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[COTONOU, BENIN] New research from West Africa challenges the widely held view that African and Asian 'farmer rice' varieties have only local value owing to their poor ability to adapt to adverse environmental conditions.
Researchers at Wageningen University in the Netherlands and AfricaRice in Benin studied 26 varieties of rice developed and cultivated locally by farmers in five West African countries between 2006 and 2012. They were varieties of both African rice (Oryza glaberrima) and Asian rice (Oryza sativa).
- Previously, local rice varieties were thought to be unable to adapt — making them useful only in local conditions
- New research suggests that they are in fact hardy and adaptable
- The researchers suggest they should be disseminated and used alongside improved varieties
Their findings suggest that farmer rice varieties can grow without fertilisers, require no special maintenance and can develop ways of coping with stress. This makes them highly adaptable to a wide range of environments.
An additional benefit of the varieties, say the researchers, is that they produce higher and sometimes superior yields to imported varieties — around 660 kilograms per hectare from upland, lowland and irrigated rice farms.
"Farmer varieties adapt better to unfavorable conditions than improved varieties," says study author Béla Teeken, a researcher in the Technology and Agrarian Development group at Wageningen University.
"Because of the long trajectories of selection by farmers in dynamic conditions — [both] ecological and social (climate change, political isolation and war and other insurgencies) — these conditions have been 'inscribed' into these varieties and therefore they are better adapted to unfavorable conditions," he says.
Florent Okry, regional coordinator for West and Central Africa at Access Agriculture, and another author of the study, tells SciDev.Net that farmer rice varieties should now be considered for wider distribution across Africa, though not at the cost of improved varieties, which should remain available despite their need for expensive fertilisers and insecticides.
"We cannot close our eyes to the potential that is sleeping but we are not saying that breeding [improved varieties] be stopped," he says.
"Local varieties cannot be neglected under the pretext that they have a low potential. Our research proves their robustness and that they should be valued in the same way as improved varieties. Eighty per cent of food security is based on small producers and we must think about them because they do not have the means of production associated with improved varieties," adds Okry.
Using local varieties may empower poor farmers, says Teeken, which while not creating huge economic growth, could help the most vulnerable farmers, contributing to social stability and economic growth in the long term.
Okry calls on scientists, donors and policymakers to pay more attention to local varieties and to recognise their potential.
Teeken says: "These varieties should be incorporated together with improved varieties in dissemination projects to protect farmers' food security. In doing this we are [drawing] from a larger genetic base and we will do justice to what the "laboratories" of the farmers have produced over generations of innovation and selection."
Other key recommendations made by the researchers are to make greater efforts to conserve, evaluate and distribute farmer-selected rice planting materials in West Africa and to consult and involve the farmers themselves in dissemination.
The research was published in PLOS ONE earlier this month (March).
PLOS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034801 (2013)