At one time, there were over 100,000 rice varieties growing in India. There were many, many more across the rest of the world. There were varieties that varied in colour, taste, tactility and shape and there were varieties naturally fortified in certain minerals, some endowed with medicinal properties, some tall, some short, some short cycle, some long – some resistant to drought, some resistant to flood, some resistant to high salinity and so on. In short, the rice we need to overcome or, at least adapt to climate change exists naturally.
And then the Green Revolution came. With the modern varieties like IR8 that had been created ‘to save the world from hunger’, came, for a while, high-yielding crops. But this was followed in some places by the slow depletion of soil and some waterways and also reduced biodiversity. Farmers were encouraged to use the new varieties (and their attendant chemicals to keep the yields high) and slowly, indigenous seed stopped being used, became overrun by the success of the new ‘monocrops’ and, in some cases, were lost altogether.
There has been a resurgence in using and saving traditional rice varieties in recent years. Knowledge about indigenous varieties generally rests with traditional cultures such as tribal groups or more remote communities. Such groups and keepers of seed banks who are saving this rice biodiversity are, in large part, those who cultivate organically and, in many cases, who practice SRI.
“Smallholder farmers, especially women, have been the custodians of agrobiodiversity for centuries and have been adapting their agricultural practices to changing climatic conditions in many different agroecological contexts. It is therefore vital to ensure that policy frameworks build on, enhance and allow to further develop smallholder’s skills and knowledge of plant breeding, sustainable production, and livestock – keeping, in collaboration with agricultural research institutes.” – ACT Alliance EU
Sabarmatee, a proponent and researcher of SRI has what is possibly the biggest collection of indigenous seed varieties grown under SRI conditions in the world. At over 460 varieties, this is a significant collection. This has allowed her to study different varieties under different climactic conditions and restore to her locality the rice that used to be grown by today’s grandparents, with locally-favoured taste and smell.
SRI and biodiversity go hand in hand and as much as SRI is practiced organically, it is also practiced with traditional seed because, as Ravi Chopra has said: “ SRI is the System of Rice Intensification. It’s a new approach to cultivating crops and it tries to understand the principles of nature and maximise the various energies that are present in the microbes, in the soil, in the water and in the air.” – Ravi Chopra, People’s Science Institute, Uttarakhand, India