| CHENNAI, India
CHENNAI, India Aug 22 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
"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
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
Large-scale hybrid rice seed production is still undergoing
refinement and remains out of reach of the pockets of small and
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
"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)