Bioversity International: research for development in agricultural and tree biodiversity

From the fields of Bihar, India

11 Sep 2013

Bioversity International and the Indian Agricultural Research Institute of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research have worked together to establish a farmers’ field network in the Indo-Gangetic Plains region.

Farmers in the districts of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have participated in rice and wheat trials since December 2010. After an analysis of climate change in the project areas, local or new varieties were introduced to identify which ones worked best in the region, given projected climate change and variability.

It’s late summer and the monsoon rains have not yet come to some areas of Bihar, India. Farmers who are planting traditional rice varieties with traditional cropping methods are suffering from the effects of drought. But, during a recent visit to fields in this region, where farmers are working with Bioversity, I saw firsthand how agricultural research can make a difference to regions where climate variability is increasing.

What Bioversity and partners are doing is not just participatory research, or research FOR development, but research IN development. In our Bihar project, farmers act as local scientists —they are testing, observing, comparing different varieties, trying new farming techniques, and experimenting with different crop rotations to see what works for them – not just in terms of yield, but also in terms of quality of final product, resilience, nutrition, taste and resistance to pests and diseases. This is science for society – not just science for publication.

The fields I saw that are part of our research programme, seem to be in much better shape than surrounding fields. Some of the rice fields are direct seeded ; some are using SRI (System of Rice Intensification). Both techniques can significantly reduce water use while providing good yields.

M. Ann. Tutwiler From the fields in Bihar video one. Photo: Bioversity International

The challenge is that, following the Green Revolution, most of the farmers in Bihar are still planting rice varieties that were released for the region 20-30 years ago and for which the seeds are made available in the local markets, even though conditions have changed over time. In the context of climate change, rice varieties that have been suited for other parts of India may work better in Bihar now. In the light of this Bioversity is providing farmers with more diversity options (22 rice varieties), which also include some of the old released varieties. Farmers are blind testing these varieties for different attributes and some of these varieties are performing better than what farmers are currently planting.

Once the rice is planted, the science continues. There are just a few weather stations in the entire state of Bihar, so farmers in these villages have a hard time tracking changing trends. Bioversity has helped install US$ 70 ‘climate buttons’ in each of these villages that allow scientists to collect data about temperature and humidity to share with farmers, information that they would not otherwise be able to access. This is very simple, very cost-effective technology that we have been able to bring into this region.

M. Ann. Tutwiler From the fields in Bihar video two. Photo: Bioversity InternationalAlso, CGIAR researchers are measuring greenhouse gas emissions from the rice fields. Normally, the method to measure this is quite sophisticated and expensive. But together with partners and farmers, an effective measurement tool – using water buckets to help collect the climate data – was developed. The whole system costs about $5.

Our partners are integral to the success of any Bioversity project, and the programme in Bihar is a case in point. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research institutions such as the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources and the local State Agricultural University work alongside our research team. It’s really striking to see the number of partners working together from CGIAR and local institutions.

Most important was meeting the smallholder farmers, for example the former teacher who is now the leader of a women’s group and has decided to devote herself to agriculture. Reputedly, she is a better farmer than her husband! Two of the farm leaders had just returned from New Delhi, where they met with their parliamentary representative to discuss the need for the setting up of community seed banks and the support required from the local government. They have a keen understanding of the importance of having political support, as well as financial and research support for their efforts. Their success is a cause for celebration for all of us, as smallholder farmers form the backbone of our food system around the world.

“When I saw where we had been working with farmers, where the CGIAR system had been working with farmers, we could see the impact that our work had; we could see how much better those fields were doing than the fields of the farmers who were not part of this project. And what it tells us is that we do have opportunities to change how things are.”

What are your thoughts about climate adaptation and the future of agriculture and conservation? I would like to hear from you. Reach me by email at bioversity-dg(at)cgiar.org

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