by farmers,” Sharma added.

More than a decade after the introduction of PB1121, which gave a boost to India’s basmati rice exports, PB1718 is expected to help the country dominate the global trade in aromatic and long-grain rice market in the coming years. Commerce ministry officials said that the new variety could not have come at a better time, because due to the bacterial leaf blight disease in PB1121, the yield has been adversely impacted and farmers are increasingly using pesticides to curb pests.

PB1121, a landmark rice variety having basmati-quality traits drawn from traditional varieties, was formally released for commercial cultivation in 2003. Singh of IARI said the new variety possesses extra-long and slender milled grains, aroma, and high-cooked kernel and taste. Owing to its exceptional quality characteristics, it has set new standards in the basmati global rice market. According to commerce ministry officials, the cumulative foreign exchange earnings from PB1121 since 2008 have been around $21 billion. This has given a boost to incomes of basmati growers. India has around 85% share in the global basmati rice trade, while Pakistan has a share of 15%.

India had achieved record basmati rice shipment, both in terms of value as well as volume, in the last financial year. According to APEDA data, India exported basmati rice worth `32,806 crore in 2018-19, which is 22% higher than the `26,870 crore achieved during 2017-18. Volume-wise also, India shipped 4.88 million tonnes of aromatic long-grained rice, which is a record in itself. Today, India exports basmati mostly to countries including Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, the UK, besides several other countries. “PB1718 would definitely help sustain India’s dominant position in the global basmati rice trade,” a commerce ministry official added.

Meanwhile, exporters of India’s aromatic and long-grained basmati rice and officials from the commerce ministry have been deliberating on the complexities arising from the stringent import norms imposed by the European Union (EU), which sharply slashed the level of a commonly-used fungicide, Tricyclazole, in the rice that the EU imports. Tricyclazole is a fungicide used in India to protect the paddy crop from a disease called ‘blast’, and the EU had cut the maximum residue limit for Tricyclazole from 1 PPM to 0.01 PPM from December 31, 2017, onwards. This has put basmati rice exporters in a tough position.

“Two to three crop cycles are required to effect the desired change. Moreover, there is no scientific evidence that the concerned chemical is harmful to human health,” Vijay Setia, president, All India Rice Exporters’ Association (AIREA), said. The EU and the US are high-value markets for basmati rice exporters, even though a major chunk of aromatic and long-grained rice is shipped to Gulf countries.

Official data says that there are 16 lakh farmers, mostly in Punjab, Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh and a few pockets of Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and Jammu & Kashmir, engaged in basmati rice cultivation. During the previous kharif season (2018), to curb the use of fungicides, AIREA, in association with APEDA, conducted campaigns among basmati rice growers in many districts of Punjab.

The author is a senior consultant with ICRIER. Views are personal

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