Groups partner for global rice research

by Susan Reidy
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With the formation of the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP) late last year, researchers look to break yield barriers in rice production and breed new cultivars with traits tolerant to flooding and other climate changes.

It’s hoped the initiative will boost supplies enough to reduce anticipated increases in rice prices by an average of at least 6.5% by 2020 and at least 13% by 2035, GRiSP said.

The partnership was announced in November 2010 during the 3rd International Rice Congress. It is an initiative of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) but includes several partners. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is leading efforts in Asia, the Africa Rice Center is in charge of work in Africa and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) is heading up work in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Other groups playing a role in GRiSP include the Centre de Coopération Internationale en Recherche Agronomique pour le Développement (CIRAD), L’Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), and the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences (JIRCAS).

To reach its objectives, GRiSP has identified six key areas of research including harnessing genetic diversity; accelerating development and use of improved rice varieties; sustainable management; extracting more value from harvest; technology evaluations; and supporting growth of the rice sector.

Along with boosting rice supplies, GRiSP believes that it could have other substantial impacts. By 2020, expenditures on rice by those under the U.S. poverty line could decline by nearly $5 billion per year. Counting those reductions as income gains would mean 72 million people would be above the poverty line, reducing the global number of poor by 5%.

Increased availability and reduced prices for rice would mean food for 40 million undernourished people in Asia, reducing hunger in the region by 7%. In addition, 275 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions would be averted.

GRiSP estimates that by 2035, those numbers grow to $11 billion in savings on rice expenditures, translating into income gains that lift 150 million people above the poverty line. About 62 million people in Asia will no longer be undernourished, and nearly 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions would be averted.

GRiSP’s first objective is to increase rice productivity and value for the poor through improved varieties and other technologies along the value chain. Rice is the most important food crop of the developing world and the staple crop for more than half of the world’s population, GRiSP said.

About one-fifth of the world’s population — more than 1 billion people — depend on rice cultivation for livelihoods. Rice is harvested from 158 million hectares per year and has three times the value of production in the developing world than any other food crop.

Rice availability is equated with food security and closely connected to political stability in developing nations, GRiSP said. Projected demand will outstrip supply in the near to medium-term, the group said, unless something is done to reverse the trends of slow productivity growth and inefficient management of natural resources.

Global rice demand is estimated to increase from 439 million tonnes of milled rice in 2010 to 496 million tonnes in 2020, and 555 million tonnes in 2035. This is an overall increase of 26% in the next 25 years.

But the rice industry is facing falling yield growth due to a decline in investment in productivity research and the conversion of land for other purposes. Fewer hands are available for farming.

Increasing rice yields on existing land must remain the primary strategy for increasing production, GRiSP said. Farmers need to produce at least 8 to 10 million tonnes more paddy rice each year, an annual increase of 1.2% to 1.5% over the next decade.

GRiSP will seek to address some of the challenges with its second objective: fostering more sustainable rice-based production systems that use natural resources more efficiently are adapted to climate change and are ecologically resilient.

Current production systems have to change, GRiSP said, especially those that require large amounts of water. The group estimates that by 2025, 15 to 20 million hectares of irrigated rice will suffer some amount of water scarcity due to competing uses and climate change.

Global climate change will cause rice farming conditions to deteriorate through water shortages, low water quality, thermal stress, sea-level rise, floods and more intense tropical cyclones. In addition, economic growth is leading to a loss in rice cultivation areas to urban expansion, land conversion to biofuels and diversification into other agricultural products.

GRiSP’s final objective is providing better and more accessible information, improved agricultural development and research policies and strengthened delivery methods. Increasing rice production requires not only new tools, the group said, but also a change in the practices and mindsets of millions of farmers.

Adoption of rice technologies may stall if the policy environment is unfavorable. Harmonized rice-related legislation worldwide will be essential so farmers and other rice stakeholders can take advantage of new and improved production systems, GRiSP said.

Bringing the knowledge of such systems to producers will require more extension personnel and information sources. Extra efforts will be needed to ensure women have the same opportunity to access new technologies, the group said.

Research Focus
GRiSP’s primary emphasis will be on improving rice-based production systems and value chains through a wide range of research and development partnerships. To achieve that, the group has identified six interlinked global research and development themes and an initial set of 26 global and regional R&D product lines (three to six per theme).

In addition, GRiSP will carry out product-oriented, interdisciplinary activities with partners to develop 94 innovative products and facilitate their uptake. Milestones will provide measurable targets for each product and its uptake.

The first theme focuses on harnessing genetic diversity including uncovering new traits in the rice genome, particularly traits related to water stress. Research will include large-scale genotyping and phenotyping that will require partnerships among laboratories across the world. This area of research will also look at re-engineering photosynthesis in rice to create a C4-rice.

GRiSP’s next research area will look at accelerating the development, delivery and adoption of improved rice varieties. The goal is to transform public-sector breeding programs to become better targeted to the demands of different stakeholders, the group said, including farmers, consumers, processors and the marketing sector.

The breeding programs will focus on using traits for improving yield, tolerance of abiotic and biotic stresses, grain quality and adaptation to future cropping systems, particularly conservation agriculture and water-saving irrigation.

The third theme will include research on the ecological and sustainable management of rice-based production systems. Projects will look at making rice systems more energy efficient, more profitable, more sustainable and more resilient to stresses.

Greenhouse gas emissions from rice production will be examined with a view to finding the right balance between productivity growth and environmental impact.

Theme four will look at extracting more value from rice harvests through improved quality, processing, market systems and new products. Research will examine ways to increase harvest value and developing mechanisms to support and harmonize the activities of producers, processors and marketers. Marketing systems using modern communication methods will be developed and new ways will be investigated to prevent post-harvest grain losses.

The next theme focuses on technology evaluations, targeting and policy options. Researchers will work to understand current constraints farmers face and provide clear guidance on research priorities for now and the future.

The final theme supports the growth of the global rice sector. GRiSP said it brings together the emerging new technologies and knowledge from the other themes with large-scale regional and national investments to reach the desired production and food security outcomes.

International agriculture research centers can help grow the rice sector through providing a technical and human resource base; catalyzing and facilitating public-private sector partnerships for delivery of technology; providing competent extension personnel who can work with farmers and research organizations; and providing coherent, up-to-date knowledge that is useful for extension specialists and farmers.