The world of IRRI’s rice R&D

Author // Gelia Castillo Categories // Gelia Castillo's Blog

“Tomorrow’s environment is global” said Richard Elliot Benedick in 1999. Rain, wind, flooding, landslides, sea level rise, GHG emissions, warmer temperatures, drought, tropical storms, and other such occurrences do not respect political boundaries; hence, climatic phenomena are global and so are the human consequences.

Fortunately, science has progressed to a degree that makes it possible for us to anticipate and prepare for the worst. Once in a while, dire predictions do not come to pass and such instances are very welcome indeed. Prayers of all religions in all their robustness implore the heavens to be kind and spare one’s territory. One wonders if the prayers sometimes wish the gusty winds and heavy downpour would go somewhere else, sparing one’s own place.

This is the environment in which IRRI now pursues its mandate: a world vastly changed from that in which the institute started. The pursuit plays out in the following realms that are interconnected or aim to be in some way:

  • Global, where bright ideas are hatched, contacts are made, and funding is found. Ideally, these gems would come from the rice fields, actual or virtual, with their science challenges, and with stakeholders elaborating what they need, e.g., desired traits in new varieties, different systems for doing things, new levels of performance, or even new partners that would make it possible, for instance, to reduce monga days. Global is more than geography.
  • Regional, with carved-out hubs for operations, for ease of sharing and transfer of ideas, systems, and seeds.
  • National, where agreements are negotiated and signed.
  • Local, where project sites are located.
  • Community, where a group of households occupy an identified geographic space and a sense of community manifests itself in different ways, stages, and degrees.
  • Household, where rice is consumed.

All of these realms or scenarios are expectedly touched in every research project but the final realm for impact is the household, where rice is consumed and makes a difference in people’s everyday lives.

The United Nations declared 2014 the International Year of Family Farms as the Food and Agriculture Organization reported that smallholder farmers produce half of the global food supply.

M.S. Swaminathan, former IRRI director general, once said:

“Smallholding is the foundation of food security in many countries and it is important in the socioeconomic and ecological landscape in all countries. We urgently need to upgrade and finance national research and extension systems targeted specifically to the needs of smallholders. Smallholder farmers need the right seeds and the right machines for their field operations, food processing, and other value-adding transformations. International collaboration and the sharing of experiences in technology development for smallholder farmers should be promoted with a strong engagement, if not leadership, of smallholder organizations. … Yield is the most common metric of productivity, particularly in areas where land is scarce. Many areas have a ‘yield gap,’or the difference between actual yield and the highest potential yield.”

Global is a mindset, a dreamed-about peaceful internationality that is now quickly transforming itself into a reality where global meets smallholder farmers, hurling a big challenge to IRRI’s mantra “Rice science for a better world”—a better world indeed if rice supply is secure in smallholder households that could be net rice purchasers and in hunger-prone communities that are non-rice producers but are big rice-eaters.

The Philippines, where IRRI is located, was featured in an interesting article titled Nourishing a nation, were it is described as a “country which cannot do without rice” but it, in fact, does, with much of its rice supply coming from beyond its shores and hunger being still very much a part of life.

In an article titled Modernizing Asian rice production, a proposal for modernization looked at consolidation, i.e., that “increasing farm size will have to be the cornerstone of any transformation.” Some ways of doing this are already in progress.

China, for example, is experimenting with something called “village farming.” Vietnam is exploring the concept of having a group of farmers manage large tracts of land together in a “small farmers, large farm” program. Mechanized farm operations are increasingly outsourced so that large tracts of land can be run by contractors. These contractors could be trained farm labor, male or female; they get jobs in the process of consolidation. This is important to keep in mind in order to avoid a situation where one is asked: “Who are the poor?” The reply is “the poor are those people who, when they wake up in the morning, do not know where they are going to work.”

Partnerships, partnerships, partnerships… The Global Rice Science Partnership includes more than 900 partners, and one wonders how much interpersonal relationships characterize these; how much trust, respect, and mutual benefit has developed or remain aspired for, or perhaps do not come in full blast but in slivers of hope.

Partnerships may form between IRRI and research institutions in developed countries, even where rice is not grown; between IRRI and national RD&E institutions in Asia, Africa, and Latin America; between IRRI and the private sector, with careful crafting of the rules of use of germplasm; or between IRRI and civil society. But it is truism that no partnership will produce results if trust, respect, and mutual benefit are not part of the deal either somewhere suggested in writing or embodied in relationships. Trust takes time to build and “long time” is not usually the nature of R&D project funding. But such partnerships exist, evidence of which is the fact that significant results have resulted from these.

Fortunately, climate-smart rice varieties had been produced and are being widely adopted, after years of work in laboratories, on experiments and field trials, across partnerships guided by thinking heads and hearty hearts.

Rice tolerant of drought, flooding, or salinity, or of two or all three of these environmental stresses, are now available for unfavorable rice environments after a long wait, long after the Green Revolution.

As a promise, IRRI is also developing rice that can thrive despite pests, extreme heat or cold, and problematic soils. These varieties are on their way to farmer’s fields. Meanwhile, irrigated rice appears to be taking a pause while we anticipate C4 rice to come through with higher yield levels. C4 rice is a new kind of rice, the “crop of the future,” equipped with a more powerful “engine” for transforming carbon dioxide and solar energy into grains.

In the meantime, science has started exploring “heirloom rice” to give it continued life even if it is to satisfy a growing market for food of years past, and to enable traditional rice farming villages to continue enjoying what their ancestors painstakingly produced.

Along with this development came community seed banks where communities produce and keep seeds of their choosing—old or new—for sharing, using, or selling. Improved methods of seed production, processing, and storage have enhanced the value of the seeds of these communities and have given women a special role in the process.

More recently, participatory varietal selection—researcher-managed and farmer-managed—have emerged as village-level ways of determining whether a variety or varieties ought to be multiplied and disseminated at the community and farm levels. This process shortens the testing period and hastens the waiting time for deciding whether or not something is worth adopting, and the “proof of the pudding” comes by way of locally available seeds. Best of all, the process is participatory at the field level; farmers themselves are involved.

Even more recent is the “arrival” of market and rice value-chain actors—consumers, retailers, supermarkets, exporters, wholesaler/distributors, processors, paddy traders, and farmers—who could transform the objectives and targeted attributes of rice breeding projects. What preferences and whose preferences matter most when farmers are not the only actors? Studies have found that there is a small market for seeds because majority of farmers save seeds.

People in the science infrastructure

As of early 2015, IRRI staff, recruited locally or globally, are composed of 42 nationalities. Included in this are potential new recruits in rice science, such as Ph.D. scholars and postdoctoral fellows. Altogether, this is the infrastructure of rice science, working to contribute to the quantity and quality of the rice supply that feeds half of humanity. And if any attrition in scientific expertise occurs, hopefully it would not lead to a hiatus in the chain of achievements and that an active succession process would immediately ensue, banning funding problems.

Science journals are the ultimate arbiter of what is scientifically acceptable. Scientists must publish their findings. These journals have legitimizing power, although, once in a while, unworthy articles manage to make an appearance. These are effectively ‘condemned’ when discovered.

Gender not in “small doses”

It seems like “gender” is now encouraged or required for inclusion in every research project proposal. In this “inclusive inclusion,” two initiatives stand out:

Burundi, a small African country, has a most unusual gender project: ex-combatant women who settled into rice production after civil war ended. The women underwent training on rice production through AfricaRice.

The second is a truly bold and big one: The Women Farmers’ Entitlements Bill of 2011 as introduced in the Rajya Sabha on 11 May 2012 by M.S. Swaminathan. The bill’s coverage extends to the whole of India except the states of Jammu and Kashmir. Starting with certification of woman farmers, it goes on to tackle equal land rights for women farmers; water rights; legal access to credit and other agriculture inputs; and the establishment of a Central Agricultural Development Fund for Women Farmers.

The rationale of the bill:

“Whereas women constitute more than fifty percent of Indian farmers and about sixty percent of the workforce in the farming sector; and in view of the increasing feminization of agriculture as a result of out- migration of men, entitlements for women farmers are essential for the future growth and health of agriculture, as well as protection of food security in an era of climate change.

And whereas it is necessary to recognize and protect the gender specific needs and rights of the women by empowering and entitling them with enforceable rights over agricultural land, water resources, credit and other related rights.”

ASEAN beyond 2015

The vision in 2013 on moving ASEAN beyond 2015 would fundamentally be a rededication of the vision of the ASEAN leaders in 1997. A resilient ASEAN, as revealed in leaders and ministerial statements and regional initiatives during the past decade or so, is focused on food security, energy security or resilience, and disaster resilience.

As of 2014, ASEAN did not yet have a set of indicators that can help the region measure the degree of improvement of the region’s resilience, with respect to food and energy shocks and natural disasters. The Economic Research Institute for ASEAN and East Asia (ERIA) proposed that “ASEAN develop the set indicators and monitor these regularly, like every two years.” It proposed further that “ASEAN agree on percentage degree of improvement of the indicator values over the period up to 2030.”

The proposal is as follows:

“Adopt or adapt the Rice Bowl Index for ASEAN as the measure of food systems robustness and food security in each ASEAN Member State (AMS). The Rice Bowl Index, developed by Syngenta and covering farm level, demand, trade, and environmental factors, has been operationalized and results are available for a number of AMSs. The index or an “ASEANized” version can be used for all AMSs.”

It is interesting that ASEAN, with member countries that are significant rice exporters and importers, do not seem to have rice high in their agenda. In the meantime, Sam Mohanty (head of IRRI’s Social Sciences Division), says, “Weather and politics rule the rice market.”

Is there really a slowdown in rice consumption especially in Asia but not in Africa?

A CNN commentator said in August 2013, “We have nationalities that divide us, religions that divide us, languages that divide us.”

But we have rice that should unite us.

Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS)

CCAFS, a CGIAR research program, envisions a Climate-Smart Village (CSV) with the following key interventions: Weather Smart, Water Smart, Carbon Smart, Nutrient and Pest Smart, Energy Smart, and Knowledge Smart. The CSV is a vision of perfection in climate response. This village may or may not yet be a functional community with some degree of harmony and cooperative relationships of sharing, and has a great deal to learn before it becomes a climate-smart community. First, it has to emerge as a community and not just as a group of households occupying a defined local geographic space.

Climate-smart interventions require some collective action— such as community management of water, farmer-to-farmer learning, farmer networks on adaptation of technologies, ecological engineering, seed and fodder banks—for these to work.

Countries differ culturally in their willingness and capacity to function in collective action. Experience has shown that farm neighbors interact and share more information than residential neighbors. Religions, ethnicity, caste, and social status differences tend to become barriers in forging collective action, which will be called for in becoming climate-smart. But being collectively exposed to the same climatic calamities that hit a locality could trigger collaborative behavior—a positive response.

Climate change measures are an engagement, not a pronouncement. Studies have shown that most adaptation measures to climatic stimuli are decided upon at the household level. In addition, it was found that affected people preferred adaptation options at the household level rather than at the community level when adaptation at the community level is needed.

INGER (International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice)

INGER, established in 1975, has the goal of accelerating the identification of superior breeding lines and varieties and of promoting their exchange, evaluation, and use through a global network of multilocational trials. It has proven to be a powerful platform for international cooperation toward improving the genetics of rice.

By its 40th year, INGER has introduced 1,119 entries as directly released varieties in 74 countries, creating an impact not covered by major projects. As of 2013, 533 breeding lines have been released as 940 varieties in 78 countries across five continents.

For breeding, more than 20,000 crosses were made in 51 countries using lines from 68 countries as parents. Breeding lines extracted from these crosses resulted in 1,129 varieties released in 21 countries. Twenty-three NARES provided parental sources for these new releases.

INGER is a shining example of how seemingly romantic notions of interdependence, exchange, and sharing work in real life. In this network, no country is too poor to give or too rich to receive. It is in giving that one receives. This is a philosophy that promotes a very unique culture of reciprocity at the global level, enhanced by the tools of science. Seeds of all kinds contribute to biodiversity, and biodiversity underlies cultural diversity. INGER is really about culture, which involves creating new norms on sharing nature’s gift to humanity despite national sovereignty over genetic resources.

The ultimate dream

Avery in his The Evolution of Cooperation (Eruditio) expounds: “Today, the size of the social unit is again being enlarged to include the entire world. Narrow loyalties have become inappropriate and there is an urgent need for a new ethic—a global ethic. Loyalty to one’s nation needs to be supplemented by a higher loyalty to humanity as a whole.”

If science is to serve its human purpose, the global and the household must meet. Bill & Melinda Gates, M.S. Swaminathan, Sir Faisal Abed of BRAC (Building Resources Across Communities), and Fr. Bienvenido Nebres, S.J. (Invitation to a Journey of Caring),(14) through feeding the hungry, are key exemplars of men and women for others—best expressed in the Filipino phrase, “tao para sa kapwa."

Personally, what I am excited about at IRRI is the prospect for collective action among participating countries in which sharing, exchange of knowledge, technology, and dreams about a “better world” are building up. While I can see and feel that something like this is happening, we should vigorously help it along so the collective action can come about more widely and much sooner. There is much in the world that has gone wrong, let’s help multiply the things that go right. Science must serve its human purpose.

I believe that in rice, science best serves its human purpose.


About the Author

Gelia Castillo

Gelia Castillo

In 1999, Gelia T. Castillo was conferred the rank and title of National Scientist by the President of the Philippines and is professor emeritus at the University of the Philippines Los Baños. All her professional life, she has been guided by the precept that science must serve a human purpose. She expounds on this, and on her special interest in rice, in several papers and lectures, posts in this blog, and in a Pioneer Interview.

Gelia served in several national and international boards and committees in agriculture and health and continues to be involved in some of these. Among her publications are four books: All in a Grain of Rice; Beyond Manila; How Participatory is Participatory Development?; and Rice in our Life.

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