Transformative technologies

Author // Dr. Achim Dobermann Categories // Achim Dobermann's blog

Every once in a while, a technology enters our life in a way that we could not quite have imagined. Often, it triggers a series of events that result in a truly transformative change. That also happens in agriculture and I am often reminded of that when I make field visits to places I have never visited before.

Dr. Achim Dobermann with farmers of Achiyapar in India

IRRI's head of research,Dr. Achim Dobermann (middle, back row) with farmers of Achiyapar, a village in Gorakhpur District of eastern Uttar Pradesh, India.

The Sahbhagi Dhan (IR74371-70-1-1), a drought-tolerant variety developed at IRRI, had already triggered change in this farming community.

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A few weeks ago, our colleagues and partners in India took me to Achiyapar, a village in Gorakhpur District of eastern Uttar Pradesh, India. Farmers there had just completed the harvest of their kharif rice crop, which is usually grown as rainfed lowland rice with only a little supplementary irrigation. This is an area with mostly poor, smallholder farming families that rely heavily on the success of their rice crop as their staple food. Yet, in many years, the crops are affected by flash floods or drought, or even both in the same growing season. Until recently, there was little “free” protection from those hazards.

But, this time it was different. Through partners in the STRASA project, the village had received enough seed to grow a recently released drought-tolerant variety—Sahbhagi Dhan (IR74371-70-1-1)—on about 100 hectares. You can find quite a bit of information about this new variety when you search for it on the Internet. But, I wanted to know how it performed in the real world and whether the farmers and their families liked it. The first thing I was told by the people of Achiyapar was that this was the first time anyone had come to their village to demonstrate something new. Imagine that—in 2012. What I heard next, however, went beyond my imagination because this single intervention, a new drought-tolerant variety, had already triggered all kinds of changes. Roughly speaking, the chain of events was this:

  • The farmers harvested a good yield even though they had a modest late drought. Sahbhagi Dhan yielded quite a bit more than the currently grown varieties (Sarju 52 and Sambha Mahsuri). One farmer reported that he harvested 5 tons/ha, something that had been very rare until now.
  • Because it matures earlier, Sahbhagi Dhan was harvested several weeks earlier than other varieties. That led to earlier access to food and it also meant that farmers were able to plant the next rabi wheat crop almost one month earlier than normal, which will give an extra yield boost to wheat. Early access to food also meant more money available to buy inputs for the rabi season.
  • Some have also been able to plant potatoes or vegetables now, as cash crops, and additional time will be available for summer vegetable cultivation.
  • Cost savings because of a lower irrigation requirement in rice (one irrigation costs about US$30) mean that the succeeding wheat crop may also require one less irrigation because of better use of residual moisture due to sowing wheat one month earlier.
  • The women reported that people started eating the new rice right after its harvest because its grain quality was good and to them it had a slightly “sweeter” taste.
  • All farmers have kept seed for their next crop, but they have also started giving seed to relatives and others. A barter system emerged: 1.25 kg of seed of their current variety is being traded for 1 kg of Sahbhagi Dhan. One farmer told me that he gave some of the new seed to his mother-in-law, to please (or bribe?) her. Some farmers spontaneously created a small cooperative to produce seed, which they wish to sell to others, also in other villages.
  • Additional gains arrived because of the better straw yield and quality of Sahbhagi Dhan. Buffaloes are important in the village, for milk to sell and thus at least some cash income. Farmers reported that the buffaloes liked to eat Sahbhagi Dhan straw more than other straw. They think it is because the straw is softer.
  • Some farmers also sell whole straw of Sahbhagi Dhan in bundles as roofing material, for Rs 4 per bundle. They can earn as much as Rs 4,000 per acre from that.

To be honest, this diverse range of impacts was probably not foreseeable by the breeders who bred this new variety. But, who were they and how long did it take to breed this new variety and finally bring it to this village? Here is the story as I could piece it together.

The whole process began in 1997, when Brigitte Courtois—a French upland rice breeder working at IRRI—made a cross between two Southeast Asian rice varieties, IR55419-04 and Way Rarem, with IR55419-04 being the donor for drought tolerance. She did the initial pedigree selection work at an upland rice site in Siniloan in the Philippines, not far from IRRI’s headquarters in Los Baños, selecting the new line IR74371-70-1-1. So, at first, this was to become a new “upland rice.” A few years later, Gary Atlin, a Canadian citizen and rice breeder at IRRI, started testing the new line under drought and he also sent it to partners in India. He felt that it could well meet the requirements for a new plant type called “aerobic rice”—a moderately drought-tolerant, input-responsive kind of upland rice that could work well in upper locations of more favorable rainfed environments. When Gary left IRRI, his program was continued by Arvind Kumar,an Indian citizen and drought breeder, who further expanded the testing of this new line through a network of sites in South Asia, working closely with many national partners there. They found that, like many other aerobic rice varieties, IR74371-70-1-1 performed well under lowland transplanted as well as lowland dry-seeded systems. Network breeding trials conducted at eight locations for three years (2005-07) showed a yield advantage of 20–30%, typically on the order of about 0.5 t/ha under moderate stress and 1.0 t/ha under severe drought conditions. In 2009, Sahbhagi Dhan was identified for release for cultivation in drought-affected areas of Jharkhand and Odisha, but it has since then started to spread to other areas in India and it has also been released in Bangladesh (as BRRI dhan56) and Nepal (as Sookha Dhan 3). Fittingly, the name “Sahbhagi Dhan” means rice developed through collaboration because it was the result of about 15 years of joint research, mainly involving IRRI, the Central Rainfed Upland Rice Research Station (CRURRS) in Hazaribag, India, and other partners.

This is a prime example of the success of a well-defined centralized breeding program with a clearly defined product profile, and it also shows the necessity of wide access to germplasm and international collaboration. The germplasm in this line is of Southeast Asian indica and tropical japonica origin, but it is having impact in India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. This example also illustrates how important it is to always have a well-filled pipeline of innovative breeding materials carrying new traits, and keeping things focused on the key interventions to make in a particular target environment. As we have seen in Achiyapar, such a single intervention can indeed change lives dramatically. These are true rural transformations and they can happen fast.

What bothers me is that it took 15 years to create Sahbhagi Dhan and bring it to Achiyapar. With more investments, it might have been possible to shorten this period by 2 or 3 years. With new molecular breeding techniques that nowadays allow us to introduce new features such as drought tolerance faster and more precisely into existing or new rice varieties, we should be able to save another 2 or 3 years. That is our new challenge: innovate in a focused manner, do it better, and do it faster than ever before. There is simply no justification for losing time if we want to make progress toward sustainable development. I’m sure that scientists can do their part to make that happen. What they need for that is solid long-term support so that they can focus 100% on their creative work in the field or lab instead of having to spend a lot of time on tedious administrative, managerial, fund-raising, and reporting tasks that seem to have become a dominating force in present-day research systems.


About the Author

Dr. Achim Dobermann

Dr. Achim Dobermann

Achim is a soil scientist and agronomist with 25 years experience working in Asia, North America and Europe. He is recognized internationally as an authority on science and technology for food security and sustainable management of the world's major cereal cropping systems. He has authored or co-authored over 250 scientific papers and two books on nutrients in rice and has received numerous awards from various academic, government and industry organizations. He is a Fellow of the American Society of Agronomy and a Fellow of the Soil Science Society of America.

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