IRRI developing smart rice varieties that withstand climate change effects

  • 4 November 2015, Wednesday

Source: InterAksyon
3 Nov 2015

LOS BAÑOS, Laguna - The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) says among the rice varieties being developed are those designed to withstand climate stress, thus contributing to improved productivity and the quest to reduce poverty as well.

Dr. Abdelbagi Ismail, principal scientist, plant physiologist and overall project leader for the Stress Tolerant Rice for Africa and South Asia (STRASA) project, said the basic problem is that rice is grown everywhere and in varying climatic and soil conditions, including those that have high-salt or high-iron concentration.

Ismail said the problems related to dry and wet seasons have become more severe because of climate change, which causes more intense typhoons to hit the tropics, makes the sea level rise and pushes salinity to seep further inland.

"We have to make sure that we have varieties that can adapt to the adversities. And that is why IRRI started developing varieties that can survive in drought-affected areas, salt-affected areas and flood-affected areas," Ismail added.

This thrust is consistent with the plan of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to boost food production as the economies of its member-countries are integrated.

Aside from IRRI, the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA) is also pushing a comprehensive food security program that would strengthen Asean's capacity to feed its population, which is comprised mainly of rice eaters.

The SEARCA food security program for Asean is spearheaded by Dr. Paul Teng of Singapore, with SEARCA director Dr. Gil C. Saguiguit Jr. guiding the research on various food items, including root crops, that can be consumed as staple aside from rice.

"We estimate more than 25 million hectares are lost to drought every year, and probably 20 million hectares lost to floods all over Asia. Probably more than 15 million lost because of high salt," Ismail noted. "The people living in these areas affected by severe stresses are very poor."

Ismail said that, because the Philippines is their host country and most of their activities are in the Philippines, all the materials that they developed in the project are tested in the Philippines, with a variety released for submergence tolerance called Submarino.

Drought resistance is very important for the Philippines and drought-tolerant seeds are now included in the seed system of the Department of Agriculture (DA).

"The good thing about these seeds is that they mature in a shorter period of time, allowing the farmers to grow another crop. So they can have two crops per year instead of one. And usually that potentially doubles the productivity," he claimed.

Developing varieties that combine traits like drought tolerance, flood tolerance and saline tolerance is what they are currently doing, Ismail said.

"In coastal areas here in the Philippines, you always have salinity. Sometimes it becomes dry, when the rains come late. Drought happens. Sometimes, when there is too much rain, flooding happens. So you need a variety that can tolerate all of these conditions. Now that we have the molecular-marker technology, we can actually put all these genes together. The new generation of rice varieties are expected to have multiple stress tolerance," he said.

Ismail explained the most important thing is that the rice varieties IRRI develops get to reach their designated target, the farmer.

"Most of these areas, because they are less favorable, are highly populated with the most poor people, because poor people are always pushed from the good places," he said.

Ismail described the condition in these areas as "very, very bad. Kids there don't go to school and receive no medical attention."

"We found out that these varieties are changing the lives of these people. I have seen people asking new questions they never asked before, like what else they can grow with rice so that they can earn more money.

"Kids start to go to school; you see investments in health, and other things. What is very clear is these varieties are making a big difference because one critical thing you always learn is that, if you do not have enough food, you will not worry about anything else. Health, education, all these become secondary.

"And for those people, food is what they produce, they cannot purchase food from outside. They have to produce sufficient rice, store it at home so they know they have food for the whole year, then they think of other opportunities," Ismail said.

He added that IRRI has also found out that the farmers are thinking of marketing their produce for the first time.

"Before, they just wanted food enough for them but now they are looking for varieties with a better market value," Ismail concluded.