A rice revolution is underway in Asia

In advances reminiscent of the “Green Revolution” of four decades ago, agricultural scientists have quietly made important breakthroughs in the cultivation of Asia’s prime staple food, developing so-called “scuba rice” that survives long periods of flooding and an alkaline-resistant “sea rice” farmers are already growing along China’s northern coast.

With an eye to an uncertain future, the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute’s (IRRI) last month sealed a deal with the Global Crop Diversity Trust to provide permanent funding for the conservation and sharing of 136,000 varieties of a grain that currently feeds more than 3.5 billion people a day.

IRRI director general Matthew Morell says the institute’s invaluable gene bank has become a fundamental part of global efforts to make rice more resilient, sustainable and equitable at a time when the impact of climate change far outweighs the positive effects of CO2 fertilization.

In China’s coastal Shandong province, north of Shanghai, scientists are claiming initial success in an ambitious plan to grow rice on 20 million hectares of tidal flats and saline-alkali soil, especially in the Yellow River Delta, which they believe could ultimately feed an additional 80 million people.

That’s about 80% of the Shandong populace, or 10% of the 840 million Chinese who depend on rice as their staple – a figure that is unlikely to grow beyond 2030 when the emerging super power’s population is expected to peak at about 1.45 billion.

Avoiding the controversy associated with genetically modified rice, scientists have been trying to grow the grain in brackish water since the 1970s. But it is only now they have come up with varieties that yield a commercially viable four and a half to nine tons a hectare.

China has strived for self-sufficiency in rice, wheat and corn since the late 1960s, but still falls short of satisfying an appetite for rice which rose from 125 million tons in 1975 to 261 million tons in 2016, in line with a population increase of 484 million.

Last year, China was the world’s biggest rice importer with 5.1 million tons, ahead of Nigeria (3.3 million), the Philippines (1.9 million), Iran and Indonesia (1.7 million). India, by comparison, was the biggest rice exporter, followed by Thailand, the United States, Pakistan and Vietnam.

Self-sufficiency is a key objective of most other Asian governments, but with widely varying degrees of success determined not so much by yields per hectare as water supply and flat land, particularly in countries with large river deltas like Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar.

In Indonesia, importing rice is always a hot political issue, largely because its people believe the country is self-sufficient. It did in fact achieve that goal between 1984-86, but rarely since then with per capita consumption at 148 kilograms a year – fourth behind Myanmar, Vietnam and Bangladesh.

IRRI’s high-tech facility in Los Baños, southeast of Manila, has developed improved rice varieties that withstand flooding and drought, and at the same time help keep pace with a growing world population and changing consumer preferences.

By 2050, Asia’s estimated 5.2 billion population will eat about 90% of annual global rice production, which according to most current estimates will have increased from the current 450 million tons to a staggering 525 million tons.

IRRI scientists have used its gene bank to achieve genetic breakthroughs tailored to worldwide climate extremes that already threaten production in key rice-producing regions, including China, India and Indonesia – the three largest producers and consumers.

Scuba rice will eventually benefit farmers tending 20 million hectares of rice-land across Asia hit by regular monsoonal flooding, which last year killed more than 1,200 people in South Asia alone and raised fears of long-term food insecurity.

While the staple normally dies within days of being submerged, “scuba rice” can withstand flooding for up to two weeks or more and is now being grown by five million farmers in India, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia, with Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia as future targets.

Through collaborative research, scientists from the IRRI and the University of California have spent the past four decades isolating and transferring the water-tolerant Submarino-1 (sub-1) gene from India’s Orissa variety into other popular rice types, using a technique known as marker-assisted backcrossing.

The gene is only activated when it is under water, effectively placing the plant in a dormant state and allowing it to conserve energy until the floodwaters slowly recede. Normally, rice stems grow quickly to get the leaves out of water, which exhausts the plant’s energy reserves.

Scuba rice is now grown over 600,000 hectares in India and Bangladesh, where flooding causes annual paddy losses of four million tons, enough to feed 30 million people. The funding has largely come from the foundation created by US billionaire Bill Gates, which focuses on alleviating the impact of climate change on the world’s poor.

Currently, the so-called Swarna Sub-1 variety is planted across 367,000 ha of eastern India, with the rest grown by about 40% of the farmers in the northwest of typhoon-battered Bangladesh, now the world’s sixth largest producer.

In Indonesia, scuba rice covers more than 430,000 ha of such flood-prone areas as Palembang in South Sumatra and Bandung in West Java, where the Ciherang sub-1 – one of seven different flood-resistant varieties in Asia — was first released in 2012.

Under normal conditions, the average yield of most varieties of scuba rice is about 4.5 to 6.5 tons per hectare. During periods of flooding, say IRRI scientists, Ciherang sub-1 still yields 3-4 tons, even after two weeks of complete submergence.

While limited so far, production in the Philippines is concentrated in low-lying regions like Nueva Ecija in central Luzon, North Cotabato in Mindanao, and Bohol and Samar in the central and eastern Visayas where farmers report an average yield of 4.5 tons a hectare.

More than 20 tropical cyclones wreak havoc in the central and northern Philippines each year. One of the most destructive was Super Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, which killed 4,460 people, destroyed 2,000 hectares of paddy fields and caused US$225 million in agricultural damage across Leyte and eastern Visayas.

Only last September, Typhoon Mangkhut caused paddy losses of 275,000 tons in northern Luzon, forcing the Philippine government to add 420,000 tons to the one million tons of rice imports ordered earlier in the year to make up for a perennial shortfall.

Conserved in the IRRI gene bank are improvements to its IR8, the high-yielding “miracle rice” which brought Asia back from the brink of famine during the so-called Green Revolution in the 1960s and 70s, when new innovations transformed agriculture across Southeast Asia.

The collection also includes wild rice species, which have been used to develop varieties that tolerate heat and drought and resist pests and diseases. Some have also been modified to resist iron toxicity, a common problem that affects mostly lowland rice in Africa.

The landmark agreement on conserving IRRI’s gene bank encompasses what Crop Trust executive director Marie Haga calls “20 years of work and 50 years of thinking” on how the international community can safeguard crops used for food and agriculture.

The IRRI is one of 11 gene banks belonging to the Consultative Group for International Agriculture Research (CGIAR), a global research partnership working to reducing poverty, enhancing food and nutrition security and improving natural resources and ecosystem service.