For centuries, farmers have practiced selection and breeding of traditional crop landraces (domesticated, locally adapted crop varieties). Highly in tune with their land and what is growing on it, they notice certain important agronomic and cultural traits in existing varieties and breed for these preferred traits. This process of selection and breeding of seeds has slowed significantly since the advent of the Green Revolution. However, the ingenuity of traditional farmer-breeders continues in pockets around the world, where traditional heirloom landraces still survive on marginal farms and farmers still value certain characters not found in modern high-yielding varieties.
Debdulal Bhattacharya, a young man from West Bengal, India, is one farmer who continues the traditional selection and breeding practice. Having worked closely with traditional rice varieties throughout his life, he saw potential advantages of combining the long grain trait and high panicle density trait of a non-fragrant variety with the strong fragrance of another landrace, both of which were conserved on Basudha farm. He adopted the traditional method of seed selection and cross-pollination between chosen parental lines to create a new farmer landrace.
It took eight generations of breeding to create a stable new variety.
First, Debdulal selected plants from the two parental lines based on their morphological characters. He paired the parents of each plant. To prevent extraneous pollen from entering the florets, he covered the pairs with a paper bag for the initial flowering stages. At the time of harvest, farmers gathered the seed for further inspection.
Debdulal screened these first generation hybrids for the desired characters: the longest grain, the strongest fragrance, and panicle density (the average number of grains per panicle). He saved the best seeds and grew them in successive years, with crossing between the sibling plants. Each year, Debdulal selected the preferred grain length and fragrance and eliminated any off-type. Debdulal continued this process for eight generations. At this time, Debdulal and his colleagues considered the landrace a stable new variety, distinct from both the original parental lines. The new variety was named “Debdulali” after the farmer-breeder. Farmers can receive free distributions of the seeds if they wish.
A Growing Culture partnered with Debal Deb and Center for Interdisciplinary Studies and Basudha Trust in Odisha, India, to document this technique, safeguarding the knowledge for generations to come.
Click here to learn more about the technical aspects of this innovation.
In addition to creating a new rice variety, Debdulal Bhattacharya is preserving the age-old tradition of developing new landraces. Maintaining this ancient knowledge is so important for a variety of reasons. One key reason: it is techniques like these that will help farmers adapt to changing growing conditions and climate.