Bacterial blight is one of the oldest diseases of rice. It is a most serious rice disease in South and Southeast Asia, and has recently been reported in Africa. In susceptible rice varieties, bacterial blight can cause yield losses of 70% or higher. Over the years, some headway against this scourge has been made, but with an ever-evolving pathogen and changing climate, researchers continue to look for ways to improve defenses against bacterial blight. IRRI scientists are using a critical mix of resistant rice genes and mapping the bacterial blight genome to help defeat the disease.
The Mekong Delta in Vietnam comprises nine river mouths known as Cuu Long or “nine dragons,” enabling the country to produce around 20 million tons of rice every year. But now, the delta is threatened by climate change. Erratic rainfall and rising sea levels are conspiring to set off a chain reaction that could reduce the productivity of rice farms in the region. The Climate Change Affecting Land Use in the Mekong Delta: Adaptation of Rice Cropping Systems (CLUES) project aims to deliver newer varieties and smarter technologies to help farmers here cope with the changing climate.
A US$12 million investment in rice research made by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation over 16 years returned $70 million in benefits to rice farmers and national economies. The assessment of a selection of natural resource management technologies rolled out by IRRI as part of the Irrigated Rice Research Consortium increased the productivity of rice farmers, improved livelihoods and food security, and bolstered social cohesion. The projected benefits could reach 25 times the initial investment by 2016.
GRiSP on target
In 2013, the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP), the CGIAR Research Program on Rice led by IRRI, marked the halfway point of its first phase with significant achievements. For example, the GRiSP-initiated Global Rice Phenotyping Network (GRPN) is bringing together an international community of rice scientists to build a database where breeders can pick the genes for the crop trait they need. To breeders, a grain of rice is one of the world’s largest libraries—a repository of genetic information about the crop that provides food for several billion people. Enter the GRPN, which will contribute to massive gene discovery, with each network partner bringing in its own research expertise and facilities.
On other fronts, significant impacts coming from the adoption of GRiSP technologies are occurring. For example, farmers in Odisha State, India, who adopted the flood-tolerant Swarna-Sub1 variety, are obtaining an average yield benefit of 232 kg/ha (11%), with a maximum of 718 kg/ha (66%) when floods last up to 13 days. Swarna-Sub1 is especially advantageous to lower-caste farmers as they occupy more of the lower-lying flood-prone areas and their plots undergo flooding that last 21% longer (compared with farmers belonging to higher castes).
Science to the rescue
Cyclone Mahasen brought widespread flooding to Bangladesh in May. In response, IRRI, through the Stress-Tolerant Rice for Africa and South Asia project, donated 10,000 seed minikits (2.5 kilograms each) of high-yielding, flood-tolerant rice varieties developed by the Institute to farmers in flood-affected areas so that they will be able to sow during the succeeding cropping season.
In the Philippines, IRRI promptly provided the government with satellite-generated maps of rice areas affected by Typhoon Haiyan. Haiyan was the strongest storm ever recorded at landfall and caused catastrophic destruction in the Visayas region in November. The maps accurately showed the extent of damage—a vital information for preparing timely rehabilitation interventions.
IRRI opened its Eastern and Southern Africa regional office in Burundi to help boost rice production and improve food security in the region where most countries depend on rice imports to meet their growing domestic consumption. The Burundi government provided 10 hectares of land for IRRI’s operations, which will support the development and testing of new rice varieties suitable for the region.
Food security from outer space
About 20 million hectares of rice are vulnerable to climatic events such as flood and drought. Although crop insurance can cover farmers’ losses due to natural catastrophes, agricultural production is hard to insure because assessment of damages, among others, is difficult. An innovative rice information system is essential in making a crop insurance model that can help reduce the vulnerability of rice smallholder farmers in low-income Asian countries.
The Remote sensing-based Information and Insurance for Crops in Emerging economies (RIICE) project is using space-age technology to provide timely and accurate information on rice growth areas and expected yields to help governments, agricultural intermediaries, and relief organizations improve the management of domestic rice production and distribution during normal growing cycles as well as in the aftermath of natural catastrophes.
IRRI and its partners released 44 new and improved rice varieties for Asia and Africa. Varieties suitable for areas prone to flooding and soil salinity were deployed in Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Myanmar, the Philippines, and Vietnam. In collaboration with the Africa Rice Center, IRRI also released new rice varieties for Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Tanzania. These were developed to thrive under drought conditions and in soils with high levels of iron. The 2013 batch brings the total number of IRRI-developed rice varieties to just under a thousand.
Bangladesh is one of the most water-abundant countries in the world but millions of farmers living in the country’s southwestern coastal zone are chained to perpetual poverty by the lack of sufficient irrigation. Improved crop and water management could keep the region’s productivity potential afloat and help the farmers cope with the enormous pressures of climate change.
Japanese and IRRI scientists have discovered a rice gene that in preliminary testing increased production by 13–36% in modern long-grain indica rice varieties. Indica is the world’s most widely grown type of rice. They found the gene, aptly called SPIKE, in an Indonesian tropical japonica rice variety. Japonica rice is mainly grown in East Asia and accounts for only about 10% of global rice production. This breakthrough means that breeders can now start incorporating the SPIKE gene into popular indica rice varieties, which will then display an improved plant architecture that promotes higher yield potential without altering the desirable grain quality or growth periods already present.