"The rice farmers I met in Bihar (India), for instance, are now growing a new variety of flood-tolerant rice—nicknamed 'scuba' rice—that can survive two weeks underwater. If shifts in the weather pattern bring more flooding to their region, they are already prepared for it." - Bill Gates (1 Sep 2015, GatesNotes.com)
Our greatest challenge: producing more food sustainably while leaving no farmer and consumer behind
As the global population continues to grow toward a predicted nine billion souls by 2050, it will be humanity’s greatest challenge to produce more food to feed the world 35 years hence without wrecking the planet. These challenges must be met in the face of food production systems that are rapidly changing, climate variability that is making the poor even more vulnerable, and urbanization that is drastically altering the agricultural landscape.
A science-based second Green Revolution (GR2.0) involving an integrated global effort will be required to ensure food for everyone. For any agricultural revolution to be successful, farmers must adopt the products of science.
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the first international agricultural research center founded in 1960, is engaged in research for a food-secure future together with other partner organizations in the CGIAR. IRRI also leads the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP), which aims to foster impact-oriented collaborative initiatives across the rice value chain.
Poverty is where rice is grown
Why is investing in rice research— now and in the future—so important? In major rice-eating areas of the world, an individual consumes up to 100 kilos or more of rice annually. The world today still has huge concentrations of poverty and most of these pockets are where rice is grown, largely in Asia. If we want to overcome problems of poverty and hunger, rice must be part of the solution.
Issues and activities for GR2.0
- Climate change. Weather hazards that are increasing with climate change, combined with rising sea levels, will put populations concentrated in coastal areas in ever-increasing danger. Research shows that 50% of rice production growth, which we enjoyed over the last quarter century, came from these delta countries. We will need rice varieties that will tolerate flooding and saline soils, particularly along coastal areas.
- Flood-tolerant rice. More than 10 million hectares of rice per year are lost to catastrophic flooding. Even in favorable areas, there are losses due to occasional floods. Flood-tolerant rice varieties would thus help greatly. Released in 2009, the Swarna-Sub1 variety has currently reached more than five million farmers, mostly in South Asia. These flood-tolerant varieties are also moving into Bangladesh, Nepal, the Philippines, and elsewhere.
- Rice for all seasons. Given the unpredictability of the weather, there is a need for rice varieties that are both flood- and drought-tolerant. Today, we have varieties with combined flood tolerance and drought tolerance among others—rice that can handle whatever the changing climate might throw at it.
- Greener rice. Additional new challenges for GRiSP partners include reducing the water and environmental footprint of rice production. We are promoting climate-smart farming by scaling up and out what involves the alternate wetting and drying (AWD) of rice fields instead of keeping fields continually flooded. This simple and safe technique can reduce water use in rice production by up to 30%, as well as greenhouse gas emissions.
- A convergence of revolutions. GRiSP partners can now understand genetics through ways that we could never have dreamed of before. IRRI’s International Rice Genebank has the world’s largest collection of rice genetic resources—more than 127,000 rice accessions and wild relatives. We can finally begin to exploit the genetic diversity of rice to cope with climate change and other challenges in the future.
- Field-specific crop management. GRiSP partners introduce these tools, which involve a significant reduction in pesticide use and efficient fertilizer management, to extension workers and farmers. Research has shown that most tropical rice crops under intensification require almost no insecticide use.
- Remote sensing technology and geographic information systems (GIS) for spatial analysis can be used to monitor and evaluate agricultural systems to determine where and when rice is grown and where crops are performing well or not. Eventually, this will become a routine across the globe.
- Human malnutrition. Two billion people worldwide suffer from what is known as “hidden hunger,” or micronutrient malnutrition. They lack vitamins and minerals—such as vitamin A, iron, and zinc—in their diets. IRRI is developing rice varieties that have higher levels of iron, zinc, and beta carotene (provitamin A) content to help people get more of these important micronutrients. These healthier rice varieties can complement current strategies to reduce micronutrient deficiencies.
The new green revolution: A bigger rice bowl
A seed of rice that could transform the developing world saved Asha Ram Pal’s farm in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh in the summer of 2008. Mr. Pal had planted rice on his small plot, not much bigger than a football field. Floods are an ever-present threat in the state, making it one of the poorest places in the world. And that year the monsoon was particularly heavy, remembers Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). Mr. Pal’s fields flooded for two weeks after he planted the rice seedlings; a few weeks later, they were inundated again. He thought his crop was lost. His neighbors advised him to do what they have always done when the floods come: prepare for hunger.
High science and smart policies will alleviate hunger and poverty
Science-based improvements in agricultural technology have been at the forefront of alleviating hunger and poverty. The first Green Revolution that started in the 1960s, GR1.0, converted India from being a basket case to a bread basket.
Over the next 10 to 20 years, during which GR2.0 will phase into GR3.0, we will seize opportunities for sustainable rice production in ways that will stagger our imagination. The world's poor are depending on us, scientists and policymakers alike, to work together to get the results of high science to those who can use them—rapidly and efficiently.