Thursday, November 15, 2012

breeding rice into a lean, mean, food-producing machine

I attended the World Food Day celebration at the Asian Development Bank this year (October 15-16, 2012). The event was graced by Julian Cribb, author of the book The Coming Famine (University of California Press, 2010). In his presentation, Mr Cribb discussed the real possibility of a global food shortage in the near future brought about by scarcity of resources. To avert the food crisis, Mr Cribb recommends that people start working on and re-investing in agricultural and food R&D now (among others). Especially since technology adoption takes time. During the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP) Asia Review, Kamala Gurung reported that it takes more than ten years for farmers to adopt current varieties in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. 

But just in case people do think that nobody is working on this issue now, I'd like to point out that agricultural scientists have not thrown in their lab coats. They are hard at work in laboratories and in test fields, taking steps to ensure that this food crisis doesn't come to fruition... or if it does, the impact won't be as bad as Mr Cribb is predicting. 

During the recently concluded IRRI Young Scientists Conference (IYSC), I have listened to several presentations about different approaches to stop, or to minimize the impact of, this food crisis. One was by boosting photosynthesis in the rice plant. Another approach was to make the rice plant more Earth-friendly; a lean, mean, food-producing machine -- if you will -- through the Green Super Rice Project.

The Green Super Rice Project aims to develop "resilient" rice varieties that can thrive in conditions where there is less water, less pesticide, and less fertilizer AND can produce higher yields than traditional and improved varieties. These green super rice varieties sound like a potential answer to the food crisis of the future, right?

Dr Jauhar Ali, the project's regional coordinator for Asia, talked about green super rice during the IYSC. He mentioned that by using a wide selection of rice varieties as parents and an IRRI breeding strategy that involves what breeders and molecular biologists call "pyramiding" and "introgression", scientists put a lot of the resilience traits from all the different parents into several "finished goods". The nice thing about these materials is that they can tolerate more than one type of stress at a time while having higher yields than the reference (or "check") varieties.

Just how environment-friendly are the varieties being developed via the Green Super Rice Project supposed to be? Dr Ali mentioned that the goal is to reduce inputs (including fertilizer and pesticide) by 25%. Doing so helps rice become more "green" because these new varieties will be lessening rice production's carbon footprint; for instance, a reduced fertilizer requirement means that the energy required to produce the fertilizer is also reduced. Aside from this, the Green Super Rice varieties will also have reduced gelatinization temperature. This means that the rice starts to cook at a low temperature which leads to reduced cooking time and probably to reduced cooking water. All that should be enough to deem these rice varieties as super.

But wait, there's more!

Aside from their good performance in the field, they are supposedly of good grain quality too. But that's based on the routine chemical tests. I wonder if anyone has actually tasted these rice varieties yet.