DRR and IRRI: 50 years of collaborative rice research

Babu RT

V. Ravindra Babu
Project Director,
Directorate of Rice Research
Hyderabad, India

From being a net importer of rice and other food grains in the 1950s, India has transformed itself into a surplus producer and has been meeting its food production targets for the last three decades. 

India has the world’s largest area under rice, cultivated year-round in some parts of the country, with more than 44 million hectares of area spread across diverse ecosystems. It has the second-highest production in the world, with an annual production of more than 106 million tons. India has consistently been the highest rice exporter in the world market for the past three years. In 2014, India produced about 268 million tons of food grains, of which rice contributed about 107 million tons.

However, projections indicate that the current levels of production may not be sufficient to feed the ever-increasing population of our country. In order to meet the food demand for the future, India should produce about 120 million tons of rice by the year 2025—about 1.5 million tons of additional rice every year. This intensified production has to come from increased productivity rather than increased rice production area and considering declining soil, water, and other natural resources. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Directorate of Rice Research (DRR) can tackle these challenges, which are common to most rice-growing countries.

AICRIP and DRR: At the forefront of rice research in the country

Before the 1960s, most of the rice varieties cultivated in India were tall and leafy with a low harvest index of around 0.3, long duration, photosensitive, and susceptible to lodging when a higher level of fertilizer was applied. The average productivity was less than 1 ton per hectare. In order to address these lacunae, IRRI was established in 1960 to conduct integrated rice research with a global mandate. In 1966, scientists at IRRI developed IR8, a semidwarf variety having the gene Sd1 possessing sturdy stems, photo-insensitivity, fertilizer responsiveness, and high yield. The new variety became quickly popular with farmers and ushered in the Green Revolution in rice in Asia. This land-saving technological innovation enabled farmers to increase food production without extending cultivation to marginal lands.

The All India Coordinated Rice Improvement Project (AICRIP) was established in 1965 in Hyderabad as a coordinated program for rice research in India by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). In 1968, semidwarf high-yielding variety Jaya was developed in India because of the concerted efforts of scientists from India and IRRI. It was released in 1968 through AICRIP. In 1975, AICRIP was renamed the Directorate of Rice Research, wherein lead research targeting mainly the irrigated ecosystem was included in the mandate.

The varietal improvement component of AICRIP involved pooling of breeding material generated in more than 100 regional rice breeding stations and testing it under different groups designed for different rice ecosystems and agro-climatic zones. The greatest advantage of the system has been the free exchange of genetic material both nationally and internationally (through the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice or INGER at IRRI) and rapid identification of promising breeding lines.

The success of AICRIP over the past 49 years of intensive testing program is reflected in the release of 1,070 varieties and hybrids. Some of the varieties have resistance to/tolerance of major pests and diseases of rice and a few of these have multiple resistance to more than one pest or disease. These varieties have greatly accelerated the production and productivity of rice in the country.

The spread of high-yielding varieties (HYVs) doubled from a meager 37.9% in 1966-67 to nearly 79% by early 2000. Likewise, the demand for breeder seed increased from about 250 tons in the mid-‘90s to 550 tons in 2013. This reflects the efforts by the government to enhance the availability of pure seed of new varieties through the National Seed Project (NSP) to reach farmers in the shortest possible time.

Varieties such as Jaya, IR64, IR36, Swarna, Samba Mahsuri (BPT 5204), Cottondora Sannalu (MTU 1010), Vijetha (MTU 1001), Jyothi, Sarjo 52, NDR 359, PR 106, PR 111, PR 113, and Pantdhan 4 need a special mention since they have wider coverage across several states and are termed “mega-varieties.” Many of them are also the recipient parents for the introgression of biotic stress tolerance genes through molecular marker-aided selection (MAS).

Pusa 44, Kavya, Lalat, Krishna Hamsa, Triguna, Shanthi, Tella Hamsa, Ranjit, Pantdhan 12, HMT Sona, Pusa Basmati 1, Vasumati, Pusa Basmati 1121, Taroari Basmati, and a host of other varieties are also popular. The products developed using MAS have also been released in the country, which is a landmark achievement. These include Improved Pusa Basmati 1 and Improved Samba Mahsuri possessing bacterial leaf blight resistance. The former is a popular export-quality basmati variety while the latter is a fine-grain nonbasmati variety with excellent quality features.

IRRI’s role in furthering rice research varietal development in India

IRRI has immensely contributed to the development of Indian rice varieties and hybrids, with at least 156 progenitors from IRRI being used in Indian rice breeding programs. Interestingly, some of them, such as Dee-geo-woo gen, Latisail, Peta, IR8, IR20, IR36, IR64, etc., have been used multiple times in the development of several popular Indian rice varieties and hybrids. The Indian hybrid rice breeding program has progressed closely with the program at IRRI and a single WA-CMS line has been used for the development of many public and private sector rice hybrids.
INGER is a popular collaborative program wherein a lot of promising rice genotypes have been exchanged and objectively evaluated jointly by India and IRRI, and the promising entries identified through INGER have been used in Indian rice breeding programs to a significant extent. India and IRRI jointly provided stewardship for the International Program on Rice Biotechnology (IPRB) sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation in the 1990s. Through IPRB and the Asian Rice Biotechnology Network (ARBN), more than 50 rice researchers of India have been trained in biotechnology and molecular biology. ARBN, through its shuttle breeding network involving scientists from India and IRRI, has helped in the development of several promising prebreeding materials in India and elsewhere. In recent years, Indian scientists have been actively collaborating with scientists from IRRI to develop rice with better quality and nutrition; submergence-, flood-, drought-, and salinity-tolerant rice; rice resistant against multiple pests and diseases; and rice with tolerance of various other soil-related stresses by the introgression of genes from wild relatives and landraces.
These collaborative activities are also carried out under various initiatives such as the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia, Stress-Tolerant Rice for Africa and South Asia, and the Rice Knowledge Management portal, which is a one-stop shop for rice-related information developed by DRR. In short, the collaborative program between Indian partners, particularly DRR, and IRRI has been mutually beneficial, in which expertise and materials have been gainfully shared by each other.
DRR and IRRI are working together toward bringing a paradigm shift in rice research to meet the challenges of the future decades for ensuring food security. In particular, the partnership should include key areas such as
• Coordinated evaluation and use of rice germplasm
• Identification and use of novel gene sources for breeding multiple biotic stress-resistant rice varieties
• Gainful exploitation of rice genome sequence information through the development of novel and breeder-friendly molecular markers for developing varieties possessing multiple traits of agronomic importance
• Biofortification of rice to enhance its nutritional profile
• Improving rice grain quality
• Addressing climate change-related issues affecting rice production and breeding drought-, salinity-, and submergence-tolerant rice varieties
• Development and demonstration of labor-saving technologies
• Revolutionary research areas such as C4 rice, biological nitrogen fixation in the rice ecosystem, and the use of genomics tools for enhancing yield

These should be integrated with pragmatic improvement in rice production, technologies for resource conservation and protection of natural resources, and seamless technology diffusion among farmers through extension.
IRRI has been a key R&D partner of DRR for the last 50 years—and this has been mutually rewarding for both. I am sure that, through the continued collaboration between DRR and IRRI as equal partners, we will be able to meet future challenges to rice production and productivity.