Thursday, December 1, 2016

Celebrating IR8's 50th anniversary

Back in the day, the world was in very real danger of famine. The population was increasing at a rate at which food production couldn't keep up. In the 1960s, agricultural scientists made several breakthroughs that enabled farmers to increase crop production: high-yielding varieties, dwarf wheat and rice varieties, improved farm management, and inputs (like fertilizers), among others. At that time, scientists had no paradigms to follow. They were blazing the trail.

IR8 was the landmark variety of that time. It is a high-yielding variety that spread like wildfire across the rice-producing parts of the world. It became known as "Miracle Rice" because it alleviated the food security problem at the time. It may not be the one-shot solution to end hunger and poverty (a position that critics use) but it was released at the right places at the right time.

Fifty years into the future, IRRI celebrates the golden anniversary of the rice variety that shaped the rice-consuming world. In India and in the Philippines, the modern-day agriculture heroes graced celebrations. As one of the younger scientists, I felt like being on the shoulder of giants. And from their work, IRRI staff have gone further forward. 

Several rice varieties have been developed to have respectable harvests even in the face of harsh weather conditions. They can grow in flooded conditions, in drought, and in saline soil conditions. 

No matter what type of rice is planted, it is still a backbreaking task. People have to go down in the mud (in the case of irrigated rice) and transplant rice seedlings. I had a chance to do that as a participants in Rice Survivor. It is not easy. The farm hands made it look like a piece of cake though. During the IR8 celebration in Los BaƱos, the VIPs had the chance to do it themselves. 

But as scientists, it's always a question of doing it more efficiently and more easily so that rice farming becomes less arduous than it already is... especially since the rice farmers are ageing. The average age of the farmer is 55 years old already. Mechanisation is an ideal way of making a farmers' job easier. But most machines are designed for big farm areas. Millions of farmers have small fields. Hence, large equipment is not the best way to approach the problem. And then someone designed a smaller, more agile planter. If every farmer can use this, they can say good bye to backbreaking labour... at least the beginning of the season.

The rice has to be delicious as well, otherwise, people won't buy it and farmers won't be able to sell their grain at a good price. This is why understanding grain quality is very important; it contributes to the price of rice in the market. Many years ago, people were just developing rice; nobody was tasting them. Now, rice tasting is a part of many IRRI events as it recognises the importance of understanding consumers and their expectations.

We can talk science all day long, however, the most important question is what is the rice variety's impact? Did the varieties and the technologies reach the farmers? Did the new technologies make farmers more efficient? Are farmers getting more profit from agriculture?

This is why, in my opinion, the most important visitors during the IR8 celebrations were not the diplomats, not the government officials, not the pioneer breeders. Instead, the most important visitors on that day were the farmers. They are the ones who actually live off the farms, who produce food that everyone eats, and who use the technologies and the assistance that IRRI provides the most. 

I wonder what the next 50 years will bring. Will there be a huge paradigm shift that will lead to changes in the way rice is grown and consumed? Will someone stumble upon a way to make rice grains as big as coconuts? Will rice be able to grow in harsher conditions?

We never know. Only time will tell.