Since the first sequencing of a rice genome in 2004, an additional 3,000 genomes have now been sequenced. In 2014, the sequence data derived from this project (3K RGP)—a collaboration of BGI (in Shenzhen, China), the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, and IRRI—were made publicly available to rice researchers across the globe on World Hunger Day (28 May).
3K RGP has unleashed the true power of rice genetic resources. Traditional rice varieties encompass a huge range of potentially valuable genes, which can be used to develop superior varieties for farmers to take part in the uphill battle of feeding an ever-increasing world population (estimated to reach 9.6 billion by 2050). The genes linked to valuable traits can help breeders enhance global food security by creating new rice varieties. These varieties will have improved yield potential, higher nutritional quality, better ability to grow in problem soils, and improved resistance to pests and diseases. They will also be more tolerant of stresses, such as flooding, salinity, and drought, which will be inevitable with future climate change.
However, the benefits of the sequence information coming out of 3K RGP will be realized only when each gene is mapped to a specific trait. Without this additional knowledge, it’s like having a phone directory full of numbers but no names attributed to them. GRiSP has initiated the Global Rice Phenotyping Network to bring together an international community of rice scientists in a joint effort to advance the measurement of the physical and biochemical traits of a rice plant and then link them to genes that breeders can use.
Not much has changed in plant breeding over the last 50 years. The methods used today in Asia are generally the same as the ones used in the 1960s and 70s. More disturbing, the rate of yield increase or genetic gain for irrigated varieties is less than 1% per year. With so many challenges brought on by climate change and a growing population, plant breeding needs a reboot. So, IRRI is restructuring its entire breeding operations. Transforming Rice Breeding, a project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is one important component of the Institute’s new breeding factory, which is focusing on irrigated rice. IRRI is aiming to double the rate of genetic gains—the increase in crop performance that is achieved through genetic improvement programs per unit time of breeding—or even make it higher.
For various reasons, many farmers who are among the poorest of the poor did not benefit fully from the first Green Revolution (GR1.0) in rice. But in the next revolutions in the series—GR2.0 already under way and GR3.0 to follow—no farmer will be left behind. On the frontlines of GR2.0, researchers are already incorporating stress tolerance into new rice varieties. Several million of the world's poorest farmers are adopting one of the first new technologies of GR2.0—flood-tolerant rice. It is envisioned that GR3.0 will kick off sometime around 2030, when farmers begin planting yield-plateau-busting C4 and nitrogen-fixing rice varieties and consumers start finding broad-based nutritious rice in the marketplace.
IRRI’s Long-Term Continuous Cropping Experiment (LTCCE) marked its milestone 150th rice cropping season, making it one of the longest running agricultural experiments in the world—and perhaps the most exciting. In 1962, the LTCCE (then called the Maximum Yield Experiment) was created to sustain high annual rice yield from a unit area of land using an optimum mix of rice varieties and cultural practices. With diminishing water and land resources, and the threat of climate change, the LTCCE now provides a benchmark for sustainable rice production against which the productivity, sustainability, and profitability of rice production systems can be assessed. The best ones could be the next set of gold standards for growing rice in a world that has become quite different from just a few decades ago.
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and its partners released at least twenty-eight new rice varieties to governments of eight countries in Asia and Africa in 2014. These newly-released varieties possess high-yielding and stress-tolerance traits that can help farmers overcome challenges, such as the negative effects of climate change, in their rice growing ecosystems. Some of the varieties released are flood-tolerant (India), drought-tolerant for rainfed rice areas (Nepal), and salinity-tolerant (the Gambia and the Philippines).
IRRI has released more than a thousand modern rice varieties in 78 countries since its founding in 1960.
When two daring women, Mary Hensley and Vicky Garcia, respectively, started Eighth Wonder, Inc. and RICE, Inc. with the objective of marketing indigenous heirloom rice from the Cordillera Region in the northern Philippines to the outside world, they were told they would fold after 3 years. However, 9 years later, the women are helping provide a sustainable livelihood to farmers in one of the most marginal rice ecosystems in the country. Now, they are joining forces with the new Heirloom Rice Project, funded by the Philippine Department of Agriculture and led by IRRI. The project is widening their initial marketing success and bringing heirloom rice production to the attention of the national government for developing industry policies and standards. Major goals of the project are to systematically characterize and conserve these unique traditional varieties of the Cordilleras.
Rice consumption in sub-Saharan Africa is increasing faster than any other staple in the region, being driven by rapid economic growth and urbanization. IRRI’s work is focused on unlocking the potential of the rice industry in East and Southern Africa (ESA) where production conditions can directly benefit from Asian technologies.
In 2014, the ESA breeding team developed populations for different ecosystems: 47 for irrigated areas, 20 for the rainfed lowlands, and 18 for high-elevation environments. Also in 2014, three new varieties were released in Uganda and, in Burundi, 90% of the 5,000-hectare irrigated scheme in the Imbo Plain were planted with IRRI varieties.
IRRI conducted rice production training for 2,250 farmers in Burundi (including 400 ex-combatant women) and 390 farmers in Mozambique. Eighteen Tanzanian women farmers and extension workers and 18 Kenyan technicians and researchers received training in seed production and dissemination. In 2014, to support varietal development, IRRI completed the construction of plant pathology, molecular biology, and grain quality laboratories at the regional hub headquarters in Burundi.
IRRI, in partnership with the Myanmar government and nongovernment organizations, launched the Livelihood and Food Security Trust Fund Project that introduced participatory varietal selection (PVS) to farmers in the in Labutta, Bogale, and Mawlamyinegyun townships. The project trains farmers in preference analysis and gives them the opportunity to see, touch, smell, and even taste new rice varieties grown at PVS trial plots. More importantly, they have the power to choose the ones they want, instead of relying on the few varieties introduced by seed companies and government agencies. The benefits of PVS trials have spread to neighboring villages along the coastal areas of the Ayeyarwaddy Delta in Myanmar. Food security and livelihood of farmers have been improved through higher-yielding and stress-tolerant rice varieties of their choice.
Many Southeast Asian farmers rely on drying their rice crop using the sun. It is cheap and environment-friendly but unfortunately laborious and unreliable. Sun drying can reduce the quality of the grains and increase postharvest losses by around 20% or even more. One alternative is a low-cost dryer, developed through IRRI’s partnership with a private company, is made primarily of sturdy polyethylene plastic material. It is called the solar bubble dryer—“solar" because of the ambient temperature that provides heat from the sun for the dryer, and "bubble" because of the dome-like shape of the polyethylene plastic roof when set up. This low-maintenance, environment-friendly, hassle-free, and portable dryer also uses materials that are locally available, making it economical to build, an important aspect that could encourage intended users— small farmers, in this case—to adopt the technology.
In eastern Uttar Pradesh, where rice production is predominantly rainfed, growing rice is so risky that farmers take a gamble every cropping season. When luck is on their side, during a year with ample rainfall, the farmers are blessed with enough food to sustain their families till the next cropping season. But, when drought strikes, the price of crop failure means losing all their investments— labor, seed, and inputs—and long, lean, hungry months ahead. Under the scorching sun and cloudless skies, farmer Prabhawati Devi builds her oasis using a rice variety that defies the drought that often parches her land. The variety, Sahbhagi dhan, developed by IRRI and the Central Soil Salinity Research Institute, and disseminated by the Stress-Tolerant Rice for Africa and South Asia (STRASA) project, is helping farmers cope with the harsh environment. It is also empowering women who are the backbone of India’s agricultural workforce and play a vital role in the day-to-day maintenance of their rice farms.
Climate-smart rice varieties, developed at IRRI and multiplied and distributed under the STRASA project, are now accessible to some 10 million farmers in South Asia and Africa and are already creating a major impact, improving the lives of about a million people. In addition to the new seeds of climate-smart rice, farmers in a flood-prone village in India are also learning about better seedbed management, proper use of fertilizer, and other technologies through illustrated brochures. The technologies are further improving the productivity of flood-prone and salt-affected rainfed lowland areas in South Asia, making rice production stable, and increasing the income of poor farmers.
Surviving Typhoon Haiyan, one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, is one thing. Picking up the pieces and starting over again is another. For Husband and wife Joven and Lydia Ganapin, farmers in a small village on the Philippine island of Leyte that felt the full brunt of the supertyphoon, the key to recovery was NSIC 2013-Rc344SR, a high-yielding newly released rice variety, fondly called "344" by the couple. IRRI introduced the seeds of 344 to the devastated area by IRRI through the project, Accelerating the Development and Adoption of Next-Generation Rice Varieties for the Major Ecosystems in the Philippines (Next-Gen). The Ganapins are living proof that rice science can help turn a major disaster into an opportunity.