Agriculture

This Laguna-Based Institute Helps Solve the World’s Ongoing Rice Crisis

How science is providing sufficiency to one of our food staples

Photos by RG Medestomas

Three and a half billion people—half the world’s population—rely on rice for food or livelihood. But with the negative impact of climate change, growing food staples such as rice is proving to be more challenging than ever. Making the concern more pressing are the lack of post-harvest facilities, pest and disease control, and the irrigation system. Because rice is a major component of our daily meals, it’s definitely alarming to note these problems are gravely affecting our supply. Not all hope is lost though as someone is trying to address them.

Grains are carefully and manually evaluated to ensure quality

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), an international research and training organization established in 1960, has been producing a sustainable way of rice farming. Through rice science, the premier agricultural association has also been studying and employing systems that aim to reduce poverty and improve the health and welfare of rice farmers and consumers as well as to protect the rice-growing environment for future generations.

Rice farmers constantly face drought, flooding, and increasing salt content in soil and water. Through technology, IRRI has been able to help them increase production, avert famine, address food insecurity, and combat challenges brought by climate change to their farms. Aside from that, IRRI scientist Fiona Hay adds that the institute is able to develop the right kind of breed for the right place. These advanced rice varieties called “climate-smart” rice have made it possible to increase grain yield while making the crops more resilient to unfavorable weather conditions.

For Hay, one of the projects she is most passionate and excited about is the International Rice Gene Bank, which is the largest collection of rice genetic diversity in the world. As of January 2015, it holds in trust more than 126,000 varieties of rice, including modern, heirloom/traditional, and wild. One could say that the International Gene Bank is the heart and soul of the institution.

Through technology, IRRI has been able to help increase production, avert famine, address food insecurity, and combat challenges brought by climate change to their farms.

The conservation of the different rice varieties plays an integral role in the genetic improvement of crops. IRRI continually works on developing better quality grains by uncovering traits hidden deep within the DNA of the different rice varieties across the globe. In addition, the bank acts as a treasure trove that eliminates the possibility of total rice variety depletion.

Working in partnership with the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) and the Department of Agriculture, 123 IRRI-bred varieties suited to different environments have been released in the country. On average, the new varieties have helped farmers earn an additional P2,184 per hectare annually. The institute has also introduced new technologies to make rice growing more efficient. Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD) is a practice developed by PhilRice and IRRI that reduces water use by up to 30 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by up to 50 percent. 

One of the innovations IRRI implements is alternate testing

According to director general Matthew Morell, rice, especially for Filipinos, is not only a staple of our diet. It is incredibly important in avoiding famine and malnutrition. IRRI is continuing to develop rice varieties that complement the Filipino dietary needs. They are developing rice types with higher micronutrient content and a lower glycemic index crucial in the management of diabetes.

It is quite possible that millions of farmers all over the world would still be experiencing the full effects of climate change, diminishing resources and food insecurity had it not been for the interventions of IRRI. Farmers all over the world have access to climate-resistant breeds that are now more resilient to less-than-ideal weather conditions that may include instances of flooding, drought, and salinity in soil and water. An estimated 50 percent of the Asian rice area is planted with IRRI-bred varieties or their genetic descendants.

Even with all the great contributions the institute has already made, IRRI is showing no signs of stopping as they are still striving to find ways to overcome poverty and hunger in the face of climate change.

Fiona Hay inside one of the genebanks where seeds are stored in temperatures of 2-8 degrees celsius

For more information about IRRI, e-mail Flora C. de Guzman at f.deguzman@irri.org. 

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