An estimated 15,000 folk landraces of rice are reported to have been cultivated in undivided Bengal in the 1940s. With the advent of the Green Revolution, a handful of high-yielding varieties (HYVs) replaced, and continue to replace, thousands of traditional farmer varieties (also called “landraces”). In the 1970s, the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute documented a total of 12,479 names, including synonyms. In West Bengal, the recorded number of landraces cultivated before the 1970s is 5,556 (Deb 2005, 2019a). Most of these old landraces of Bengal, from both sides of the international border, are now available in only a few gene banks, no longer cultivated in the region. The loss of the thousands of rice landraces from farm fields entails the erosion of a vast body of folk knowledge pertaining to the distinctive properties of different varieties, derangement of local food cultures, and food insecurity for poor and marginal farmers, who no longer have the stock of landraces fine-tuned to local soil and climatic conditions, nor are able to buy the costly inputs. Just as the traditional rice fabric of the Philippines has disappeared with the extinction of the special rice variety that yielded the fiber, many of the culinary delicacies and the cultural significance of many rituals have vanished with the disappearance of special rice varieties throughout Bengal. Moreover, the loss of traditional knowledge associated with folk rice varieties, together with the abolition of the tradition of seed exchange within communities, has disintegrated the communitarian ethos among Bengali farmers, who are now dependent on external agencies for the supply of seeds, machinery, and knowledge.
Rice Cultures of Bengal
Debal Deb is a biologist with a PhD in ecology. He completed his postdoc research at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and UC-Berkeley. He left his service career in 1996 to conserve vanishing folk crop landraces, and founded Vrihi, Asia’s largest folk rice seed bank for free distribution of seeds among farmers. He conducts freelance research with zero institutional funding.
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Debal Deb; Rice Cultures of Bengal. Gastronomica 1 August 2021; 21 (3): 91–101. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2021.21.3.91
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