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Red rice for self-reliance!

Red rice for sale in Thimpu market (Susie Emmett)
Red rice for sale in Thimpu market
Susie Emmett

Rice is so common in Asia that it is accepted as part of the landscape, except in Bhutan where it literally colours the landscape. Bhutan's rice is red and so highly favoured, even revered by the Bhutanese, that very little is available for export. The significance of Bhutan's red rice may go unmarked outside the country, but the rice performs well with little or no artificial fertiliser, and appears to be remarkably tolerant to pest attack.

In most rice producing countries, red rice has been considered an anathema, to be culled out in preference to pristine white grains. But, with its thin red bran remaining after light milling, Bhutanese red rice has the same high nutritional qualities as brown rice. Unlike brown rice, however, red rice can be cooked as quickly as white rice, in half the time as brown. These are important attributes where fuel is scarce and a nutritious staple is vital to consumers' health.

To safeguard the future, red rice varieties are among over 400 Bhutanese varieties that have been collected and conserved in gene banks. And, in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the Bhutan rice breeding programme has developed and released four new varieties that combine the culinary characteristics of the local rice varieties with the higher yield potential and disease resistance of modern varieties.

Crop of the past or the future?

While the crop and its imprint on the landscape have remained unchanged since ancient times, the past two years have seen a dramatic reduction in the labour required to grow and harvest it. A typical farmer, Rinzi, with two hectares of rice, admits that mechanisation has changed his life. Talking to correspondent Susie Emmett, he tenderly patted the engine casing of his new Kubota rice harvester, as he told her, "Two years ago the harvest took 140 man-days, with 20 labourers working for a full week. Now all the rice can be gathered in just two days." The harvester is complemented with a power tiller and a thresher. Before acquiring the new technology, Rinzi sent his brother for training by the importing company. The family can now complete their own crop operations quickly and timely, and then hire the equipment to other farmers for the equivalent of US$12 per hour.

The impact of mechanisation is already touching the next generation. "Before, say if a farmer had four children, he could afford for only one child to go to school and the rest would stay at home to help with the work," said Rinzi. "But, when in recent years, more of us wanted education for all of our children, this created a labour shortage. Mechanisation has solved this problem."

Bhutanese preference remains for tall rather than dwarf rice varieties because straw is an important feed for livestock during the winter. In their turn, the animals produce the manure that returns nutrients to the soil for the next crop of rice. Some farmers in the main area for red rice, the valley of Paro, have started using sulphate of ammonia as fertiliser but the geography of Bhutan, distance and difficulty of access from India's factories and ports encourages a large measure of self-sufficiency. But then, self-reliance has always been the Bhutanese way, like its distinctive red rice. As Rinzi takes a handful of red rice from the heavy wooden container that holds the family store and lets it run through his fingers, he speaks for many in Bhutan: "Red rice is our past, but it is also our future."

Written by: Susie Emmett

Date published: July 2004

 

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