How will innovations in the global rice sector change the world again? (Vanchinathan)

While I am typing this essay from my rice field, where I nurture Swarna-Sub1, a submergence-tolerant rice variety, I am taking a 50-year trip down memory lane. The transformation witnessed in rice cultivation during the past five decades is astounding.

I was studying in our village primary school in the mid-1960s. It is still vivid in my memory. The village children, as a matter of daily routine, used to stand in the serpentine queue holding metal plates and waiting for their turn for a scoop of the southern Indian dish upma (Suji in Hindi) made from wheat imported from the U.S. under the PL 480 AID Programme. India was going through a grave food crisis before the country benefitted from the Green Revolution. We had plenty of farmland, yet we were leading a ship-to-mouth life. The food crisis was so chronic that the then Prime Minister, Lal Bahadhur Shastri, appealed to the people to voluntarily give up one meal so that the food saved could feed other starving stomachs. I still remember, my parents used to skip their meal on Mondays in response to Sastri’s appeal.

Thank God this appalling condition was averted because of the Green Revolution. In northern India, a shipment of Mexican Dwarf Wheat varieties from Dr. Norman Borlaug arrived due to the persistent efforts of Dr. M.S. Swaminathan and the Agriculture Minister C. Subramaniyan. India witnessed a record yield in wheat. Around the same time, the Green Revolution in rice took place, which is more significant in the Indian context, because rice, which is a staple food for more than half the population, is grown throughout the length and breadth of India in various terrains and climatic zones. IR8, developed by rice breeders Dr. Peter Jennings and Dr. Hank Beachell, redefined the way we were cultivating and yielding rice. Until then, my father, a traditional rice farmer, was getting a yield that seldom crossed 1.5 tonnes/hectare. The traditional varieties grown by our farmers were tall, took a longer time to mature, had lower yield and weak stalks, and would lodge. In spite of our best efforts, these varieties couldn’t produce enough grains to feed our growing population. At this crucial juncture, the “Miracle Rice IR8,” came as a boon. My father was one of the first set of farmers who took up the cultivation of IR8. In 1967-68, farmers from faraway places used to visit our farm to have a glimpse of Miracle Rice IR8, which matured in 130 days, had shorter stalks and more panicles than leaves, never lodged, and, above all, had an unimaginable yield. Our village sported a festive look at the time of harvest of IR8. My father used to say that many people who witnessed the harvest couldn’t believe their eyes as they saw a tenfold increase in yield compared to the traditional varieties. IR8 was too good to be true. My uncle was awarded with a shield by the minister of agriculture for achieving the highest yield. IR8 created history by transforming the lives of millions of farmers, majority of whom were small and marginal. IR8 was so popular that a farmer from Thiruvannamalai named his son as IRYETTU (Tamil name of IR8) as the child was born on the harvest day, the day in which he was granted with the double boon of a child and a bountiful harvest. Ever since then, IRRI is the inseparable partner of rice farmers.

After 50 years from the introduction of IR8, we are confronted with a problem of a different kind. Though we have addressed hunger to a significant extent, hidden hunger and malnutrition loom large and it is a matter of grave concern. According to WHO’s estimate, malnutrition causes a third of infant mortality, however, it is rarely listed as the direct cause. Besides, the world population keeps growing at an alarming rate. The present global population is 7.5 billion, and the net annual increase in the global population is 1.1%. At this rate, in 2030, the world population would be 8.4 billion and 9.6 billion by 2050. On the other hand, arable land area is shrinking at a fast rate, water resources are draining up, the adverse impact of climate change on agriculture has already started showing its ugly face. Apart from biotic stress factors like pest, disease, and weeds, which prevent us from achieving real yield potentials that high-yielding varieties are capable of, abiotic stress factors such as flood, drought, and salinity also inflict substantial damage to our rice crop. Though the challenges are enormous, fortunately, science has developed to such an extent that all these problems can be mitigated through the interventions of innovative technology. For instance, millions of children lose their eyesight due to Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) and, in chronic cases, many of their precious lives. VAD is the leading cause of childhood blindness and inability of the immune system to combat disease. The Vitamin A-enriched Golden Rice could save millions of underprivileged children once it becomes commercially available. Therefore, Golden Rice can be an additional intervention in addressing VAD. In 2015, in Tamil Nadu, we had incessant rain during the northeast monsoon, which submerged our rice crop for several days. I was one of the few fortunate farmers who cultivated the submergence-tolerant Swarna-Sub1. In spite of total submergence for more than seven days, it never affected the yield. Thanks to IRRI for developing this innovative technology and enabling us to fearlessly grow paddy even in flood-prone areas. This year, we are witnessing altogether a different scenario. Monsoon has completely failed and we are facing severe drought. I am sure IRRI will innovate drought-tolerant varieties as well. Similarly, coastal-area farmers affected by tsunamis are looking for salinity-tolerant rice. Besides those, we need to have rice varieties with better nutrition uptake efficiency, rice which releases minimal CH4, iron-rich rice, low glycaemic index rice for diabetics like me, and the list is endless.

Our needs are many and complex in nature, however, we know the capability of IRRI scientists. We have to produce more with less resources in the future. We farmers are quite optimistic that these challenges could be successfully overcome with the innovative spirit of IRRI scientists. IR8 created history during the Green Revolution. Now we are in the process of totally driving away not only hunger but also malnutrition from the face of the Earth. We farmers, with the support of IRRI and its innovative rice cultivation and breeding techniques CAN make the second Green Revolution as successful as the first.

Note: The views and opinions on this essay are those of the author's and do not reflect those of the institute and its partners.

Ravichandran Vanchinathan

Ravichandran Vanchinathan is a third-generation farmer from India. He grows rice, pulses, and cotton. He is a strong believer of technology. He believes that with the intervention of right technologies and innovative practices, rice productivity can be enhanced substantially. Ravichandran is also a proud member of the Global Farmer Network in Iowa and a recipient of the Kleckner Award, World Food Prize 2013. He is a member of the prestigious Transformation Leaders Network of World Economic Forum and he engages with WEF when it comes to agriculture.