Another Rice Revolution in the Making

After 15 years of testing and implementation across the planet, “Green Super Rice,” developed jointly by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, is beginning to have a dramatic effect on crop yields.

The target is to have 20 million hectares under cultivation in another 10 years, according to Dr Jauhar Ali, a senior scientist and regional project coordinator at IRRI in Los Banos, south of Manila. It is in effect another green revolution with the potential to make an enormous contribution to feeding the world’s poor in Asia and Africa.

At some point next year, as much as 1 million hectares in Asia and Africa will be planted in the new strains, which have been produced by intricate crossbreeding and “back crossbreeding” to produce multiple strains that are more resistant to salinity from rising seas, more impervious to drought and disease and can achieve above-average yields without the use of fertilizers or pesticides, making them environmentally safe, according to Ali in a telephone interview.

The multiple strains are also specifically bred for taste and feel in the regions where they are consumed. Some strains, according to Dr Ali, are so hardy that they will grow under conditions that kill conventional rice crops outright. Some 25,000 hectares have been planted in Vietnam and another 5,700 hectares in the Philippines. Additional lines have been planted in India, Bangladesh, Indonesia and other countries, achieving yields far above conventional strains and impelling farmers to ask for more.

Those 5,700 hectares being planted in the Philippines are expected to produce 90,000 tonnes of rice.

“At that point, they realized they have gold on their hands,” Ali said. “We are at the fruit-bearing stage. The harvest is good.”

Ali cited the case of a test plot in the Bohol region of the Philippines in which the farmer planted a strain in salt water conditions only to be followed by rains that under normal circumstances would have drowned the seedlings. In turn the area dried out at the flowering stage and received no more water.

“The results were amazing,” Ali said. “Normally he would have received no crop at all. But the plot produced 3.3 tonnes per hectare.”

The ability to grow rice without pesticides or fertilizers, besides saving farmers money, is enormously important for the environment. Asia is becoming the dominant source of nitrogen pollution, producing as much as the rest of the world’s nations combined, particularly in the Yangtze and Pearl River deltas. Pesticide pollution is equally bad.

Green Super Rice is the result of a project begun in 1998, involving the painstaking crossbreeding of more than 250 different potential varieties and rice hybrids. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation originally funded the program with an US$18 million, three year grant. 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.

At the outset, Gates met with Li Zhi-kang, who holds a dual position both with IRRI as Senior Molecular Geneticist and Chief Scientist with the Institute of Crop Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing and is considered the father of the process. The two institutions are expected to seek additional funds from the Gates foundation in mid-2015 to speed up implementation across the planet. Phase 1 of the program included testing in 16 countries in Africa, Asia and South Asia. Phase 2, now nearing completion, involves another 16.

Research to come up with Green Super Rice – which does not involve genetic modification, making its strains acceptable to anti-GMO activists – began in 1998 with the launch of an international rice molecular breeding program originally involving more than 18 countries and 36 institutions although funding constraints eventually reduced the program to just IRRI and the Chinese Academy.

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.

The process itself is significant because the method of producing new strains can be used to increase yields of other crops such as wheat, millet and barley, making them hardier and more resistant to disease and insects, although it involves vast amounts of money and the resources of agricultural organizations across the globe. The rice research program is being coordinated through the efforts of an umbrella organization called the Global Rice Science Partnership, under the acronym GRiSP, which seeks to enable the world to coordinate its approach to rice science so that agencies can pool their resources, apply their expertise and collaborate in the delivery of the improved strains to poor rice farmers across the world.

The original Green Revolution began more than 50 years ago when IRRI, established by the Philippine government and the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, introduced IR8, the first "miracle rice," as it was called then, to the world, at a time when India especially was on the brink of mass starvation.

IR8, a semi-dwarf variety, yielded about 5 metric tons per hectare without fertilizer and as much as 10 tons under optimal conditions – about 10 times the yield of traditional rice. IR8 was subject to kernel breakage and other problems. But eventually, its successors revolutionized world food production, driving down the price of rice by more than 50 percent and turning India, Thailand and other countries into some of the world’s most successful producers and exporters. Unfortunately, too many of those successors require excessive amounts of fertilizers, contributing to growing environmental problems as the fertilizers flow out of the rice fields and into rivers and are carried to the sea, where they fertilize algae into huge algoblooms, depriving the area of oxygen and contributing to the extinction of fish life.