This week was a momentous one for rice, the staple crop that provides well over half of Asia’s daily food intake. Facing a future of population growth and climate change, which is feared to make both droughts and floods more frequent and severe, it seems like miracles will be needed to keep the billions of people in Asia fed and healthy. But the future is actually looking brighter. On Monday food firm Mars (owner of the world’s largest rice brand, Uncle Ben’s) announced by 2020 it will source 100% of its rice in line with the first-ever standard created by the Sustainable Rice Program (SRP). And from Tuesday through Thursday, Taiwanese agricultural officials met with members of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines to finalize the workplan for a collaborative rice development project.
Taiwan provided one of two parental lines of rice that IRRI used to create high-yielding IR8 (also known as “miracle rice”) in 1966, sparking the Green Revolution of the 1970’s and 80’s. And in the last few years, the 2nd Green Revolution has taken off, thanks to technology advances and international collaboration. New rice varieties are already high-yielding, drought- and flood-resistant, and more nutritious, and further improvements are underway. For example, researchers from China’s Hunan Hybrid Rice Research Center have repeatedly reached new records for rice yields: 700kg per mu (0.0667 hectares) in 2000, 800kg per mu in 2005, and 1,026.7 kg per mu in 2014.
Taiwan has continued to play a major role in rice development, and it recently upped the ante. It will donate $600,000 annually from 2016 to 2019 to the joint project with IRRI for the discovery of new rice genes and traits that can tolerate the negative effects of climate change.
In an interview with the Asia Foundation in August, Dr. Robert Zeigler, director general of IRRI, spoke of the need to “double or triple the output of our existing agricultural lands,” and said “I’m absolutely convinced it can happen.” The tools available now “are miraculous compared to the tools we had 20 and 30 years ago,” he underscored, adding “Our understanding of the genetics of the plant, of how organisms interact in the field, is vastly more sophisticated. We have the tools to begin to manipulate how that plant interacts with its environment.”
One notable tool is the 3,000 Rice Genomes Project. This collaborative international research program has already surpassed its nominal goal and sequenced 3,024 rice varieties from 89 countries. They are now publicly available for free online, and will be very helpful to researchers looking to improve rice yields in the face of climate change. And there is still much more to be drawn upon—IRRI’s International Rice Genebank contains more than 127,000 rice varieties and accessions from all over the world. This virtually untapped reservoir of genes and associated traits can be used to make rice cultivation higher-yielding and more sustainable, with a smaller environmental footprint.
We also have tools that can communicate to farmers, even of marginal literacy, how to manage their crop to produce the most for a given investment. All of these come together in such a way that increases in productivity will be much more environmentally benign. The negative impacts of agricultural innovation in the past – excessive fertilizer use, excessive pesticide use – will be distant memories. We will be much more intelligent about the way we manage our crops.
He dates the start of the 2nd Green Revolution to July 31, 2008, when a farmer in India decided to stick with IRRI’s newly-developed Swarna Sub1 rice strain, despite local skepticism. Nicknamed “scuba rice,” it is extremely flood-tolerant, and can survive weeks entirely underwater and still provide abundant harvests afterwards. There are now over 5 million farmers in Eastern India who are growing Swarna Sub1 and other flood-tolerant varieties, and millions more have access to the seeds.
In the future, IRRI researchers are aiming to transfer the efficient photosynthesis capacity of corn and sugar cane to rice, which has a comparatively inefficient system. In fact, work is already underway. “I’m certain that it’s possible to do – that we can create a rice plant that’s 50% more efficient in its use of sunlight, water, and nitrogen, so that we can produce the food that the planet needs on much less land,” said Zeigler, adding “That would be a third Green Revolution.”
“So I’m very optimistic that, even though climate change will present enormous challenges to society as a whole, if we continue down the path of research and development that we’re already following, the one thing we don’t have to worry about in the next 50 years is an inability to produce enough rice,” Zeigler stated.
And besides being qualitatively better, the rice of the future will also be grown, harvested, and sold in a more sustainable manner, thanks to the SRP’s standard. It is made up of 46 requirements in areas including productivity, food safety, worker health, labor rights, and biodiversity. A supplemental set of quantitative Performance Indicators will enable farmers and market supply chain actors to gauge the sustainability of a rice system, and to monitor and reward progress.
Coming up next will be Bangladesh’s debut of genetically-engineered Golden Rice, which unlike other strains of rice contains beta carotene. Long-running dependence on traditional rice leads to Vitamin A deficiency, most severely affecting pregnant women and small children– it is the leading cause of preventable blindness in children, and it results in the deaths of some 6.7 million children every year. However, consumption of only 150 grams of Golden Rice per day would supply half of the recommended daily intake of vitamin A for an adult. This target will be met easily, as Bangladeshis depend on rice for 70% of their daily calorie intakes. Following a successful trial of Golden Rice in its transgenic screen house, the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute will be taking the variety to confined field trials in November.
Fortunately, the financing and patents for Golden Rice favor the region’s poor farmers as opposed to big biotech firms. In April 2011, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sanctioned a grant of over $10 million to IRRI to fund, develop, and evaluate Golden Rice varieties for Bangladesh and the Philippines. Furthermore, IRRI and Gates Foundation officials have confirmed that since the inventors of Golden Rice and the subsequent technology developer Syngenta allowed a royalty-free access to the patents, when the new rice is released for commercial farming in Bangladesh it will cost the same as other rice varieties, and farmers will freely be able to share and replant the seeds.
However, not everyone is on board with genetically modifying organisms, even if it’s limited to plants. But most of the research and engineering being done now on rice is combining genes from several different strains. And even using genes from corn or sugar cane to boost photosynthesis and thus the efficiency of rice hardly makes it a “Frankenstein food” – it’s not as if pig genes would be added in. Food safety tests should be done regularly, but the world’s poor would certainly choose bountiful hybrid rice over precarious harvests of conventional rice. So these new miracle rice varieties should be scaled up rapidly.