ICAR’s herbicide-tolerant rice is not farmer-friendly and is a threat to national food security

This technology will raise cultivation costs by monopolising the seed-agrochemical market and may lead to more robust, herbicide-resistant weeds in the future, endangering rice production

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has commercialised herbicide-tolerant (Ht) basmati rice varieties, claiming they can control weeds in rice crops while also promoting water-saving direct seeded rice (DSR). However, these claims are viewed as a “overstatement” of scientific facts.

According to the ambiguous claim made by ICAR, these new non-genetically modified (non-GM) varieties allow for the direct application of the herbicide Imazethapyr to eradicate weeds in the DSR system because they contain a mutated ALS gene.

Scientists working on the DSR cropping system argue that “there is no need for such technology to assist DSR because weeds can be easily managed by eco-friendly methods using climatic factors by advancing the date of sowing to May 15-June 10.”

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Even ICAR’s research published in The Pharma Innovation Journal in 2022 concluded that “eco-friendly hand weeding at 20 and 40 days after DSR sowing is more effective than repeated applications of Imazethapyr in Ht-rice for weed control and higher seed yield.

Furthermore, Imazethapyr only kills certain types of broadleaf weeds (BLW). Globally, the herbicides is recommended for soybean and pulse crops, but not for rice crops due to the different weed flora.

For other types of weeds, farmers would need another set of herbicide sprays, increasing cultivation costs. Moreover, Ht rice will not favour the genetic diversity of Indian rice as it will monopolise the seed markets in favour of specific varieties having the ALS gene.

Scientifically, the continued use of the same herbicides over time will result in the evolution of herbicide-resistant, more potent weeds via gene mutation and physiological changes that confer resistance to herbicides. This is a serious threat to rice production and food security in India. Weeds are a major biological constraint in rice production, causing losses ranging from 30-100 per cent.

Policymakers are well aware of a recent similar phenomenon in Bt Cotton in Punjab and Haryana, where new strains of pink bollworm pest developed resistance to Bt Cotton, severely reducing cotton production in these agriculturally advanced states.

It is worth noting that the North Western Plains, which include Punjab and Haryana, have long used the DSR system to grow aromatic Basmati rice. To control weeds in rice crops and ensure national food security, policymakers during the Green Revolution introduced the water-guzzling transplanted rice system by overusing groundwater-based irrigation.

These were promoted through subsidised electricity to tubewells in the semi-arid climatic states of Punjab-Haryana, using dwarf high-yielding varieties imported from the International Rice Research Institute in Manila.

These policy initiatives secured India’s food security over the last five decades but caused major ecological disasters, depleting groundwater in grey zones in these states. To overcome the adverse impact of the water-guzzling transplanted rice system, policymakers promoted economically non-viable crop diversification to paddy farmers without considering the climatic conditions of this zone.

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These technically ill-conceived crop diversifications were not adopted by farmers due to their non-viability on technical, environmental, and economic grounds.

From 2014 to 2017, our research team at IARI Karnal improved TAR-VATTAR DSR technology to control weeds using climatic factors such as advancing sowing dates starting from May 15 to June 10 in hot and dry climates and cost-effective herbicides (Pendimethalin, for example).

Improved DSR technology became popular among farmers as it saved about 40 per cent of groundwater irrigation and cultivation costs, with savings in energy consumption (electricity, diesel, manpower, etc) without any loss of seed yield compared to water-guzzling transplanted rice.

Even a Haryana Chief Minister’s office press note dated April 1, 2023 acknowledged that by adopting DSR on 72,000 acres, farmers saved 31,500 crore litres of water during in 2022 Kharif cropping season.

At the Biennial Water Action Plan 2023-25 meeting, the Haryana CM further stated that DSR had been adopted on 2,45,493 acres during Kharif 2023 and set a goal to conserve 248,702 crore litres of water by December 2023, which has been successfully achieved. 

Similarly, during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, due to a scarcity of migrant labour for paddy transplantation, farmers in Punjab planted 600,000 hectares of paddy under DSR, demonstrating the viability of this improved, farmer- and eco-friendly cropping method.

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Farmers have already adopted improved TAR-VATTAR DSR technology on large areas because it effectively controls weeds in an eco-friendly and cost-effective manner.

Contrary to this, the recently introduced ill-conceived herbicide-tolerant rice (Ht-rice) technology will increase cultivation costs by monopolising the seed-agrochemicals market and may also endanger rice production with the development of more robust and potent weeds through mutation in the future. 

Therefore, herbicide-tolerant rice technology is not a farmer- or eco-friendly agricultural technology and may also pose a serious threat to the national food security of India.

Virender Singh Lather is Former Principal Scientist (Genetics & Cytogenetics), ICAR-Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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