Rice farmers in Nepal have been struggling to meet their own needs, let alone satisfying the wider market for rice. To help alleviate this problem, participatory varietal selection (PVS) and participatory plant breeding (PPB) initiatives have been implemented. These programmes have helped produce rice varieties that meet the farmers’ subsistence needs as well improving their economic potential.
Farming in Nepal
In 2002, the United Nations Human Development Index ranked Nepal 142 out of 173 countries, with roughly 42 per cent of the population living below the poverty line. Of the nine million impoverished people, most are subsistence farmers who rely on their crops to stay alive. The Human Development Report for Nepal (2001) found that the majority of people in 45 of the 75 districts surveyed faced serious food deficits. The proportion of the population with chronic food insecurity (less than 1830 calories per day) has increased in the past decade from 21 per cent to 28 per cent.
Rice remains the most important food crop in Nepal, occupying 55 per cent of the country’s cultivated area. Rice farming therefore dominates the agricultural sector in Nepal, be it commercial or subsistence. Rice production contributes a quarter of the country’s GDP and production has increased at a rate of about 2.4 per cent a year. Recently, there has been a shift to the use of high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of rice. Access to these HYVs is usually limited and the varieties that are available often require the application of specific commercial fertilisers. This becomes a huge burden upon the poorer rice farmers who lack the finances and infrastructure to manage such inputs. There is a need, therefore, to help the farmers develop and select HYVs that meet their own needs.
The three main cultural types of rice – irrigated; rainfed wetland (lowland); and dryland (upland) – are all found in Nepal. Wealthy farmers dominate the most fertile irrigated lands, while the poorer subsistence farmers must make do with the less productive upland areas.
There are four main constraints upon rice production in Nepal:
- credit and input supply;
- soils; and
- pests and diseases.
Irrigated ricelands make up about 23 per cent of the total cultivated area in Nepal. However, this area is considered only partially irrigated because of undependable water supply, which limits yields. Rice farmers also have to deal with low price incentives and a lack of credit with which to purchase inputs such as fertiliser (which are also in short supply). Major land and soil problems include siltation, flooding and soil erosion. There is also declining soil fertility because of environmental degradation and the increasing cultivation of marginal lands. Compounding these difficulties is the ongoing problem of pest infestation and crop disease.
The UK’s Department for International Development (DFID) believes that with the appropriate policies and interventions the incidence of poverty in Nepal can be significantly reduced within 10 to 20 years. To facilitate this process, DFID aims to establish a context in which the government, donors, NGOs and the population of Nepal can implement pro-poor policies and effective programmes in a coordinated way.
In Nepal, the balance between import and export of rice has shifted because of the country’s failure to produce enough food to meet its own needs. In this context, DFID views agricultural research and extension projects as vital to improving productivity. This can be done by developing and transferring appropriate technologies, thereby reducing poverty and improving rural livelihoods. DFID has funded the Hill Agricultural Research Project (HARP) in Nepal to facilitate the development of research and extension. HARP aims to establish long-term support for research in agricultural uplands, and to create an effective and sustainable research system that can meet demands of local farmers.
DFID has combined with local agronomists in Nepal from the NGO Local Initiatives for Biodiversity, Research and Development (LI-BIRD), and with researchers at the Centre for Arid Zone Studies (CAZS), University of Wales, Bangor. In Nepal, this combined initiative has been instrumental in establishing methods such as Participatory Varietal Selection (PVS) and Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB).
LI-BIRD is an NGO taking a participatory and partnership approach with in-country agencies for the development, promotion and scaling up of technologies, processes, principles, programmes and organisations. The objective is to produce varieties that can overcome local and regional agricultural problems. LI-BIRD believes that ‘successful development programmes depend on ideas, leadership and appropriate strategies.’
Centre for Arid Zone Studies
The Centre for Arid Zone Studies (CAZS) is a semi-autonomous self-funding Centre within the University of Wales, Bangor, with 18 years of experience in rural development work. The Centre applies a holistic approach throughout its activities to improve rural livelihoods.
The Centre was primarily established to promote integrated agricultural and forestry development in arid and semi-arid lands and to provide technological and scientific innovation to improve natural resource allocation and management. The work has evolved to encompass virtually all agro-ecological zones. Of particular importance has been the work in Nepal achieved by the Plant Sciences Research Programme.
Participatory Varietal Selection
Many farmers in Nepal grow only old varieties of rice and fail to benefit from modern products of plant breeding. In the villages of Chitwan and Nawalparasi (the better-known seed-producing areas of the country), farmers were growing the same 40-year old variety in both rice-growing seasons. Where farmers do have access to modern varieties, they are often unaware of how to manage the required inputs (fertilisers, irrigation, pesticides etc.) effectively in order to derive maximum benefits. One way of increasing the speed and efficiency of adoption of new varieties is for farmers to be given a wide range of new cultivars to test for themselves in their own plantations. A successful participatory varietal selection programme of this kind has four phases:
- Participatory evaluation to identify farmers’ needs;
- A search for suitable material to test with farmers;
- Experimentation on its acceptability in farmers’ fields;
- Wider dissemination of farmer-preferred varieties.
The crop varieties should be selected carefully. A quick, effective and relatively cheap way to find appropriate varieties is to identify those that succeed in other regions or countries with similar environmental and economic conditions.
Participatory Plant Breeding
However, PVS is limited to employing the existing varieties, and sometimes well-accepted varieties cannot be found. Participatory plant breeding (PPB), in which farmers select from segregating material, is an extension of PVS to be used when the possibilities of PVS have been exhausted. PPB programmes exploit the results of PVS by using identified cultivars as parents for cross-breeding. Weaknesses of rice varieties in terms of local farming conditions can be identified in the PVS programme. These varieties can then be cross-bred with a variety that has complementary traits but dissimilar weaknesses, to eliminate the weaknesses in the final variety. For example, it is possible to cross a high-yielding but low grain-quality variety with one of superior grain characteristics.
The most effective application of these methods is to start with PVS to identify appropriate parents, and then carry out cross-breeding. The products of the breeding process can then be tested in PVS trials. This is a recursive and continuous process because new varieties, whether introduced or newly created, are constantly becoming available to be tested by PVS.
A key element of PPB is the collaborative participation of farmers who grow bulk crops of a selection of proposed varieties and choose among them. Through this collaborative breeding, it is easy and cost-effective to replicate selections by giving the seeds from a particular bulk to many farmers. The selection is then replicated across physical environments and farming strategies – i.e. the selection is tested in different circumstances.
PPB is much faster than conventional breeding (see Table 1), proving substantial economic savings. Research has demonstrated that completing a breeding cycle just two years earlier can provide economic benefits as high as US$18 million over the useful life of the rice variety. Similarly, a delay in the official release of three years can reduce economic benefit by about 25 per cent.
Table 1 Comparison of PPB with conventional methods
|PPB (Ashoka 200F)||Conventional (BD 101)|
|Years from cross-breeding to completing one year of testing||4 years
|Years from cross-breeding to farmers||4 years
From 1999 (the same year as it was entered in trials)
From 1988 (three years after its release in 1985)
|Yield gain per year||5%||2.6%|
Results in Terai Region
The existence of the PVS and PPB programmes has helped encourage farmers to take an active role in developing rice varieties. This has led to direct benefits for those involved, as Devraj points out:
‘I chose to breed a cross between Kalinga II and IR64… I decided to do an experiment under my own initiative and I introduced the seed myself and called it Devraj, my name.’
Devraj is not trying to grow another breed. As a result of the project there are now over 80 new varieties being grown in Chitwan.
One of the main achievements of the project in Nepal has been the identification of an increasing number of rice varieties, from both PVS and PPB, which farmers can viably adopt. Over 15 varieties were suited to medium and upland conditions, the main productive area in Terai. This also benefits the poorer farmers, since they are likely to farm the less productive uplands rather than the more expensive and productive irrigated lands.
One of these varieties is Judi 572, a new strain developed at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. Not only did the variety perform well in laboratories and farmers’ fields, Nepalese farmers also took to the taste and aroma of the end product. Many have been encouraged by such varieties to start experimenting with plant breeding themselves.
The data from a survey carried out in 2002 by LI-BIRD shows that the adoption of project varieties in Chitwan is above 40 per cent and that adoption in the region as a whole is already in excess of 10 per cent. From main season in 2001 to main season in 2002, PPB varieties increased in Chitwan at a rate of over 500 per cent.
Not only do farmers gain in economic terms, they are also able to produce a rice variety that is in line with their wants and needs. By directly participating in the selection process, farmers have been able to select the varieties that cope best with their local environment. This results in an improved yield in terms of quantity and quality. Importantly, the participatory approach means that it is the farmers themselves who have implemented the changes.
Future Implications of PVS and PPB
Participatory approaches to rice variety selection are an effective way to identify farmer-preferred varieties. With the support of groups such as LI-BIRD and CAZS, the dissemination of the varieties is also more efficient. Several varieties introduced through PVS have been identified and scaled up by the farmers themselves. Scaling up involves spreading the variety to other areas and among NGOs, farmers and government. Most of the varieties introduced by the programme have resulted in 10 to 15 per cent higher yields than the existing varieties. The programmes have brought significant change to the living conditions of rural farmers in Nepal, increasing their level of income and their food security.
ITDG would like to thank the International Rice Research Institutefor providing information and helping in this case study.
The case study draws on articles written by the International Rice Research Institute.
Asia Partnership for Human Development
Centre for Arid Zone Studies www.cazs.bangor.ac.uk
National Agricultural Research Centre narc.gov.np/narc
Plant Sciences Research Programme dfid-psp.bangor.ac.uk/ccstudio/projects/ftrs/r8302.pdf
International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) www.irri.org
IRRI Library ricelib.irri.cgiar.org
Rice On-Line www.riceonline.com
Donor and Supporting Organisations
Department for International Development (DFID) www.dfid.gov.uk
ITDG Technical Briefs answers.practicalaction.org