India’s Basmati Rice industry faces Significant shift as export favorite ‘PB-1121’ phases out for New Variety ‘PB-1885

India’s exceptionally long grain Basmati rice, which over the past three decades has been the export favourite are going to phase out, taking the industry through a significant shift.   

The Basmati rice exports have skyrocketed from Rs 290 crore in 1991 to Rs 38,000 crore today, as per data by Kolkata-based Directorate General of Commercial Intelligence and Statistics (DGCIS). However, now there are plans to phase out the export favourite ‘Pusa Basmati (PB) 1121’ and replace it with a new variety known as ‘PB-1885’.

The PB-1121 ranges between 2 to 2.5 cm and has an unmistakable aroma. It is the most sought-after Basmati varieties for export, with most going to the US, Canada, and the Middle-East and European countries.

However, now the PB-1121 will slowly be replaced with the newer PB-1885 since, because of the weakening of its gene pool, the former has become prone to diseases like bacterial blight, fungal infection and rice blast fungus.

Dr Ashok Kumar Singh, Director, Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI), also known as Pusa Institute, a premier institute under the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR), told ThePrint, “This is a normal phenomenon in agriculture that any variety when grown over large areas becomes susceptible to various kinds of pest infestations and bacterial, fungal, and viral infections. PB-1121 itself came as an improved variety of PB-1.”

Since such infections force farmers to use more bactericides and fungicides, export of the PB-1121 has become difficult. Due to the European Union’s tough norms regarding fungicide residue levels, India’s Basmati consignments have been returned in the past.

According to Singh, today 95 per cent of the total Basmati exported by India is of the three varieties — PB-1121, PB-1509, and PB-1401, all developed by IARI.

Singh added that while PB-1121 is the most sought-after variety for export, exporters on occasion mix in the rice from the other two varieties, too, because they are often cheaper than the first.

This shift in the variety of rice export has worried the exporters, thy fear the acceptance of the new variety will take time.

As per exporters, it took two decades before PB-1121 was recognized as an international brand. Now this sudden change in the name of the variety can affect exports adversely.

Nathi Ram Gupta, President of the All India Rice Exporters Association, said that after some initial hiccups of two or three years, they hope that the new variety PB-1885 will get the same acceptance because it is basically the improved version of PB-1121.

Vijay Setia, the past president of the association, has welcomed the new varieties since, and said that the new variety will prove beneficial for farmers thanks to their high yield and resistance to pests.

The shift

In the past years, the importing nations have voiced their concerns on the use of chemicals in Basmati rice. The EU allows a maximum residue level (MRL) of 0.01 ppm (parts per million) for tricyclazole, one of the most commonly used fungicides in managing rice blast.

However, our farmers over the years are forced to spend money on pesticides and fungicides to maintain the produce, which puts it at risk of rejection from European countries due to their stern residue levels norms.

Singh said these concerns required to be addressed urgently in order to maintain the leading position in the international trade of Basmati rice.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi last year directed Union Minister of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Narendra Singh Tomar to look into the issue amid which he had tasked ICAR to address the concerns.

Last year, before the Kharif sowing season, the IARI had distributed 1 kg per acre seeds of the newly-developed disease-resistant Basmati rice for free to some progressive farmers in the rice-growing region of Haryana and Punjab. Later, in September, IARI organised a ‘Kisan Sampark Yatra’ to get the farmers’ feedback.

The response from the farmers, said Singh, was very good as the crop was found free from infection, its general health was excellent and farmers could get good remunerative prices for their crop in the market.

In March this year, the IARI organised a three-day Krishi Vigyan Mela. According to Singh, the mela was attended by farmers from Punjab and Haryana who travelled to the capital to purchase seeds of improved varieties. “The process of phasing out old varieties, though slow, is a natural one. As more farmers opt for the new and improved varieties, other farmers from their villages will see its benefits too,” said Singh.

“This happened with PB-1. And though a few farmers are still cultivating it, it doesn’t account for more than 5 per cent of the total Basmati cultivation now,” he added.

The new & improved varieties

PB-1847, an improved version of PB-1509, has inbuilt resistance to bacterial blight and blast disease developed through molecular marker-assisted breeding. PB-1847 is highly resistant to blast disease (susceptibility index of 2.5) as compared to PB-1509 (of 7.0). It also exhibits a highly resistant reaction against bacterial blight disease (3.0 on the index) as compared to PB-1509 (7.0).

PB-1885, the improved version of PB-1121, features inbuilt resistance to bacterial blight and blast diseases. With cooking quality similar to PB-1121, the new variety of Basmati has semi-tall plant stature with extra-long slender grains. It is a medium-duration Basmati rice variety with seed-to-seed maturity of 135 days, and its susceptibility index for blast disease is 2.3, compared to that of PB-1121 (7.3). It also exhibits a highly resistant reaction against bacterial blight disease (3.3) as compared to the highly susceptible PB-1121.

PB-1886 is the improved version of PB-1401 and possesses two genes for bacterial blight resistance and two genes for blast resistance. It is highly resistant to blast disease (susceptibility index of 2.5) as compared to PB1401 (8.5). Further, it also exhibits very high resistance against bacterial blight (3.3) as compared to PB-1401 (7.3).

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