Scuba Rice

So lets say you’re a farmer cultivating rice. And lets say that the areas under cultivation got inundated after a flood. Until 2009, all the farmers could do was to see their rice cultivation get destroyed due to it being submerged under water. As this phenomenon is out of human control, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) introduced a new variety of rice seeds known as the Swarna-Sub1 in order to overcome the problem of rice getting destroyed by being submerged under water.

According to Dr. Umesh Singh, senior scientist at the IRRI, Swarna-Sub1, which was released in August 2009, is the first submergence-tolerant, high-yielding rice variety in India. It was released in record time and is spreading at an unprecedented speed. This particular type of rice took about 25 years to be planted on 6 million hectares, which made it possible for its current “mega” variety status. And today, cultivation of this variety of rice is now being undertaken on 12 million hectares of flood-prone areas in India at unprecedented rates, thanks to faster seed multiplication and various other improvements.

Dr. Umesh also said, “Earlier, we only provided and field-tested IRRI rice lines that were tolerant of flooding. Now, we assist government agencies and private seed companies to multiply and distribute seeds to farmers at a faster pace.”

Non-mechanized farming is common in the region (Odisha) that houses the Central Rice Research Institute, the premier center for rice research in India.

It is said that field-testing a rice variety normally takes 4-5 years and a further 2-3 years to be released and reach the farmers. However, through targeted dissemination, IRRI helps state governments in India to identify specific flood prone areas where these types of seeds are mostly needed, and distributes them.

IRRI, celebrating its 50th year of conducting rice research, has been working with India’s national and state governments, nonprofit organizations, farmers’ organizations, research institutions, and public and private seed companies to promote Swarna-Sub1.

So what exactly is the Swarna-Sub1 and what advantage does it have over regular rice seed varieties?

Swarna-Sub1 incorporates the SUB1 gene into the Indian mega-variety Swarna, making it resilient to flooding of up to 17 days while retaining the desirable traits of the original variety,“ said Dr. David Mackill, senior scientist at IRRI who helped identify the SUB1 gene and develop Sub1 varieties.

Fondly called “scuba” rice, because of its ability to survive under water for up to two weeks, Swarna-Sub1 has been widely adopted across eastern India. “Since this is an improved version of an existing variety, scientists only had to test its tolerance of submergence, lessening the time for field-testing by a year”, Dr. Mackill added.

“We are hoping that Swarna-Sub1 will reach the same status as the Swarna in 5 years,” Dr. Singh said. “It could entirely replace Swarna and spread to other flood-prone areas all over the country.”

Large tracts of rice fields in Odisha get inundated by flash floods every year.

IRRI identifies flood-prone areas with very low agricultural productivity and where technology diffusion is usually slow. State governments distribute “minikits” or 5-kg packets of seeds to farmers in these areas. To date, 70,000 minikits, or an equivalent of 350 tons of seeds, have been distributed during kharif or monsoon. Within one year of release, this variety has reached more than 100,000 farmers in India.

India has been a world leader in adoption of our scuba rice varieties,” said Dr. Robert Zeigler, Director General of IRRI, “implementing innovative practices like the distribution of mini-kits of seed to ensure many farmers get seed quickly to propagate it, plus supporting wide-scale demonstration plantings with farmers to show how effective flood-tolerant varieties are.” IRRI links with the National Food Security Mission, a mega-scheme of the Ministry of Agriculture, government of India, state governments, NGOs, and public and private seed producers and breeders to multiply and disseminate Swarna-Sub1 seeds. The supply will aid various states in India that do not have enough seeds to distribute to farmers.


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