The Rice Elections
We have all heard of voting for people, but who has heard of voting for a variety of rice? Farmers in Ta Ga Nan village in Shwebo township did just that before the monsoon swept across Myanmar.
Armed with four slips of paper, farmers waded across calf-deep water to have a closer look at 16 varieties of rice plants, planted in separate plots and each distinguished by a code number. Farmers closely examined the plants, paying particular attention to their height, shape of the rice clumps, the orientation and size of the leaves as well as the appearance or absence of pests and diseases. Each farmer selected the two best varieties of rice, and eliminated the two worst, and noted their choices on the slips of paper.
Shwebo, a thriving rural town is located in Sagaing Region and is well known as the “rice bowl” of upper Myanmar. However, in the onslaught of increasing temperatures, longer summers and heavier monsoonal rains, the local varieties of rice that used to produce the best yields are fast slipping off the best performer category. The yields are dropping and so are farmers’ incomes.
U Aung Kyaw Thein farms rice on 20 acres of land, together with another family. He says that due to excessive heat or heavy rains he is losing 10 baskets per acre.
“A good harvest is when I can get 80-100 baskets of rice per acre. These days, I am getting ten baskets less per acre,” said U Aung Kyaw Thein. One basket represents 20.9 kg.
Researchers at the Yezin Agriculture University, Myanmar’s premier agricultural university, have bred different varieties of rice, suited to the changing climate. Some flower earlier in the day, increasing the chances of rice grains to form, others are more tolerant to heat of up to 45 degrees Celcius, which is what temperatures soar to in the summer in Myanmar’s Dry Zone.
“We wanted farmers to choose the variety they preferred, and we wanted them to be involved right from the beginning,” said Dr. Nyo Mar Htwe, Assistant Professor at the Yezin Agriculture University.
The rice election takes place in three rounds. The first round of voting that took place in mid-May was from what is known as the mother trial. It will be followed by the baby trial, where a farmer would volunteer to plant the rice being tested in his or her field. The farmer would treat this variety not as a trial, but as if it were his or her main crop.
The second round of voting took place 95 days after sowing, based on the performance of the rice variety in the field, including growth, yield and resistance to pest and diseases.
The final round of voting was done based on sensory evaluation - where characteristics such as taste, color, aroma, tenderness, cohesiveness, purity, elongation, etc were assessed. The four varieties of rice selected will be used for “baby trials” in 2018. The farmers will grow the selected varieties for field validation of yield and and adaptability to extreme temperature and drought conditions.
“Based on the results of baby trials, the most preferred rice varieties will be reviewed by the National Seed Committee for registeration and distribution to farmers in Shwebo and other region with similar agro-climatic conditions ,” said Dr Nyo Mar Htwe.
Attributes of the Winning Candidate
U Aung Kyaw Thein has made available 0.3 acres of his land for the mother trial in the hope that a good variety of rice suited to his locality can be identified.
“What I consider a good variety of rice is one which has a high yield, can withstand heavy rains or extreme heat, tastes good and is marketable,” said U Aung Kyaw Thein.
“If we identify a good variety of rice, many farmers will happily adopt it.”
The rice trials are being conducted as part of the “Addressing Climate Change Risks on Water Resources and Food Security in the Dry Zone of Myanmar” project. The project benefits more than a quarter of a million people by making available continuous freshwater during dry seasons, providing skills and tools for climate-resilient agricultural and livestock practices and climate risk information management. The USD 7.9 million, four-year project, the first in Myanmar to receive funding from the Adaptation Fund, is being implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in partnership with the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation.
The rice trials are being conducted by the Yezin Agriculture University, working together with CESVI, an INGO helping implement part of the project in the Dry Zone. The project started in 2015 and will conclude in 2019.