Beyond Illusion to Reality with Traditional Rice
Posted on October 13th, 2021

by M. P. Dhanapala Former Director, Rice Research and Development, Department of Agriculture Courtesy The Island,

Tel. 0718412444

Some groups emerge time to time from different professions, with the enthusiasm of promoting traditional rice varieties free of toxic contaminants for consumption. Traditional varieties are highlighted as healthy and nutritious, but with little or no scientific evidence. In this connection, a resource person of traditional rice farming gave a seminar on the perspectives of organically produced traditional rice varieties under the theme Beyond Illusion to Reality” at the Jayawardenapura University.

According to him, each of us can have enough rice from traditional varieties to consume three meals a day from an extent of 1,260,000 acres (0.51m ha.) with an average productivity of 60 bushels per acre (3t/ha), assuming a daily rice requirement of 330 grams per head. I am very confused by this statement. It appears that something is wrong with the calculations, but it is difficult to verify as the milling outturn, cropping intensity and the population size assumed were not stated. This is utterly misleading; do your calculations once more and verify please.

Also, he quoted some per acre yield figures of traditional varieties; Dik wee (102 bu.), Masuran (98 bu.), Pachchaiperumal (84 bu.) and Pokkali (82 bu.) from undisclosed cultivated extents; the cultivation was practised without inorganic fertilizers. I presume he used organic manure regularly though not quantified, and probably agrochemical free weed control practices. The other pests were controlled by timely cultivation using traditional knowledge – initiation of crop establishment seven days after full moon (the first dark night).

Involvement of private companies in the rice trade – buying paddy cheap at Rs.60/kg and selling rice at Rs.350/kg – was identified as a stumbling block in popularizing traditional varieties and he appealed to the general public to purchase the production at Rs. 145/kg of rice, variety Suwandel in particular. No doubt, everybody would purchase traditional rice at that price. It occurred to me why this dedicated group of farmers cannot organize themselves to form a cooperative and develop a traditional rice market.

That the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) took away our traditional varieties is a complaint made periodically by these critics. It is true that IRRI collected in1970s the endangered rice cultivars in different countries for conservation for the future use and stored over one million rice accessions in cold rooms in their gene bank. This would not have happened without the approval of the respective governments. They implement many international collaborative programs in rice research and any researcher can have access to the material in their gene bank under the conditions laid down by the institute.

We received from IRRI our share of traditional varieties for conservation once the Plant Genetic Resources Center (PGRC) was established in 1990. These facts may be verified from IRRI before making undiplomatic statements. To my mind, no other country in the world cultivates our traditional varieties, legally or illegally, for commercial purposes; the unfounded allegations made in public seminars without evidence is unethical and unparliamentary. Furthermore, we do not have any intellectual property rights or breeder’s rights to protect our varieties.

According to the speaker, there were around 6,000 traditional rice varieties cultivated in the past. We have compiled the names of traditional varieties grown in Ceylon from the past literature, but were able to collect only 567 names listed by Molegoda (1924), probably inclusive of the names of 300 samples of traditional varieties displayed by Nugawela Disawe in Agri-Horticultural Exhibition (1902) in Kandy, and 42 names (El Wee) listed by de Zoysa (1944) (Sri Lankan Rice Varieties from the Past to Present, Dept. of Agriculture, 2021). It would be a thankful task if the list of names of the 6,000 different traditional varieties could be provided to the Department of Agriculture for compilation and updating of the list.

One should not confuse the terminology used in the rice market with variety names; Kora, Mal Kora, Samba (red, white), Nadu (red, white), Kekulu (red, white, rosa), Suduru Samba, Keeri Samba etc. are names used in the rice market. Among them, Suduru Samba” is the only name identifying a variety. Rice in other countries is identified by the name of the variety. For example: Koshi hikari (Japan), Dinarado (Philippines), Basmathi (Pakistan), Kao Dwak Malee/Jasmine Rice (Thailand) etc.

In almost all of the countries, rice is consumed as raw milled. We are among the handful of nations consuming par-boiled rice; probably the only country consuming red pericarped rice. According to the speaker, Keeri Samba is a traditional variety. I am always in favor of Bg 360 remaining as Bg 360 in the rice market. However, Keeri Samba is a name that appeared in the rice market, after introduction of Bg 360 in 1996.

Consumption of keeri samba (Bg 360) would end up with the future generation of children in the cancer hospital as there is indiscriminate use of toxic herbicides to control weeds, because of its dwarf plant stature,” is an unsubstantiated statement, made by the presenter of this seminar. The breeder of Bg 360 (so-called Keeri Samba) is not among us to defend his case but, as the team-leader who spearheaded the rice breeding program, I like to declare that this is the first variety we have developed with improved eating quality. The adverse comments on Bg 360 would not affect the popular demand for this variety, but as rice breeders we would appreciate if the price tag of Bg 360 is in par with other samba varieties, with a reasonable profit margin.

There are many critics condemning modern rice varieties on different grounds as sources of non-communicable diseases. Most of the critical statements on modern varieties are discussed in page 11- 17 of Govikam Sangarawa, June 2020 issue, Department of Agriculture. Also, I invite the attention of all the participants of the seminar Beyond Illusion to Reality” to the u-tube presentation of Dr. Pethiyagoda ( to understand the basics; precision and accuracy in scientific investigations, the definition of data/opinion/statements and valid interpretation of results, especially the cause and effect relationship in experimentation.

The misconceptions, distortion and misinterpretation of facts were highlighted and discussed in that seminar. The organizers of scientific seminars should have this knowledge to prevent misleading the general public, as such seminars can inculcate absolutely wrong concepts and facts regarding important and relevant topics of current interest, in the minds of the inquisitive listeners, thereby leading to lot of damage.

A couple of years ago, as a farmer, I had to attend a seminar given by another enthusiast of traditional rice varieties. The seminar was organized by the Divisional Agrarian Service Office, Weke, Kirindiwela. Probably these seminars cannot be mutually exclusive events. Some seeds of traditional rice varieties were distributed among farmers in the audience at the outset and the main speaker began the speech. The hall was full. He introduced himself a descendant of Yakkha”, probably to impress the audience of his cell lineage with Ravana.” He spoke of Siyane Korale, the great poet, Mahagama Sekera and his book Yasodhara”.

Most interestingly, the speaker was trying to describe the date that the world ended according to the Calendar of Mayans, the South American tribe. He said though the world did not end on that particular day, it was marked by yellow colored rains bringing fish from outer space. The audience appeared hypnotized. (As a 10-year old, I have listened to fiction of this nature in our Sunday Fair from a man who wanted to sell a precious oil that Ven. Thotagamuwe Rahula thero overdosed himself with. My father was convinced by that speech and bought a capsule of two drops of oil and squeezed it on my tongue. It had the taste of coconut oil. In fact, it was coconut oil.) What a loss of precious time”? I thought.

There were many other fairy tales by the resource person, that probably have skipped my mind. After about one hour or so, he said that traditional varieties of rice were capable of giving 60 bushels per acre (3.0 t/ha) whereas the so called improved varieties of Batalagoda could give only 80 bushels (4.0 t/ha)”, but without any scientific procedure of comparison and that he would disclose to the audience how to bridge this gap. I waited for another hour biting my tongue to learn the process of bridging the yield gap; but nothing was delivered. I left the hall after two and half hours, in the middle of the presentation with the long face of the chief organizer on me.

The historical aspects of genetic improvement of rice were compiled recently (Dhanapala et. al. 2021, Tropical Agriculturist, Sept, 2021) to rationally look at the pros and cons of rice breeding and its consequences. As breeders, we were concerned about rice production in all agro ecological regions in the country, not only in one isolated patch of land or region or ecology. We were getting a national average of less than 15 bushels per acre (0.75 t/ha.) prior to 1950s with traditional varieties (Rhind, 1949) and around 98 bushels per acre (4.8 t/ha) in 2020 with modern varieties. These were figures recorded in the Ceylon Government Blue Books during the British era and in the Census and Statistics Department of Sri lanka at present.

In the 1920s, British scientists initiated pure-line selection for the improvement of traditional varieties. They did not work in isolation, but had consistent dialogue with key members of the Ceylon Agricultural Society, to mention a few: Mudaliyar J. P. Obeyesekera, Sir Solomon Dias Bandaranaike, J. C. Ratwatte Disawa, Dr. Rajasingham, Mr. K. B. Baddewela etc. They were in the forefront leading the discussions. If the present day traditional rice enthusiasts were born earlier, they could have contributed to the traditional rice improvement immensely during that era. Then, rice varietal improvement would possibly have taken a different path. However, rice was imported during the British era too despite all these efforts.

Though the breeders treated rice as the major staple of the country, one should not ignore the other claims made with traditional varieties despite no scientific evidence being produced, clinically or otherwise. Much of the knowledge may have accumulated through trial and error basis over a period of time. In Vidusara” (2020/10/28), a list of traditional rice varieties was published, rich in nutritional and medicinal qualities (Fernando, 2020). Similar lists of varieties are displayed frequently in herbal medicinal shops. They include predominantly Pachchaiperumal, Suwandel, Kalu Heenati, Sudu Heenati, Goda Heenati, Kuruluthuda, some Ma Wee types etc. either identified as rich sources of nutrients; vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and proteins or having medicinal properties to contain blood sugar, blood pressure, cholesterol and/or improve the immunity system.

Among these varieties, Kuruluthuda was specifically highlighted to have aphrodisiac properties (Fernando, 2020). We need analytical procedures; biochemical, molecular biological or any other, to identify the active ingredient and/or to quantify these properties and establish the bio-chemical pathways conferring the said effects to claim patent rights. Who knows that ‘Viagra’ can be replaced with a meal of Kuruluthuda? However, Kuruluthuda as reported in literature is a white pericarped, photo-period sensitive, date fixed variety and can be grown only during the Maha season (Gunawardena and Wickramasekera, 1947 and Chandraratne, 1948), but Kuruluthuda as reported in Vidusara” is red pericarped, short duration and period fixed (Fernando, 2020). The authenticity of this variety needs verification. There are multiple accessions under the same name in the collection of traditional varieties at the PGRC and systematic evaluation and cataloguing of the germplasm is needed for future use. DNA fingerprinting may be helpful in identifying possible duplications.

Although the medical purpose of serving rice-soup (kanji/kenda) of traditional varieties is not clear, it was promoted on many occasions by the traditional rice lovers. Once a COVID 19 patient (first wave) claimed that he was cured by eating this rice-soup (Hela Suwaya Program, Siyatha TV, Ravana, 09/04/2020). There was a rice-soup program launched to feed school children recently, but discontinued probably due to the COVID 19 pandemic. The rice-soup program in the Cancer Hospital mentioned by the resource person of the seminar is being continued, may be as a therapeutic, preventive or immunity build-up measure and/or for developing resistance to infections. However, if the rice-soup improves the digestibility of rice, irrespective of its origin – traditional or modern – Bg 360 is the most easily digestible, the reason why its glycaemic index is high and people eat more.

Traditional rice varieties were known to have been introduced to Morawewa, Rajangana etc. by some groups recently, but the farmers did not continue cultivation due to some reason or another. If chemical inputs are not used and the yields are high, the traditional rice can be sold definitely cheap in the market and can compete with big-time millers of modern varieties by organizing the farmers to sell their product at the farmer cooperative shops. It needs the cooperation of all traditional rice lovers who believe that they can feed the nation with better quality, nutritive rice free of toxic contaminants; failing which the traditional rice technology is inappropriate. However, those who promote traditional rices should take the responsibility for food security in rice, which is so vital, as it remains as our staple food; i. e. availability in adequate quantities at affordable prices to feed all, not only a selfish high income group. Also the government must be compelled not to import cheap and low quality rices to feed the poor.

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