“The next agricultural revolution will be driven by advances in plant genetics.”
This was the reverberating message that International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) Director General Dr. Robert Zeigler impressed upon more than 800 participants at the 6th International Rice Genetics Symposium on 16 November 2009 in Manila, Philippines. Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand officially opened this three-day event. In her presentation, she noted that a concerted effort such as the symposium is necessary because it brings people together to solve problems and learn from the progress of others.
She mentioned that the success of the Rice Genome Project in 2005 marked a milestone in the new era of rice genetics. It became the firm foundation for international research cooperation among rice-loving nations. Since then, the successful sharing of rice genome studies and genomics data has snowballed into advanced technological research on rice genetics worldwide. Her Royal Highness noted that rice genetics is an essential part of finding solutions to the problems of the rice industry. She added that “we must take care of rice genetic diversity around the world to secure the existence of rice on Earth.”
Recent events concerning global food security have highlighted rice’s essential role in feeding the world’s poor and hungry population. According to Dr. Zeigler, the plight of more than 1 billion people stricken with poverty—70% live in Asia and more than 75% live in rural areas—is the driving force behind IRRI’s research. Hence, the world needs to find ways to increase rice yield and improve the sustainability of rice production, as this could help alleviate poverty in many nations.
The road toward global food security, however, promises to be steep and treacherous. Dr. Zeigler cited some 21st-century constraints that the world needs to deal with: less land, less water,land degradation, climate change that results in extreme weather patterns, an increase in fuel and fertilizer prices, and persistent poverty and malnutrition. On top of that is the growing population that further puts pressure on supply.
To counter these problems, rice scientists at the symposium were called upon to put genetics to work. Over the years, IRRI has partnered and collaborated with various scientists to develop rice varieties that are resistant to biotic and abiotic stresses. With its pest management strategies, the Institute continues to work on varieties that are resistant to bacterial blight, blast, sheath blight, brown planthoppers, and tungro viruses. In response to climate change, varieties that are tolerant of flood, submergence, droughts, and salt water, among others, have been developed.
Moreover, to overcome malnutrition in poor countries, biofortified rice varieties are also in the works, such as ones with high zinc and iron of rice genetics. It became the firm foundation for international research cooperation among rice-loving nations.
The next agricultural revolution
In trying to keep up with the changing times, rice genetics has proven to be an essential tool for boosting and sustaining rice production. Yet, much about rice still has to be explored to take full advantage of its potential to feed the world. Dr. David Mackill, IRRI plant breeder and head of the symposium’s organizing committee, admitted that more genetic information would allow breeders to develop more rice varieties that can withstand drought and floods, that are more resistant to pests, and that can provide higher yields in spite of the limited land and water availability.
In this regard, Dr. Zeigler said, “We cannot overestimate the central role of IRRI’s germplasm in the coming generation.” IRRI’s gene bank now has around 110,000 accessions. The challenge is how to tap into this rich reserve of information and take advantage of its power to bring forth new and better varieties of rice. He quickly noted, though, that rice genetic diversity is not boundless. Some important traits do not exist in the known germplasm.
Enormous challenges lie ahead. And, the world today cannot afford to be complacent. The rice crisis of 2008 continues to serve as a reminder of how, after the Green Revolution in the 1960s, people thought that everything was solved. The lack of investments in agriculture led to an unstable food supply that later on triggered global food insecurity and panic.
Now, as the world moves forward into more uncertain times, Dr. Zeigler said that it is crucial to redouble our efforts. More investments must be made in agriculture again—investments that will sustain future developments. After all, he noted, the agricultural revolution is not a one-shot miracle. It takes many years of hard work.