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IRRI's New Miracles: Aerobic, Submarine Rice
Fernando del Mundo27-April-2008
Philippine Daily Inquirer

LOS BAÑOS, LAGUNA -- The miracle workers who sparked the Green Revolution of the 1960s in Asia are in the final stages of developing their next wonder -- rice varieties that can survive flooding, salinity and drought.

And the first to get a crack at the new rice hybrids will be the Philippines, says Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) headquartered in Los Baños, Laguna.

"The submergence-tolerant materials are just coming out. They haven't been released anywhere. They're just on the point of being ready for farmers now. Salinity, same way. And the Philippines will be the first to adopt this," says Zeigler.

"Drought is a tougher nut to crack, but again, we're doing work on that," he says.

The Philippine Rice Research Institute, or PhilRice, will receive the new breeds for propagation in the country. PhilRice is IRRI's local partner in the country, implementing the breakthroughs in research in the IRRI fields and laboratories.

"PhilRice takes the stuff up very quickly. It will get them up to the farmers," says Zeigler, whose agency produced the miracle rice seeds of the 1960s using the magic of genetic engineering, fertilizers and IRRIgation.

IRRI experts say rice prices have risen close to historical levels since 2005 because population growth has outpaced the dramatic yield growth produced by scientific breakthroughs.

" Since rice is the food of the world's poor, any increase in the price of rice has a serious impact on those poor," says Zeigler.

"There is no question that we need technologies that will improve the productivity of rice and certainly hybrid rice is at or near the top of the list of technologies," he says.

Pioneered by China, the world's top rice producer and consumer, hybrids are bred by crossing genetically different varieties to produce a rice plant that grows faster and produces yields of up to 20 percent higher.

The downside is that farmers need to buy new seeds to plant every year, which raises costs, because seeds saved from the previous hybrid crop have inconsistent yields. Traditional rice varieties by contrast are self-pollinating, so the seeds from each harvest can be used again in the next planting season.

With several dozen storms hitting the Philippines each year, the introduction of rice varieties that can withstand flooding and other adverse conditions could prove promising.

"Rice grows in standing water, but if it gets completely covered, like any other crop, it drowns and dies in three or four days," says Zeigler.

"We have developed, based on material in our gene bank, a line that would tolerate submergence for 17 days, completely under water. You drain it, looks like it's dead as a doornail, but it comes back. Other varieties don't," he says.

"Unfortunately, very poor yield, very poor grain quality, very long duration, and so we have to do a lot of basic research on the genetics and the physiology of it to identify where the gene was that conferred the tolerance to submergence and to flooding.

"Then using molecular tools, not GMO (genetically modified organism) but biotech tools, we move that gene into what we call background to the most popular variety that farmers would grow, that is, that are high yielding, that have good grain quality and grown in an acceptable period to the farmers, not too long a duration.
" We did that in record time," says Zeigler.

These new rice varieties are now in the final stages of evaluation in the Philippines, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Indonesia and India, and Zeigler says he expects that they will be released straight away.

One new rice variety, which Zeigler calls the "sub1" for submarine, is wedded to the IR 64, the world's most popular hybrid.

Another variety that can be grown in the mountainous areas of the Philippines is the so-called "aerobic rice." This can be planted in soils managed under a system requiring little water but can yield 4 to 6 metric tons per hectare. This variety is already being planted in China using only 50 percent of the water used in IRRIgated lowlands.

The aerobic rice could well be a savior in South Asia where it has been estimated that, by 2012, 12 million hectares of IRRIgated rice may suffer from severe water shortage, seriously affecting the region's food security and social stability.

Still another variety being tested for commercial development is one that can resist salinity in paddies close to the sea, under threat of tsunamis or rising sea levels like the coastal regions of Bangladesh.

IRRI has more than 100,000 rice seeds in its gene bank in Los Baños, allowing scientists to conduct experiments. Thanks to the bank, Cambodia was able to revive its traditional rice variety that was practically obliterated during the Khmer Rouge's genocidal regime that spawned massive starvation in the country in the 1970s.

"Our No. 1 challenge is to get the information to the farmers that there's a breakthrough," says Zeigler.

"This is not just in the Philippines. This is something we see over and over again. We still haven't been able to get the communication from the research and translate it as effectively as we should get it to the farmers. We get over that hump and we get another one or two tons per hectare," he says.

"It's just a question of getting information to the farmers in a way that they can understand and use and it's not just information but also the seeds."

Zeigler dismisses claims, mainly by those advocating organic farming led by leftist and peasant groups, that IRRI is simply a tool of multinational companies selling chemicals and that massive use of fertilizers and pesticides would poison the soil.

"Ask yourself this: If your plant is removing potassium, or phosphorous or nitrogen from the soil—I mean, you harvest it, you eat it, you take it away from the soil and you keep doing that, you don't put anything back—what's going to happen to the soil? You keep taking away money from the bank, you don't put anything in, what happens? It's gone," he says.

"If you want to sustain your agricultural system, you have to replace the nutrients that you take out. Now, how do you replace the nutrients? In the vast majority of cases, it doesn't matter.

"A plant can't tell the difference between the nitrogen atom or a nitrate molecule or ammonium molecule that comes from decomposing cattle manure or chicken manure or a bag of urea. Plants can't tell. Nitrogen is nitrogen. It's completely irrelevant where it comes from," Zeigler says.

Of course, if you put excessive amounts of fertilizer in the field, it can damage the soil. It can run off, and pollute the ground water and streams.

"But fertilizers that are managed in a way that only the amount of crop needs is put on is very beneficial for the environment," says Zeigler.

"It's one of the technologies that we need to get up to the farmers. We've worked on that a lot. We've taken very sophisticated principles and scientific knowledge that we generated 10 or 15 years ago and translated it down in ways that farmers can use it. So the idea that adding fertilizer to the fields will poison them is totally irresponsible," he says.

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