IN ASIA

Weekly Insights and Analysis

The Next Revolution in Rice: An Interview with Dr. Robert Zeigler of IRRI

August 12, 2015

In 1966, IRRI, the International Rice Research Institute, achieved one of the key breakthroughs of the Green Revolution, the “miracle rice” IR8, whose shorter, sturdier stalks were strong enough to support the much higher yields produced with modern fertilizers and pesticides. Fifty years later, rice remains vitally important to Asia, and, indeed, the world. But with the looming threat of climate change, and dwindling supplies of land and water for agriculture, rice production is once again under pressure. Dr. Robert Zeigler, director general of IRRI, spoke recently with In Asia. He says the world needs a Green Revolution 2.0, and, in fact, it is already under way.

Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Policies can make or break changes in agricultural systems. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

Dr. Zeigler, how important is rice in Asia?

Rice is of fundamental importance in Asia. It provides well over half the daily food energy for the population of Asia as a whole. It provides 70 percent of the food for the poorest of the poor, and most of the world’s poor are in Asia.

If you look at Asia and you ask, “What is the one thing that Asians have in common,” it’s not a language; it’s not a religion; it’s not a political system. The one thing all Asians have in common is rice. So, beyond being the most important food, it is one of the most important cultural pillars of the region.

IRRI was at ground zero for the Green Revolution in rice. Do we need a Green Revolution 2.0?

Yes, I don’t think there’s any question about it. When we look at the issues that are facing Asia in the future – climate change, a dwindling supply of land and water for agriculture – they translate into the challenge of feeding a population that continues to grow, without destroying the environment.

If we want to have a healthy and green Asia 20 to 30 years from now, with abundant, recovering forests and wetland systems, and still be able to feed our populations, we need to double or triple the output of our existing agricultural lands. That is, in essence, a Green Revolution, and I’m absolutely convinced it can happen.

It sounds like an enormous challenge. Will the second Green Revolution use different tools than the first?

Yes, that’s one of the things that make me so optimistic. The tools that we have available now to coax more production out of our rice plants, out of our agricultural ecosystems, are miraculous compared to the tools we had 20 and 30 years ago.

Our understanding of the genetics of the plant, of how organisms interact in the field, is vastly more sophisticated. We have the tools to begin to manipulate how that plant interacts with its environment. We also have tools that can communicate to farmers, even of marginal literacy, how to manage their crop to produce the most for a given investment.

All of these come together in such a way that increases in productivity will be much more environmentally benign. The negative impacts of agricultural innovation in the past – excessive fertilizer use, excessive pesticide use – will be distant memories. We will be much more intelligent about the way we manage our crops.

How is rice production in Asia threatened by the effects of climate change?

Well, climate change will hit rice production very hard. Rice is grown in low-lying areas, coastal areas, deltas. In the event of rainfall pattern disruptions, those areas are subject to floods; they’re subject to droughts; and they’re subject to floods and droughts in the same year. Delta areas are also very susceptible to storm surges that bring in salty water from the sea. So rice production is very vulnerable to the weather-related aspects of climate change.

The good news is that we have in our collections of rice, its relatives, and ancient cultivars that are no longer grown, traits for drought resistance, flood resistance, and the ability to tolerate much higher levels of salt. It’s up to us to transfer these traits into rice so that it can withstand the onslaught of climate change. And, in fact, we have proof that we can do this.

So I’m very optimistic that, even though climate change will present enormous challenges to society as a whole, if we continue down the path of research and development that we’re already following, the one thing we don’t have to worry about in the next 50 years is an inability to produce enough rice.

In addition to your scientific research, you have been working with rice-producing countries in Asia. Can you tell me about that?

One of the things that we’ve learned – and it’s been a hard lesson for a scientific geek like me – is that policies can make or break changes in agricultural systems. Price policies, trade policies, policies that determine how seed is sold – these are determined by governments and by bureaucrats and by politicians, and they go into the sausage machine, as it were, of political dialogue.

At our institute, we recognize that our technologies will not be effective without a conducive policy environment. So our senior people are spending a considerable amount of effort interacting with ministries of agriculture, ministries of finance, ministries of planning in key Asian countries, to get them to understand the impact that various policies can have on farms, and how they can tweak their policies so that new technologies will be much more affective.

You have actually dated the beginning of the second Green Revolution to July 31, 2008. It’s already started! Tell me the story of Swarna Sub1.

Swarna Sub1 is a fantastic story.

Rice is subject to flooding across Asia, and while it grows very happily in 10, 15, 20 cm of water, if it goes underwater completely it’ll drown, just like any other crop. So our scientists discovered a gene that enables rice to survive catastrophic flooding: two weeks underwater, three weeks underwater. Our Sub1 rice, Submergence1 – some people call it Submarine rice, Snorkel rice – will hunker down and stay alive, and when the water recedes, it regrows.

Where did the gene come from?

It came from Southern India, from a traditional variety that had extremely low yield, very small grains. Nobody wanted it. When you ate it, it was indistinguishable from cardboard. But it did tolerate floods, so it had survived, and survived, and survived, and in the course of trying to gather all of the rice varieties in the world, we collected it.

We got the gene from that variety, put it into these good, high-yielding varieties, and in 2008, we went to a handful of farmers in a highly flood-prone part of India and asked them to plant them.

So they planted their small plots with Swarna Sub1, and one particular farmer, Mr. Pal, was hit by two floods. His field looked just terrible after the second flood. And we had our scientists there; they took a picture: he was standing in the field. His neighbors were telling him, “Plow in the field; you’re not gonna get anything from this.” And we asked him to not plow.

July 31, 2008, was the date we took the picture, when he had the courage to say, “I’m not gonna plow in my crop; I’m gonna see what happens.” He trusted us, allowed those plants to recover, and he got a beautiful harvest. And the rest is history. There are now over five million farmers in Eastern India who are growing Swarna Sub1 and other flood-tolerant varieties.

Looking to the future and a possible Green Revolution 3.0, what changes are on the drawing board to improve rice?

We’re looking at very fundamental changes in the plant.

Natural selection and evolution are kind of sloppy undertakings. Success means you survive a little better than the next guy, but there’s no notion of perfection in natural selection.

Now, photosynthesis, the way plants capture light, works really well. But it turns out that some plants, about 50 million years ago, developed a more efficient form of photosynthesis, while other plants did not. The very efficient plants include things like corn and sugar cane. The inefficient plants include things like rice and wheat. The efficient photosynthesizers use half the water and a third the nitrogen, and can produce twice as much yield in the same amount of sunlight.

So some of our scientists thought that, if we are going to meet the food needs of the future, on less land, with a much smaller environmental footprint, why don’t we try to convert the sunlight-capturing capacity of rice to the high-efficiency type of corn and sugar cane?

We’re now in the process of taking apart and understanding the fundamentals of photosynthesis in rice and corn and reassembling it in rice so that it will be much more efficient. I’m certain that it’s possible to do – that we can create a rice plant that’s 50 percent more efficient in its use of sunlight, water, and nitrogen, so that we can produce the food that the planet needs on much less land. That would be a third Green Revolution.

Doctor, you seem like a man who loves his work.

Guilty as charged.

Dr. Robert Zeigler is director general of IRRI, the International Rice Research Institute, in Los Baños, Laguna, the Philippines. He can be reached via their website. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the interviewee, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: India, Philippines
Related programs: Environmental Resilience

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In Asia is a weekly in-depth, in-country resource for readers who want to stay abreast of significant events and issues shaping Asia's development, hosted by The Asia Foundation. Drawing on the first-hand insight of over 70 renowned experts in over 20 countries, In Asia delivers concentrated analysis on issues affecting each region of Asia, as well as Foundation-produced reports and polls.

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