LOS BAÑOS, Philippines — With the effects of previous improvements to rice yields beginning to stagger, the agricultural world may be facing an impending disaster. However, change is possible with improved technological innovations to rice seeds.
In the rice fields where poor farmers tend particularly poor lands, adapted seeds could make all the difference. A second Green Revolution is in the making.
The previous Green Revolution featured a dwarf breed called IR8, created by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), that replaced original plants that would grow too tall with fertilizer and collapse. Using IR8 with fertilizer, the yields improved dramatically.
However, the gains made by IR8 benefited irrigated land the most. The poorest lands prone to a variety of extreme conditions such as drought and flooding did not feel the benefits of the revolution.
Although demand for rice has technically decreased, as the population increases, the need for more rice varieties is required. Current rice yields are not meeting the necessary 1.2 – 1.5 percent growth to meet the future increases in rice consumption.
In addition to the insufficiency of harvests to meet consumption, climate change is further decreasing harvests. Global warming has increased nighttime temperatures, increased sea levels and increased salinity. All of these effects have served to reduce yields and potentially harm future yields as conditions worsen.
China, an important producer of rice, recently released a study that showed that almost one-fifth of farmland was contaminated by toxic metals, a consequence of its rapid industrialization.
While the new rice varieties may not address toxic farmland, flood-resistant rice varieties have been cultivated, and the development of the drought-resistant varieties look promising. Compared to other crops, rice has a relatively small genome, allowing for easier and faster adaptations.
But most importantly, the development of other rice varieties directly impacts poverty. The absolute poor – those living on $1.25 a day or less – depend on rice more than any other food.
In much of Africa and parts of India, where rainwater plays a much larger role in rice yields and poverty is extensive, the potential for these new breeds to change the landscape is boundless. In one calculation, $3 billion in rice research over the span of 25 years would bring approximately 150 million people out of extreme poverty.
In Africa alone, the use of drought- and flood-tolerant seeds could double yields and meet the global expected demand in 2035 of 550 million tons.
Although there are problems facing the progress of rice improvements and its implementation, the need for a second Green Revolution is imperative. Professor Sophien Kamoun of the Salinsbury Laboratory, a prominent plant science research center said, “We need a new Green Revolution.”