Rice has been cultivated for thousand years during which farmers have subsequently selected rice grains with special properties like taste, scent, and ease to cultivation. This selection resulted in the creation of over 40 000 varieties of rice, however, only a few dozen is cultivated, and a handful is widely consumed. As 3.5 billion people rely on rice for their standard diet, this lack of diversity exposes these people to a certain risk of food insecurity especially in the context of a changing climate. Rice agrobiodiversity can ensure the resilience of the food system as a rice variety tolerant to certain conditions can be available when the environment changes. Moreover, valuable properties of a variety can be identified and moved to another variety through transgenic methods and plant breeding. Maintaining agrobiodiversity is the insurance to always have an option to face future environmental changes.
At the local level, cultivators of a rare rice variety have accumulated knowledge and expertise to grow this variety and obtain the most benefit from it. Such practices bound to a rice variety and a geographic setting have an intangible cultural value. In addition, traditional varieties are often part of the ethnic culture as they are mentioned in traditional stories and are part of the ethnic group identity.
In the communes of Bon Phang and Muoi Noi in the province of Son La, a mountainous region in the north of Vietnam, farmers from the Thai ethnic minority, one of the 53 minorities in Vietnam, are cultivating two traditional sticky rice varieties. These varieties named “Tan Lanh” and “Tan Nhe” were traditionally cultivated by Thai ethnic minorities for generations, however, farmers have been recently more inclined to cultivate non-native rice varieties which have higher yield and therefore provide farmers with a potentially better income. The drawbacks of growing non-native varieties of rice were an increase dependence on external seed providers as well as an increase use of pesticides and fertilizers to compensate the variety inadaptation to local conditions. Farmers do not know which rice varieties they bought and take the risk of crop failure if the seed were not from a good rice variety. Sticky rice is the main aliment and is consumed at every meal in Thai households therefore a crop failure not only reduces farmers’ income but also directly threaten their lives and health.
The Centre for Sustainable Rural Development (SRD) and local partner from Son La’s Department of Plant Protection and Production helped Thai ethnic minority to rehabilitate Tan Lanh and Tan Nhe traditional sticky rice varieties showing farmers the benefits such varieties could provide them in comparison to non-native varieties. In addition to purely economic benefits, Tan Lanh and Tan Nhe sticky rice varieties are also part of Thai cultural heritage and rehabilitating them consolidate the identity of the ethnic minority.
Farmers field school were organized so farmers can learn again their ancestral cultivation practices and breeding methods to produce seeds with desirable characteristics like taste, grain size and scent. Thanks to this knowledge, farmers do not need to buy seeds from external providers anymore and can exchange seeds of traditional sticky rice among villages. The two traditional varieties are well adapted to the local environment and therefore do not require the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. They are more robust than non-native varieties and support community resilience to environmental changes, therefore ensuring the food security of the farmers’ community. Farmers have learnt how to produce their own organic inputs and do not have to spend money on artificial chemicals anymore. The rarity of these two varieties increase their value on the market and farmers are able to sell their rice at a price two times higher than the price of non-native varieties and thereby benefit from a higher income.
In addition to re-establishing these two traditional rice varieties and teaching Thai farmers how to produce organic inputs, the center for sustainable rural development have also trained farmers to raise poultry and manage a vermicompost.
Reestablishing Tan Lanh and Tan Nhe traditional sticky rice varieties contributes to the 2nd Sustainable Development Goal “end hunger” as farmers have a more stable source of food which can also be sold for a high price enhancing their overall livelihood. The two traditional sticky rice varieties allow farmers to be independent and save money as they do not need to buy inputs and rely on external providers. As rice varieties are adapted to local conditions, the rice yield is more stable and not impaired by environmental changes ensuring the food security of the ethnic community even in a changing climate.
Native rice species can play a crucial role in the adaptation of our food system to climate change. A lot is at stake in maintaining a reliable supply of nutritious rice to the 3.5 billion people eating it at every meal. Combining the traditional knowledge and rice varieties of the various ethnic groups around the world as well as the technical and scientific knowledge harnessed by international experts will be a great way to find solutions and develop varieties and agricultural systems adapted to climate change.
Climate change is already here and we will need all knowledges and ideas from around the globe to protect our lives against it, especially the lives of the most vulnerables who cannot buy their food at the supermarket either because of the price or because there is no supermarket around.