Breeding for tough times ahead

farmers in Laguna, Philippines
Earlier this year, farmers in the province of Laguna, in the Philippines, participated in a variety selection trial of GSR. Photo: Isagani Serrano, IRRI

Throughout history, humanity has always struggled with the specter of hunger caused by human-made or natural disruptions in the food supply. Back in the 1960s, the goal of the Green Revolution was clear: increase crop yield to ward off widespread food shortages and famine across poor rice-eating countries.

However, new challenges appeared in the decades since the successful introduction of high-yielding rice varieties. As climate change starts to have significant impacts on the conditions affecting agricultural lands in vulnerable rice-producing regions, food security is once again a priority for rice research. But, it is not just about yield any more. It is about tolerance of and resistance to new problems. Focused and cutting-edge agricultural research will be critical in meeting this formidable and daunting challenge.

One such technology, Green Super Rice (GSR), is now on its way to farmers’ fields.

From laboratories to rice fields

farmer Bernard Brosas
Bernard Brosas is a 51-year old farmer who tested GSR varieties and is now reaping the rewards.

GSR varieties are products of mixing hundreds of rice varieties that possess traits such as drought, flood, or salinity tolerance. These varieties were developed to maximize yield under a limited supply of nutrients and water.

“This is rice that seems to do the improbable—increase yield while using fewer inputs, such as fertilizer and water,” said IRRI’s Jauhar Ali, who has been working on developing Green Super Rice since 1998. “Green Super Rice is not just a moniker. The fact that GSR varieties are good for the environment is why we are passionate about getting these into farmers’ fields.”

Earlier this year, the Green Super Rice Project created a road map for GSR seeds to reach farmers across rice-producing countries during a meeting for the second phase of the project. At the event, Dr. Ali announced that two GSR varieties (BSHS6-GSR hybrid and Weed-Tolerant Rice 1) have been officially released in Indonesia and Vietnam, respectively, after national multilocation testing. “GSR has also already been nominated to the Philippines’ National Seed Board. It is very close to being released in the Philippines,” Dr. Ali said.

A long road

farmer Bernard Brosas and family
Farmer Bernard Brosas and his family are among those who will benefit once GSR seeds are released in the Philippines. (Photo: I. Serrano, IRRI)

In 1998 until 2003, under the International Rice Molecular Breeding Program at IRRI, Dr. Zhikang Li former IRRI senior scientist and still director of the GSR Project, led the initial research work pertaining to the GSR breeding strategy in 18 countries, involving 36 partners, introducing genes from 200 rice donors into their popular rice varieties.

“We screened early generations of backcross bulk populations for valuable traits such as drought, salinity, flooding, and phosphorus and zinc deficiency tolerance from a very large collection of different types of rice,” said Dr. Ali. “During that time, only China, out of 18 countries, followed through with the research.”

The project in China involved 14 institutions and about 200 molecular breeders under the China National Rice Molecular Breeding Network. From 2003 to 2008, when the project gained momentum, valuable genes from 500 donor varieties were introgressed into 46 elite adaptable recipient parents, which eventually gave the GSR project a substantial set of materials to work on.

Although many institutes worldwide are working on different key rice traits separately such as nitrogen use efficiency and tolerance of drought, salinity, and flooding, researchers at IRRI are working on combining many traits in one rice variety.

“This challenge feels like a dream, but breeding can change everything,” said Dr. Ali. “Breeders from 50 years ago did not have the new breeding tools we enjoy now. A good example is the case of farmers in Bangladesh. Some of them require rice varieties with flood tolerance during the early to middle stages of the plant, and then they require drought tolerance in the terminal crop growth stage. The needs are complex, and they must be addressed.”