May 16, 2017 7:00 am JST

'Australian' wheat turning farmers' heads in India

Scientists testing 'mystery' seeds to determine their origin and variety

CHANDRAKANT PARGIR and MANISH SONI, Contributing writers

Parmeshwar Rajwade has become famous among farmers in his part of Chhattisgarh for the high yields he has gotten from new seeds. (Photo by 101Reporters.com)

KOREA, India -- Parmeshwar Rajwade struggled for years to make a living on his small farm in Kanchanpur, a village in the Korea district of India's poor eastern state of Chhattisgarh. Then one day in 2013 a sales agent from a seed company handed him a 2kg packet of unnamed foreign wheat seeds that promised a 30% higher yield than local varieties.

Rajwade, who farms 2.4 hectares of land, sowed the wheat on a small plot of barely a fifth of a hectare. The results were startling: The seeds yielded 500kg of wheat when he harvested the crop four months later.

The following year, Rajwade sowed twice the area with the same wheat variety and reaped a yield of nearly 1 metric ton. His output was 2.5 times the average wheat yield in Chhattisgarh. Unsurprisingly, he increased the sown area to 1.2 hectares in 2015, producing 3 tons of wheat, and in December 2016 he sowed the seeds on his entire farm, harvesting more than 5 tons.

"The grain of the new wheat variety is bigger in size, and it weighs more than our traditional Indian varieties," Rajwade said.

To this day, the wheat has not been identified. But that did not stop Rajwade from offering seeds to other farmers -- a common practice in India when yields are good. By 2016, the unidentified foreign seeds were planted by most of the 50 or so farmers in Rajwade's village.

"An agriculture expert once visited me after spotting it growing in my field and he told me it was an Australian variety of wheat," said Rajwade, who is now celebrated in his village. Sales of larger quantities of the seed are now helping him to put his two children through school.

Rajwade said that two government-run agricultural research institutes, the Baikanthpur and Ambikapur agricultural research centers, had offered to test the seed, and appealed for more farmers to adopt it for better returns.

His nephew, Akhand Partap, farms the same foreign wheat on 0.4 hectares. He said that 300 of the 400 farmers in his village had also adopted it. "Due to its straw quantity, size of grain and softness while baking, it's become popular in the area," Partap said.

The best part, he said, is that growers do not need to go to market to buy it. Farmers are happy to pay Rajwade 25 rupees ($0.39) for a kilogram. The Indian variety of wheat is sold at 20 rupees a kilogram.

Thwarted

The high-yielding mystery wheat has appeared against a background of big swings in Indian what production, largely caused by variations in rainfall, and rapid changes in the level of import tariffs used to control or encourage imports.

In December, the government cut import duties from 25% to zero after wheat prices peaked at 23,000 rupees a ton in New Delhi, almost 20% higher than a year earlier. The cut in duty led to a surge in imports, principally from Australia and Ukraine, triggering protests by farmers and advocacy groups demanding a 40% import tariff.

Import duties were raised to 10% in March, following protests from farmers, who dislike competition from foreign growers. But the 2016 price surge reflected a serious shortfall in domestic production, which was significantly lower than government forecasts, according to analysts.

India is a major wheat producer, with about 30 million hectares of land planted with the grain. The northern states of Haryana, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh are regarded as best suited for wheat production, while Chhattisgarh has one of the lowest average yields. But yields obtained by Indian farmers are perennially low, averaging about half of U.S. levels.

Agriculture scientists say that wider adoption of the foreign variety being used in Chhattisgarh could ameliorate the shortage. First though, officials want to know the provenance of the mystery seeds. "The farmers told us it was Australian wheat, but the department does not have any mechanism to test the claim," said M.G Shyamkunwar, deputy director for agriculture in the Korea district administration.

Australia's semi-arid climate is vastly different from the Korea district, which is wetter and better suited for rice growing. Yet the seed variety Rajwade is using seems to thrive in Korea, which suggests that it may not be a pure Australian wheat, Shyamkunwar said.

O.P. Lathwal, an agriculture scientist from the Chaudhary Charan Singh Haryana Agricultural University, in Hisar, said that Australian wheat seeds were not available in India's northern wheat-growing areas. Nearly 95% of India's wheat farmers grow triticum aestivum, the common bread wheat variety.

Gurjeet Mann, a farmer from Haryana who has visited Australia and China to study agricultural practices, said it would be premature to try to explain the reasons for the high levels of output achieved with the foreign wheat until a scientific study has been carried out. "There are many farmers who produce new varieties of wheat by cross-breeding existing strains. It could be the case with the Chhattisgarh farmers," said Mann.

With low international prices and a shortage of wheat in the domestic market, India imported more than 5 million tons of wheat in the year to March 2017, the highest level in a decade, suggesting that experiments with higher yielding grains could hold the answer to India's long-standing problem of low farm productivity.

Rajwade said he is proud to have contributed the high-yielding seeds to Indian farming. "It has been a happy moment for me that I could break the traditional crop cycle."

Additional reporting by contributing writer Sat Singh.

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