Sunday, February 15, 2015

Can Grains of the Past Help Us Weather Future Storms?

Vrihi seed bank in West Bengal provides new hope in the form of salt-tolerant indigenous rice to the Sundarbans after farmlands were flooded by a 2009 storm. (Credit: Jason Taylor via Click to Enlarge.
In May 2009, Cyclone Aila wreaked havoc in eastern India.  Clocking in at speeds of over 120 kilometers per hour, Aila hit the Sundarbans, the largest continuous block of mangrove forest in the world, located in the Ganga-Brahmaputra tidal delta on the Bay of Bengal.

The storm killed hundreds of people and livestock, damaged close to a million houses, and washed away roads. Heavy winds and high waves breached the mud embankments that protected the islands. This brought in a deluge of salt-water from the Bay of Bengal, flooding villages, turning drinking water brackish and affecting nearly 125,000 hectares of cropland.

As floodwaters subsided in the wake of the storm, thin white lines of salt appeared in the soil. The modern, high-yielding varieties of rice that had been cultivated there previously, could not grow in this salt-encrusted soil. For the rice-dependent agrarian inhabitants of the delta, this was a cause for serious concern.

A month after the catastrophe, Debal Deb, a plant scientist and founder of Vrihi, a non-governmental rice seed bank, visited three Aila-struck villages in the Sundarbans. He brought with him four varieties of indigenous rice from his own seed bank — Talmugur, Lal Getu, Sada Getu and Nona Khirish — that could tolerate high levels of salinity in the soil.

Deb had collected these salt-tolerant varieties from Sundarban farmers back in 1997. On his seed farm, he had managed to double the salt-tolerance limit of two of the varieties — Lal Getu and Sada Getu — by meticulous selective breeding of the crop at different salinity levels.

Most traditional rice varieties, including the ones Deb carried that day, are adapted to local climates and regions. But with the advent of modern high-yielding varieties of rice, local varieties became disused, and many were subsequently lost. Fortunately, a handful of rice conservationists in India have managed to save some of them.

Deb’s seed bank, for instance, holds more than 1,000 different kinds of indigenous rice, which he grows on his 2.3-acre farm and distributes among farmers for free. Some of these varieties, like the ones he reintroduced to the Sundarbans, are salt tolerant. Others can withstand long bouts of drought or floods.

When Deb brought the four salt-tolerant varieties to the Sundarbans in June of 2009, only one was still being grown by local farmers. The other three remained only in their memories.

Read more at Can Grains of the Past Help Us Weather Future Storms?

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