The traditional cultivation of pokkali rice, an ancient variety of rice that helps combat climate change, is threatened by the focus on shrimp farming in Kerala. Farmers in the region usually spend half the year on pokkali and the other half on prawns, but the Kerala Fisheries Department issued an order in 2022 that farmers no longer need to spend part of the year on pokkali.
According to environmental experts, the increasing salinity in the soil from year-round prawn cultivation is degrading the land and making it more difficult for farmers to grow pokkali.
In contrast, when pokkali rice is grown, saltwater is pushed out and replaced with rainwater for irrigation. The stalks from the pokkali become food for prawns, resulting in two crops and maintaining natural barriers against rising sea levels. Furthermore, the cultivation of pokkali rice sequesters carbon in the soil.
Pokkali agriculture in the tidal water zones of Kerala, which involves producing salt- and flood-resistant rice and shrimp on the same farms using a centuries-old family farming system, serves as an example. While the state government has been trying to promote Pokkali as a climate adaptation strategy since 2013, it has not gained traction as expected.
Pokkali rice fights climate change
The rice with a Geographical Indication (GI) tag, previously widespread across central Kerala’s coastal regions, is now limited to Cherthala taluk in Alappuzha district, Ernakulam’s Kochi-Kanayannur-Paravur area, and Thrissur’s Kodungallur. Presently, it is cultivated on less than 5000 hectares annually in Kerala, compared to its cultivation spread over 25,000 hectares in the past.
Traditional farmers have spent half the year growing pokkali rice and the other six months growing prawns, but an order issued by the Kerala Fisheries Department in 2022 allows farmers to give up pokkali rice. Environmental experts warn that focusing solely on shrimp could upset the local ecosystem and cause soil degradation.
Pokkali rice requires rainwater for irrigation and is resistant to salt, making it suitable for wetlands. The grain is also rich in antioxidants and does not require groundwater for irrigation, unlike traditional white rice.
In recent years, pokkali rice cultivation has declined, from 25,000 hectares to just 1,000 hectares in the last two decades.
Despite efforts to develop new, high-yielding varieties of pokkali rice, skilled labour is in short supply and machines developed to harvest the grain have failed due to weak soils.
Pokkali rice can thrive in salt water
K. G. Padmakumar, director of the International Research and Training Center for Agriculture Below Sea Level (IRTCBSF), believes that climate change has created a demand for crops that can withstand salt water. Pokkali rice, if widely promoted, has the potential to meet this demand.
Padmakumar says rising sea levels around the world mean that rice varieties capable of growing in both salt and fresh water will be in high demand. He suggests that large-scale cultivation of Pokkali rice be encouraged.
M. P. Vijayan, secretary of the Palliyakkal Cooperative Bank, explains that Pokkali rice is normally grown between April and October. After October, farmers use the rice fields for shrimp and prawn farming. “It is a unique form of agricultural activity. There are seven months for rice cultivation and five months for aquaculture.
Decaying Pokkali stalks feed the prawns and shrimp shell waste nourishes the rice paddy. Since shrimp farming is more economically viable, farmers can make up for their farming losses through it,” says Vijayan. However, many farmers are now choosing to farm shrimp exclusively and abandoning Pokkali farming.
Vijayan reports that the Agency for Aquaculture Development, a NABARD project, offers an 80% subsidy for Pokkali farming, spurred by commitments to the Paris Agreement on climate change. Despite this, the commercialization of the product remains a great challenge.
Surviving climate vagaries
The UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) projected that between 2046 and 2065, the global average sea level could rise by between 0.17 and 0.32 meters compared to levels from 1986 to 2005, causing the loss of up to 33% of coastal land and wetlands habitats for the next century.
Kerala, with its 570 km of coastline on the Arabian Sea and other densely populated coastal regions, faces the immediate threat of storm surge. The state’s disaster management plan notes that high tides can reach more than 12 feet in height.
Coastal intertidal wetlands, which are highly productive ecosystems and support great biodiversity, are threatened by rising sea levels. In India, rice is grown on 45 million hectares of land, of which 2.5 million are on saline coastal soils in 11 states.
Although there were once around 100,000 landraces of rice in India, most have been replaced by a few modern hybrids since the Green Revolution of the 1960s. According to scientists, the survival of landraces such as Pokkali, which have the ability to genetically adapt to difficult conditions, is crucial for India’s food security.
Pokkali agriculture is a traditional and sustainable farming system that has been practiced for centuries in the tidal waters of Kerala.
Certain regions of Ernakulum, Alappuzha and Thrissur districts like Chellanam, Kadamakkudy, Kumbalangi, Varapuzha, Eloor, Puthuvype are situated at the mouth of the rivers and are close to the sea.
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