AGRITRENDS: The grass that feeds Filipinos

Back in the 1950s, Asia faced an impending food crisis as population continues to grow. Something must be done so two American charities, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, founded the IRRI. They reck oned promising developments in the science of plant breeding might just be the trick that would avert the looming disaster. A team of rice scientists patiently cross-breeding the 10,000 different varieties they had collected through the years.

After years of research, a high-yielding strain of rice was developed and tested. The results were amazing. From 88 kilograms of pure seeds sown, 71 tons were harvested. The following year, IRRI distributed they newly-discovered variety to Filipino farmers for free. The same thing happened. Impressed by the harvest, the news of “miracle rice” spread and IRRI officially released the variety on November 29, 1966 giving it a name IR8.

It also paved way to what experts called as an era of Green Revolution. In an article, Margaret Cunningham recalled that time: “The Green Revolution was a period when the productivity of global agriculture increased drastically as a result of new advances. During this time period, new chemical fertilizers and synthetic herbicides and pesticides were created. The chemical fertilizers made it possible to supply crops with extra nutrients and, therefore, increase yield. The newly developed synthetic herbicides and pesticides controlled weeds, deterred or kill insects, and prevented diseases, which also resulted in higher productivity.”

The IR8, which produces more grains of rice per plant when grown with certain fertilizers and lots of water, undoubtedly helped avert the impending rice crisis. But the world never learned its lesson. Population continues to grow and experts are again warning of a world crisis in food production.

Dr. Gurdev Khush, one of IRRI’s plant breeders who helped develop IR8, estimates that by 2020 the world population will have swollen to around 8 billion people – with 5 billion of them eating rice. Today, only around 3 billion people consume rice, so world rice production must increase by 60% in the next 20 years to meet the needs of the 2020 population.

But “unlike the Green Revolution 30 years ago, there is virtually no more tillable-land available to grow rice,” Cunningham reminded. “Future gains must be made solely by improving rice yields, and on top of that, there’s an imperative to use fewer harmful chemicals as fertilizers and for pest control.”

The IRRI knows that. Even with the success of IR8, it continues to search for a kind of rice that can thrive in harsh environments such as areas prone to flooding, drought, and salty soils. For another, the rice should be environment-friendly: using less water, no fertilizer and pesticides if possible and not a product of genetic engineering.

The IRRI has developed such kind of variety and it is called Green Super Rice (GSR). After almost two decades of testing and implementation around the world, the GSR is starting to have a dramatic effect on crop yields.

“We are at the fruit-bearing stage,” said Dr. Jauhar Ali, a senior scientist and regional project coordinator of the GSR program. “The harvest is good.”

One of those who tried planting GSR was Felicito Montano, a farmer from the municipality of Tanauan, Leyte who survived when Super Typhoon Yolanda hit the province. In an article published in Rice Today, an IRRI publication, he said: “I planted it for the first time after I was given 2 kilograms of certified seed after I completed a two-day training course on high-quality seed production at Visayas State University.”

Montano sowed those 2 kilograms of GSR seed and harvested 12 sacks from the first crop. Planting some of the harvested seed for his second crop, he was able to harvest 70 sacks, weighing from 45-50 kilos each. “That was double what I’d usually get from other varieties,” he was quoted as saying.

Indeed, GSR was much better than the traditional rice. “Although many farmers were hesitant to plant GSR at first, we received really good feedback from them after they gave it a try,” reported Evelyn Gergon, a crop protection specialist from the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), who initiated the program in the province.

“Many farmers told me how great GSR performed in their fields,” Gergon further said. “Some farmers reported that they were able to obtain as much as 11 tons per hectare – 2.75 times the average yield of 4 tons in Leyte! Some farmers asked us to try eating the cooked rice. We hadn’t even tasted GSR then and so we did. It tasted good!”

Montano cited another reason why he liked GSR better than the previous rice he was growing. “I like GSR because its grains are good and weigh considerably heavier than the previous rice grains I tried in the past,” he said. “The crop is tolerant of pests and diseases. Lately, we’ve also started shifting to organic fertilizers instead of chemical ones.”

The IRRI developed the GSR together with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences. A non-profit organization established in 1960s by Ford and Rockefeller Foundation, it now funded by national governments as well as philanthropic organizations like Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The GSR program started in 1998 “involving the painstaking crossbreeding of more than 250 different varieties and rice hybrids,” said a news report. Most varieties chosen were those having difficultly growing in such conditions as drought and low inputs, including no pesticide and less fertilizer. Also handpicked were those with rapid establishment rates to out-compete weeds, thus reducing the need for herbicides.

“The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation originally funded the program with an US$18 million, three-year grant,” the news report further said. “Because the strains have been produced by publicly funded organizations, they do not require payment of royalties, such as those demanded by Monsanto and other commercial companies.”

“Rice bred to perform well in the toughest conditions where the poorest farmers grow rice is a step away from reaching farmers,” said IRRI in a statement. “The GSR varieties are climate-smart and can help farmers protect the environment – and themselves,” it added.

What makes GSR differ from other known varieties or hybrids before? “Unlike present-day rice plants, the new variety produces seed heads on every shoot,” wrote Bob Holmes, in an article which appeared in New Scientist. “This means that the plants do not waste energy on unproductive shoots. The plants also pack more than two hundred rice grains into each seed head compared with an average of around a hundred a head in present-day rice. In addition, the new ‘architecture; makes the rice plants more compact, allowing farmers to plant them more densely.”

The GSR has been called “super rice” because it is predicted to increase rice yields by 25-50%. “Plant breeders have developed a variety of rice that has the potential to yield a staggering 25% more than today’s best,” wrote Holmes in his report. “This is the first time in nearly thirty years that researchers have raised the ceiling on yields of rice, the grain that feeds half the world’s population.”

This is good news for Asia, where population continues to grow. “We know that for the next 10 years, we need to produce 8 to 10 million more tons (of rice) each year,” Dr. Achim Dobermann, IRRI’s deputy director general for research, was quoted as saying by LiveScience. “That would essentially enable us to keep pace with the growing population.”

But it’s not only population growth that should be prime motivation to develop new rice varieties. “Population growth, increasing demand from changing diets, dwindling land and water resources for agriculture, higher energy costs, and the huge uncertainties regarding the effects of climate change present scientists and policy makers with additional challenges,” wrote Vishakha N. Desai, president of the Asia Society, in the foreword of the report, “Never an Empty Bowl: Sustaining Food Security in Asia.”

In its recent issue of Rice Today, IRRI said that GSR is “already in the hands of national agricultural agencies in key rice-growing countries for testing and development.”

In the Philippines, the PhilRice is rolling out a massive adaptability trials under the High Yielding Technology Adaptation (HYTA) program of the Department of Agriculture.

According to Thelma Padolina, one of the implementers of the Food Staples Sufficiency Program’s Accelerating the development and adoption of Next-Generation rice varieties for major ecosystems in the Philippines project, three GSR materials were formally approved as commercial varieties in saline-prone and upland areas.

“These new varieties will be brought to the target areas through the Participatory Variety Selection (PVS) trials for better adoption,” she said.

The GSR is what the world needs now – especially with the looming global warming. “Climate change poses a big challenge to smallholder farmers who already have limited land and financial resources,” IRRI said. “Unpredictable weather patterns make them even more vulnerable to crop losses. Giving farmers access to GSR varieties that can withstand multiple stresses from climate change can help mitigate its impact on their livelihood.”

In addition, the research done with GSR does not involve genetic engineering. “It involves taking hundreds of donor cultivars from dozens of different countries, identifying significant variations in responses to drought, global warming and other problems, and ‘backcross’ breeding – painstakingly crossing a hybrid with one of its parents or with a plant genetically like one of its parents, then screening the backcross bulk populations after one or two backcrosses under severe abiotic and biotic stress conditions to identify transgressive segregants that are doing better than both parents and the checks,” explained an article which appeared in www.konfrontasi.com.

In the New Scientist feature, Holmes believes IRRI’s new rice variety plays a big important in the race to keep food production abreast of population growth. Dr. Mark Rosegrant, an economist with the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute, was quoted as saying: “You still need to have yields grow at 2% per year over the next twenty years to keep rice consumption stable. There are not many ways you can get that except from this new rice.”