A Revolutionary Rice Goes Into Production

Fifteen years of painstaking international research into revolutionary new rice that is hardier and more productive, growing on less water and less fertilizer, are finally coming to fruition. What is known as Green Super Rice, produced by a consortium of scientists across the world, is going to farmers’ fields in Asia and Africa.

And, unlike proprietary strains produced by agribusiness giants, Green Super Rice is going to farmers without having to pay the licensing fees that have led to farmer suicides in India and resentment among the poor in other rice-growing areas. It is being rolled out in African countries including Rwanda, Uganda, Ethiopia and others and Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, according to Dr Jauhar Ali, the head of the program for the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. Two varieties, BSHS6-GSR hybrid and Weed-Tolerant Rice 1, have been officially released in Indonesia and Vietnam and the Philippines National Seed Board has signed off on another.

If there is a father of Green Super Rice, it is Li Zhikang, formerly a senior scientist at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. Dr Li is now the chief scientist with the Institute of Crop Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing. He remains a director of the Green Super Rice project.

Starting in 1998, Dr Li led a project that comprised 14 institutions in China involving 200 molecular breeders under the aegis of the China National Rice Molecular Breeding Network. The project involved 36 partners in 18 countries. Dr Li worked with genes from 500 donor varieties which were crossbred again and again into 46 elite adaptable recipient parents, which eventually gave the project a substantial set of materials to work on.

Rather than using gene modification, Green Super Rice has been developed through the painstaking process of grafting hundreds of varieties of rice from across the world, said Dr Jauhar Ali. More than 250 potential varieties and rice hybrids have been the subject of experiments by hundreds of researchers in dozens of countries, seeking to isolate the desirable traits from indigenous strains.

They are then backcross bred with other strains from different climates and locales to produce hardier varieties that do not need large amounts of pesticides or fertilizers and are resistant to a long list of diseases such as blast, bacterial blight, sheath blight, viruses and false smut, and insects including brown and green leaf hoppers.

This is not a one-size-fits-all program. It is not a single strain, Dr Ali said. Rather, individual strains have been bred to suit farmer preferences in specific countries. For instance, Dr Ali said, one area of Vietnam has perennially suffered from flooding at the end of the harvest season. The program developed a strain called 08FAN10 with traits from a northern province that matures 10 days earlier than the native variety. In two seasons of plantings of the new strain, in two seasons the area has produced 890 tons of rice. Now it is being planted across 25,000 hectares in the region.

“That is a success story,” Dr Ali said. “In Vietnam they are eager, desperate for us to give them more.” The program is giving over 200 hectares for seed production alone.

In the poverty-stricken, violence-ridden Philippine island of Mindanao, Dr Ali said, where many scientists are concerned about physical safety, “this group of scientists took the challenge, teaching in that area.” Raised yields, he said, allowed farmers to gain additional income. “When he gets income, he can feed his children, he will allow his child to go to school.” The Mindanao project was started with 60 farmers in the region. It has spread rapidly.

To give some idea of the magnitude of the global project, test sites were set up 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, Guizou, Sichuan and Yunnan in China. It has cost more than US$50 million, with funding from Chinese interests, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and others.

Instead of producing the strains in such institutions as IRRI, the later stages of testing are given to farmers in individual countries to determine ease of growing and most importantly to see if the strains produced fit local tastes. As Dr Ali pointed out, no matter how drought or pest resistant it is, if it doesn’t taste right, farmers won‘t grow it and people won’t eat it.

IRRI, originally funded by the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and located in Los Banes, south of Manila, was the primary mover in the Green Revolution, which produced the famed IR8 dwarf rice, the original miracle rice that, in later permutations, was responsible for staving off famine across much of Asia. Dr Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Prize for the development of the strain. Today IRRI is a member of the global CGIAR consortium of global research centers which practice open access to their research.

However, while high yield was a goal of the original experimentation, the world has moved on, Dr Ali said. “Today, IR8 has no value now.” With low-lying countries across Asia and the Pacific facing a variety of problems from climate change, and areas of Africa facing the prospect of drought, increased yield wasn’t as important as other issues. Rice strains had to be produced that could stand difficult climactic conditions, and do it on less fertilizer and less water and less pesticides.

In China in 2011, for instance, a team led by Dr Yuan Longing announced the production of his own miracle rice, which produces 14 tonnes per hectare against most Chinese yields at only 6 metric tonnes or less. However, Dr Yuan’s miracle rice uses as much as 250 kg of nitrogen per hectare and vast amounts of water, compared with 120 used in India. China is by far the world’s biggest producer of chemical fertilizers, which are destroying the country’s soils and turning its rivers and lakes into nightmares of bright green algae.

One of the goals of Green Super Rice was to increase yields but at the same time eliminate, as much as possible, the use of nitrogen fertilizers because of that damage.

“This is rice that seems to do the improbable—increase yield while using fewer inputs, such as fertilizer and water,” Ali said. “The fact that these varieties are environmentally safe is why we are passionate about getting them into farmers’ fields.”