The All India Coordinated Rice Improvement Project (AICRIP) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI): A Testimonial on Cooperation

SV Shastry RT

S.V.S. Shastry
Former Project Coordinator, AICRIP, Hyderabad, India and
Retired Director of Research,
International Institute of Tropical Agriculture

Having been associated with AICRIP and IRRI as project head and board member, respectively, I would like to make a few observations on the research achievements of both institutes. Efficiency has been the signature of IRRI, as set by the first director—the dynamic and inspiring Robert Chandler. For example, my proposal for germplasm exploration in West Africa was approved within half an hour of its presentation. The resident scientific team in Los Baños was spared from performing routine activities, so they could devote their full time to research. It is no wonder that IRRI articulated the plant type as the breeding objective for tropical rice and came up with the miracle rice, IR8, in the first five years of its active functioning.

When my turn to manage the AICRIP came in 1966, I accorded priority to program implementation over infrastructural development, memoranda of understanding among cooperators, and streamlining of the administration. The focus was on semidwarf cultivars, which covered the entire research area of the AICRIP center.

The bread and butter of crop improvement is genetic enhancement and crop husbandry, and the modus is one of matching genotypes with the biological and physical environments in which the crop is grown.

IRRI and AICRIP pursued different routes in meeting the challenge, guided by the competence and vision of scientists at these institutes. Scientists from IRRI assembled promising germplasm lines in the Philippines and sent them to national programs for the selection of suitable cultivars. AICRIP, with more than 100 research stations spread across the country and encompassing a wide range of growing environments, pursued a structured three-tier yield-testing program. The cooperators from different states participated on an “open membership” basis and without financial support. A named cultivar thus became a by-product of the testing program rather than the product of the scientists who developed it.

The first task of AICRIP was to critique Taichung Native 1 (TN-1), which was introduced by IRRI, and evangelically promoted by the late Dr. G.V. Chelam. This cultivar was both prolific (high yield potential) and controversial (because of susceptibility to bacterial leaf blight). However, this was the first semidwarf cultivar that was commercially grown on more than 1,000 hectares within three years of its introduction, recognized to have ushered in the Green Revolution of rice in India.

When IRRI named IR8, AICRIP was the sole cooperator that provided comparative yield data showing its superior performance over TN-1.

The AICRIP trial results provided the basis for “selecting” promising IRRI-bred lines and releasing them in India, rather than automatically releasing them as the cultivars named by IRRI. For example, AICRIP did not release IR5 named by IRRI but a sister line of IR5 with higher yield. It delayed the release of IR20 until Tamil Nadu vouchsafed its suitability and did not release IR22 because it had no particular merit in any region of India. Dr. Chandler corroborated AICRIP’s view on IR20 and IR22 during the review of the germplasm lines that led to the development of Sona.

Although plant-type-based breeding has doubled the yield potential of rice as it did in wheat, the acceptance rate of the new rice varieties was not as dramatic as that of dwarf wheats. IRRI responded to the situation by undertaking a MINIKIT program that distributed small quantities of seed, fertilizer, and pesticide to farmers. Considering the soaring costs of fertilizer and the need to demonstrate the superior performance of the modern varieties at all levels of fertilizer management, AICRIP distributed seeds, to cover an area of 50 m2, to thousands of farmers in a district. The new variety under demonstration was also matched with the best local cultivar that it expected to replace. The management practices concurrently demonstrated for best performance of semidwarfs included thin seedbed, thick main field, and delayed topdressing of nitrogen (N) fertilizer to fully exploit the native fertility, and efficiently use the topdressed N fertilizer.

IRRI led AICRIP in disease (blast, bacterial leaf blight, tungro virus) and insect resistance screening (stem borer, brown planthopper), which AICRIP adopted in toto. AICRIP led in breeding for resistance to gall midge, and accorded priority to bacterial blight over rice blast, and to gall midge and brown planthopper over stem borer and tungro.

The gall midge resistance breeding had a long history of success. Dr. T. Venkata Swamy made landmark progress in transferring the resistance from the variety Eswara corra to Warrangal lines (“improved” cultivars albeit with poor plant type), which humbled the IR8-type semidwarf with “no yield” under the insect pressures prevailing in Warrangal during late wet-season plantings. AICRIP’s debut into this came at a late stage when this insect resistance could not be transferred to semidwarf plant types. The AICRIP program not only succeeded in this but also combined the consumer-preferred long-slender grain and intensified selection to retain a high yield potential. Some of these lines of semidwarf varieties (for example, Phalguna) combined the yield potential of Jaya, disease resistance of Eswara corra, and consumer-preferred long-slender grain. It is no wonder the gall midge-endemic areas of Andhra Pradesh and Odisha have been transformed into gall midge-free areas. The insect lost its pest status—erasing the skepticism on insect resistance per se, its endurance over time, vast geographic territory (India, Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia), and across biotypic diversity.

It was in this context that IRRI recognized me as the international coordinator for gall midge research. Similarly, the joint coordinator for AICRIP, Dr. W.H. Freeman of the Rockefeller Foundation, served as IRRI liaison scientist in India.

AICRIP pioneered the Assam Rice Collection (ARC) in the transition zone of indica and japonica rice, which became a cornucopia for stress-resistance breeding. At one time, the only source of resistance to grassy stunt virus was a single accession of Oryza nivara supplied by AICRIP. The ARC numbers dominated the stress-resistance narratives of IRRI reports in the 1970s.

AICRIP also provided a program-based selection of trainees to IRRI, thereby contributing to elevate the impact of IRRI training programs from the pregraduate to postdoctoral level.

AICRIP celebrates its 50th anniversary in an active, vibrant “gain-and-give” cooperation, drawing the best from IRRI and adding value to it with a mature two-way relationship. The AICRIP team needs to be congratulated for maintaining such a relationship with IRRI for half a century.

A particular mention needs to be made of the exceptional personal qualities of Dr. Chandler. His single-minded devotion to the programs, absolute lack of parochialism, ability to inspire scientists at all levels, and attitude of celebrating the successes of cooperating national programs made all the difference. He was a true leader in letter and spirit. IRRI and the rice world have been extremely fortunate to have such a dynamic leader preside over the initial international efforts to successfully raise rice yields to a significant level.