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Oil crisis: Boon for traditional paddy farming

Sri Lanka’s farmers who grow paddy for their home needs are now discovering a new trend. Instead of the widely-cultivated hybrid varieties they have opted to grow more traditional varieties of paddy as the latter are more nutritious, rich in taste, pest-resistant and need no artificial, petroleum-based fertiliser.

This trend had been there for some time among the home growers but gathered force with the rise in paddy and rice prices and skyrocketing prices of chemical fertilisers. Some of these farmers now grow the traditional varieties for special markets in addition to home consumption.

Agronomists and environmentalists wonder how so many varieties of paddy came to exist in a small island like Sri Lanka. Records indicate that she had about 3,000 different varieties of traditional paddy in ancient times.

Paddy varieties


Cultivating more traditional varieties of paddy

There are farmers who still have lists of more than 350 different traditional paddy varieties. Some of these varieties are being stored in the Agricultural Department’s gene bank for future research work and for distribution among cultivators who grow them for specific markets.

The origin of rice culture dates back over 5,000 years. Rice is the second largest produced cereal in the world and the staple food of half of the world population. The annual world rice production is over 420 million tons and Sri Lanka produces over 2.1 million tons per year. Sri Lanka’s annual per capita consumption is around 100 kg of rice.

The traditional varieties do not give very high yield per acre but that drawback is offset by their high nutritional value, pleasant aroma and the less quantity required for cooking and eating.

They meet the requirements of specific consumers. The traditional seeds can withstand pests and adverse weather conditions. They grow well with carbonic fertilizer and can be stored for long periods.

The management responsiveness of these strains of paddy is nearly 30-35 percent more than for the hybrid varieties and the seed cost is almost 2.5 times less whereas the expected output price is lower for hybrid rice grain than the actual price for conventional high yielding varieties.

The cost of the production of hybrid seeds is high, hybrid varieties require more doses of fertilizer and hybrid seed is not suitable for a second crop.

Health values

Hybrid seed production involves several technical skills to obtain acceptable yield level of one to one-and-half tons per hectare.

Sri Lanka’s traditional varieties of paddy are generally identified by their common name the ‘Uru Wee’ meaning traditional paddy. Different types of ‘Uru Wee’ have interesting names like Dahanala, Devaraddiri, Heenati, Hondarawalu, Mawee, Murunagakayam, Patchaiperumal, Suduwee and Suwandal.

Their growth is from three months to six months. These varieties have specific qualities of their own. Suwandal is very aromatic, pachchaiperumal and murungakayam are heavy and kaluheeneti is used for preparing medicinal porridge.

Farmers who grow traditional varieties of paddy stress the health values in planting traditional varieties. Tilling and preparations, transplanting and weeding of the fields give all the exercise humans need. The seed of most of the traditional varieties are rich in vitamins and fibre that help to cure stomach ailments.

Environment Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka believes that the days of using chemical fertiliser are numbered because of its ill effects on soil and high cost.

Fertiliser

He is very emphatic about the need of using carbonic or natural fertiliser as alternative to chemical fertilizer in paddy cultivation. He notes that developed countries which used chemical fertiliser decades years ago have reverted to environment-friendly carbonic fertiliser. Most of the consumers in those countries prefer food products free of chemical applications.

The Minister points out that the paddy yield of the country has not gone up corresponding to the use of chemical fertiliser.

With oil prices going up almost daily it will not be long before we will be compelled to give up using chemical fertilizers that are based on petroleum.

Farmers need to be motivated to grow traditional varieties of paddy that only need manure and other natural fertilizer.

Carbon manure

Several local administrative bodies like municipal and provincial councils are making an appreciable effort to encourage residents to produce carbon manure out of kitchen waste and other material.

Most of the local Government institutions go to the extent of providing carbonic manure producing containers to the residents at subsidised prices..

Some NGOs too assist the growers to produce their own carbon fertiliser. However there is a need for the Government and the public to be on the alert when it comes to growing traditional varieties of paddy since Sri Lanka is a country very rich in bio diversity that has attracted foreigners to the island.

Some of them would be ready to pay any price to acquire the genes of some of these rare varieties. Hence marketing experts do not rule out the possibility that at least some NGOs may be engaged in gene theft of traditional varieties in the guise of helping farmers.

Sometime back such instances were detected and certain local experts were reportedly found helping foreigners to rob genes endemic to Sri Lanka.

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