Green Super Rice Ready for a New Phase

The first phase of a painstaking research project by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing and the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines has been completed to create a high-yielding rice that is environmentally beneficial, resistant to drought and bugs.

Called Green Super Rice, it is the result of 14 years of research begun in 1988, involving the crossbreeding of more than 250 different potential varieties and rice hybrids by hundreds of researchers in dozens of countries across the world, seeking to isolate the desirable traits from indigenous strains and then backcross breed them to produce hardier varieties that do not need large amounts of pesticides or fertilizers. It has been described as a rice revolution.

The current phase is to be concluded in June. The researchers are now sending proposals to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, established by the eponymous founder of the Microsoft computer software company, seeking US$15 million to carry on the second phase. Of that, said Dr Jauhar Ali, a scientist and regional project coordinator for IRRI for the South-Southeast Asian region, IRRI isx expected to receive US$5.8 million of the total. The bulk will go to the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.

“We are confident that we will be able to work in 50 locations across nine countries in Asia and Africa, working with the most dominantly adopted genotype,” Dr Ali said. “We have got a good jumpstart and we are already developing a number of lines from 16 donor parents. We have developed a very interesting program.”

The project is headed by Li Zhi-Kang, a senior molecular geneticist and chief scientist with the Institute of Crop Sciences in Beijing. Dr Li is considered the father of the process. The two research institutes have developed 48 inbred plants and another 24 hybrids to move into phase 2, Ali said, and are testing them in several countries in Asia and Africa, including in the Philippines.

He described the program as creating rice cultivars that produce higher and more stable yields with less water, fertilizers and pesticides, resistant to drought, salinity, alkalinity and iron toxicity, diseases such as blast, bacterial blight, sheath blight, viruses and false smut, and insects including brown and green leaf hoppers.

The test sites are in Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka in Asia and Liberia, Mali, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, Senegal, Tanzania and Uganda in Africa, and Guangxi, Guizhou, Suchuan andYunnan in China.

The importance of new, hardy and high-producing strains of rice cannot be overestimated. Rice is the dominant staple food for more than half of the world’s population. It is the primary food source of 17 countries in Asia and the Pacific as well as nine countries in North and South America and eight in Africa, supplying 20 percent of the world’s dietary energy supply according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In Asia alone, rice is grown on 142 million hectares of land, feeding more than 4 billion people.

As much as any crop on the planet, rice has been under threat from global warming, for a variety of reasons. Research scientists as the International Rice Research Institute say that yields from newer strains of the famed IR8, the so-called miracle rice that was developed by IRRI scientists in the 1960s, have dropped by 15 percent, primarily because average night-time temperatures have risen.

According to a study printed in Field Crops Research by a research team headed by Dr Shaobing Peng at IRRI, when it was first developed IR8 produced 9.5 to 10.5 metric tons of rice per hectare at a time when average global rice yields were only around 2 tons per hectare. However, according to Dr Peng's paper, IR8 yields have dropped to about 7 tons per hectare.

IR8’s successors have other problems that spurred Li Zhi-kang and his researchers to seek new strains. In return for its substantially higher yields, IR8 used far more fertilizers and pesticides than conventional strains. The extensive crossbreeding involved in Green Super Rice, which was developed by Zhi-Kang Li when he was a researcher at IRRI before moving back to Beijing, was partly developed as an effort to reduce the dependency of the new rice strains on fertilizers and pesticides.

In China that is a particular problem. Some strains of rice being grown in China requireas much as a staggering 250 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare, compared to about 120 kg used in India. For more than a decade, China has been the world’s biggest producer of fertilizers, which environmentalists say is destroying the country’s soils and turning its rivers and lakes into nightmares of bright green algae. China consumed 32.6 million metric tons of nitrogen fertilizer in 2007, a 191 percent increase over 1981, according to a Feb. 11, 2010 article in Nature News by Natasha Gilbert. Nitrogen contributes to soil acidity.

Nor are warmer nights and fertilizer overuse the only cause for concern. According to a study by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, if global climate change raises sea level as much as 1 meter over the next century as climate scientists have predicted, hundreds of thousands of square kilometers of coastal wetlands and other lowlands could be inundated.

Eight to ten million people live within 1 meter of high tide in each of the unprotected river deltas of Myanmar, Bangladesh, Egypt and Vietnam – some of the most important rice-growing areas in the world. In Vietnam, for instance, the most fertile agricultural lands, together with half of the population of the country, are in the low-lying Red and Mekong River Deltas. Accordingly, the new rice strains show high resistance to salinity.

Much of the effort is coming under an umbrella organization called the Global Rice Science Partnership, under the acronym GRiSP, launched in 2010 and seeking to coordinate a global 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.