THIRUVANANTHAPURAM : The dispute between PepsiCo and farmer groups over growing a specific variety of potato has put the spotlight back on farmers who continue to grow the traditional varieties of the tuber in the state. The issue snowballed into a controversy when the US multinational giant sued four Gujarati peasants, demanding they pay a whopping `1.05 crore each as damages for ‘contravening its rights’ by growing the potato variety used in its ‘Lays’ brand of chips. This has yet again brought to the fore the issue of hybrid versus traditional variety of potato, be it Gujarat or Kerala.
In Kerala, around nine varieties of farm produce have made their way into the Geographical Indication(GI) registry as these are best known by their place of origin, reputation, unique characteristics and quality. Further, the Kerala Agricultural University(KAU) is engaged in efforts to get GI registration for six more traditional varieties.
Baby John, Vazakulam Pineapple Growers and Processors’ Private Ltd executive director and Pineapple Farmers’ Association former president, said Vazhakkulam pineapple is the main traditional variety cultivated by state’s pineapple growers on 40,000 ha of land, with an annual production of four lakh tonne and turnover of `800 crore. The farmer who cultivates the traditional pineapple variety will achieve the breakeven only if the produce fetches a farm price of `17-18.
“But the fact is farmers were forced to sell the produce at an average price of `10-12 last year, despite Vazhakkulam pineapple having a niche market. The main drawback of the agriculture produce is its poor shelf-life. We have to shift to hybrid varieties like MD2 at least to some degree to keep the business going as it has greater shelf-life and can be exported to other states in the country, apart from tapping into the export market. This doesn’t mean the traditional variety has to be given up altogether. While patronising the traditional variety, we ought to overlook its limitations. But then, farmers should be assured of better returns,” he said.
Further, it is the middlemen who make money. Though the state has tag like GI for many products which enhances their market value, the farmers get only a pittance. For instance, GI- tagged traditional variety pokkali rice fetches `33 per kg while the retailers charge around `80-90 for per kg for pokkali rice.
The farmers are looking for hybrid varieties like Vyttila-6 to get a proportional return in tune with the investment as the traditional pokkali variety has a low yield of around 1 tonne per acre.
Francis Kalathungal, Pokkali Samrakashana Samithi general convener, said even after having an assured market for the rice, pokkali farming in the state failed to make giant strides in the saline rice production system under which a single crop of pokkali rice is cultivated in the low saline phase of the production cycle that starts with the monsoon’s onset and ends by the time the monsoon withdraws from the state. It will then be followed up by prawn farming during the high saline phase.
According to the department statistics, there are around 4,055 ha of pokkali field available for farming in Ernakulam district alone. However, the area under cultivation in Ernakulam is less than 500 ha , which accounts for the largest area under ‘pokkali cultivation in the state. “Compared to the returns from fish farming in pokkali fields, the rice cultivation is not that lucrative. So the farmers are renouncing the traditional rice to pursue fish farming. Though it is important to retain the traditional varieties, it is more important to switch to hybrid varieties, if only the farming can be made sustainable in the longer run.
Acreage - 40,000 acre
Production 4 lakh tonne
Turnover - `800 crore
They are looking for MD2 variety for better prospects, despite GI tag
- The total area of Pokkali fields, mainly spread across Ernakulam, Alappuzha, Thrissur and Kannur, is 6,500-7,000 ha. But only a tenth of the total area is effectively used for cultivation
- Farmers looking to switch to hybrid varieties like Vyttila 6, as the market failed to provide returns on par with the retail price.