IR8, the rice that saved Asia from famine, celebrated

20161129 ir8 50th jennings

LOS BAÑOS, Philippines – In Asia, rice is life. In the 1960s, this life came under heavy threat from famine and would have turned out drastically different—possibly, extinguished—if not for a feisty grain named IR8.

IR8 was the first high-yielding variety released by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), and is credited to have sparked the Green Revolution in rice in the 1960s-70s that saved Asia from mass starvation.

On 29 November 2016, farmers, scientists, research and funding partners, and members of the diplomatic community gathered at the IRRI headquarters to celebrate the 50th year of IR8’s world debut.

What makes IR8 special?

So wondered Peter Jennings, who led the team that bred IR8 in the early 1960s. In his keynote message, Jennings recalled that when the variety development program started, breeding for shortness (IR8 is a semi dwarf rice variety) was not being done, and nobody knew there was a source for the trait. “It was the information, the knowledge of a genetic control for shortness, that made IR8 special,” he said.

Rice plants are typically tall, and when it is heavy with grain, the top-heavy plant then droops to the ground, soaking the grains in mud and greatly harming yield. The ‘dwarf’ trait, or shortness, meant that the plant can hold its grain-heavy heads upright, and it meant a difference of several tons in harvests—nothing less than revolutionary, in a world beset with hunger.

“On a personal note,” Jennings said, “when people talk to me about IR8, my mind tends to go back earlier, to the very beginning of IRRI: it was unknown then, without a track record. But it had two important qualities: first, IRRI started with the audacious objective of improving rice yield and the wellbeing of farmers; second, it had a very small number of staff, but all very brilliant and excellent in what they did.”

“That team came up with IR8, which laid the foundation for what had become a world-class institution,” he continued. “In memory of those colleagues, my personal ‘thank you.’”

Jennings, now in his 80s, traveled all the way from North Carolina, USA, to join the celebrations at IRRI. He was gratified to again meet—after almost 50 years—Rudy Aquino, a Filipino technician and breeder in his own right and the only other surviving member of the team that developed IR8.

Agriculture for economic growth

Philippine Department of Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol

IR8 and the subsequent high-yielding rice varieties not only pulled Asia back from famine, but contributed immensely to the emergence of ‘tiger’ economies among rice-producing countries in the region.

Philippine Agriculture Secretary Manny Piñol echoed this in his address: “For inclusive economic growth, agriculture must be the foundation of this country.”

“Farmers and fisherfolk are the poorest in the Philippines. But if a farmer makes money, others will follow what that farmer does. That is how we intend to approach the problem,” Piñol added, describing a ‘cultural’ tendency among Filipinos to imitate successful enterprise that he called “banana cue syndrome.” Banana cue is a popular snack food of sugared fried banana, stalls of which would tend to sprout in clusters, according to his anecdote.

IRRI was founded in 1960 by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, with support from the Philippine government. When IR8 was being distributed nationwide after its release, seeds were initially multiplied at IRRI since the Philippine national rice research organization, PhilRice had yet to be created then. Indeed, the Philippines had been a constant partner of IRRI since then; it is now the fourth biggest donor to IRRI research.

The future of rice

20161129 ir8 50th ceremonial

IRRI reminisced a milestone of global significance today, but it also looks to the future as rife with challenges as well as opportunities for another milestone of such kind.

IRRI Director General Matthew Morell talked about the issues of the age—climate change, decreasing farm resources including labor, Assuring food and nutritional security to a growing global population, yield stagnation, and ensuring that rice production does not harm the environment—and the various ways IRRI is addressing these.

“Ultimately, the future of rice is about people,” he said, expounding on how IRRI will continue its training and education mandate, in addition to research, to build capacity among its national partners.

“IRRI does not do anything alone; we work with our sister organizations in the CGIAR, and we work heavily in partnership with both public and private sector entities,” Morell added. “We have strong support from nations, many of whose ambassadors are here today, and we are grateful for that support.”

The IR8 event was well-attended by the diplomatic community, with ambassadors and representatives from Australia, Brazil, China, Iran, Japan, the Netherlands, Russia, Singapore, Spain, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Timor Leste, Turkey, and Venezuela. The World Bank was also represented.

Former agriculture secretaries Domingo Panganiban and Leonardo Montemayor; Department of Agriculture Undersecretary for Policy, Planning, Research and Development, and Regulations Segfredo Serrano; and DA-PhilRice Director Sailila Abdula came with several DA staff to take part in the events.

Farmers from the provinces of Batangas, Laguna, Quezon, Rizal, and Oriental Mindoro also joined the activities in this Partners’ and Farmers’ Day, as did private sector partners and friends (Atlas Fertilizer, Ayala Foundation, Banco de Oro, and the Land Bank of the Philippines) and members of the media.

A ceremonial planting of IR8 seedlings was held in special plots at IRRI’s Zeigler Experiment Station, with IRRI and DA leadership taking part. Deputy Director General for Research Jackie Hughes demonstrated the use of the labor- and time-saving mechanical transplanter.

The events at IRRI headquarters are the culmination of the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of the release of IR8. The first was held at New Delhi, India, on November 21.