CHENNAI, India Aug 22 (Reuters) - India needs to boost rice yields by nearly a third by 2025 to feed its growing 1.2 billion population, but hybrid technology that could increase productivity faces challenges -- from sharply varying yield advantages to a fastidious Indian palate.
Although a crop that is grown round-the-year and which helps meet almost half the calorie needs of 70 percent of Indians, rice yields in the world's second-biggest producer remain low at 2.17 tonnes a hectare, less than half the global average.
And that is because almost 95 percent of its 45 million hectares of rice areas grows traditional high-yielding varieties, compared to only about 30 percent in China, the biggest rice grower, whose use of hybrid technology has boosted average yields to more than five tonnes a hectare.
But in India the use of rice hybrids, or seeds bred from differing varieties, raises as much doubt in conservative farmers as in consumers, many of whom don't like its stickiness or smell.
"The challenge for hybrid rice in India is as much in putting in place a supportive financial and market infrastructure as in creating awareness among farmers," said Pradip Mazumdar, India CEO of CropLife International, a global research-based agri-industry organisation.
"It is also a social and cultural challenge because there is a perception among many Indians that hybrid rice is different and not to their taste."
About 90 percent of India's rice output, expected to be just over 95 million tonnes in 2010/11, is consumed domestically.
India allowed one million tonnes of common rice exports in July for the first time since 2008 when a global financial crisis prompted protective moves for domestic supplies.
Those sales are dwarfed by the world's top suppliers, Thailand and Vietnam, who together normally ship around 17 million tonnes per year of the Asian staple.
India is second only to China in developing hybrid rice -- rather than genetically modified -- which promises improved harvests. The government has a target to bring three million hectares under the varieties by 2012.
Most of India's hybrid rice is grown in the country's east and north, where under optimum growing conditions the varieties can produce a marked improvement in yield of up to 1-1.5 tonnes per hectare.
But yield advantage of hybrids is still not consistent in all parts of India where they have been introduced. For example, the yield advantage is as high as 35-40 percent in eastern Bihar and Jharkhand states, while that in the southern states is only about 15 percent.
And as hybrid rice fetches lower prices from millers because of quality issues, yield advantages are largely negated.
"The cooking quality of hybrid rice is a problem for some people. If you cook and leave it for 2-3 hours it becomes sticky, like a paste almost. Indian customers don't like it," said R. Suresh Babu, head of rice research in India for Syngenta, the world's largest agrochemicals firm.
"Hybrid rice is also often broken, which millers don't like."
Large-scale hybrid rice seed production is still undergoing refinement and remains out of reach of the pockets of small and marginal farmers.
In 2009/10, hybrid rice accounted for a mere 18.6 million tonnes of India's total output.
But despite the lukewarm interest now, the answer to stalling output of rice in India increasingly appears to be in hybrid varieties that could not only plug growing demand but also provide nutrition for many of the world's poorest people.
Increasing the amount of land under cultivation to the water-intensive crop is difficult in a country where 60 percent of farms depend on the variable monsoon for rains and where land and resources are increasingly under pressure from urbanisation.
Hybrid varieties of rice may also be a key part of the answer to food security for India, which is drafting a law that guarantees further subsidised grains to millions of India's poor already struggling with high food inflation.
The Food Security Bill, an election promise of the ruling Congress party, is seen as a potential vote winner but one that could strain public finances. It would need about 61 million tonnes of grains a year, the bulk of which would be wheat and rice.
"Given that the government will have to give food security to a vast majority of its population, faster adoption of hybrid varieties is a question of not if but when," Mazumdar said.
R. Vaithiyanathan, director of agriculture at the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), the country's top industry lobby, thinks use of hybrid rice will be more incremental, given the problems.
"Unlike China we are not going in an aggressive way. But we will have to adopt it, there is no way out." (Editing by Jo Winterbottom)