Abdelbagi Ismail, principal scientist, plant physiologist and overall project leader of IRRI’s Stress Tolerant Rice for Africa and South Asia (STRASA), said the problem is that rice is grown everywhere, in very extreme conditions, very different climates, and soils that have high-salt or high-iron concentration.
“We have to make sure that we have varieties that can adapt to the adversities. And that is why IRRI started developing varieties that can work in drought-affected areas, salt-affected areas and flood-affected areas,” Ismail said.
He added these problems have become more severe because of climate change that causes more typhoons that are more intense to come in every year, and makes the sea level rise and salinity to move inland more than before.
“We estimate more than probably 25 million hectares are lost to drought every year, and probably 20 million hectares lost to floods all over Asia. Probably more than 15 million lost because of high salt,” Ismail said.
“The people living in these areas affected by severe stresses are very poor,” he added.
Ismail said because the Philippines is their host country and most of their activities are in the Philippines, all the materials they developed in the project are tested in the Philippines, with a variety released for submergence tolerance called Submarino.
Drought resistance is very important in the Philippines. They are actually being used now and has been put by the DA in its seed system. It is part of the government’s self-sufficiency program, Ismail said.
“The good thing about them is that they mature in a shorter period of time, allowing the farmers to grow another crop. So they can have two crops per year instead of one. And usually that doubles the productivity,” he added.
Developing varieties that combine traits like drought tolerance, flood tolerance and saline tolerance is what the IRRI is doing.
“In coastal areas here in the Philippines, you always have salinity. Sometimes it becomes dry, when the rains come late. Drought happens. Sometimes, when there is too much rain, flooding happens. So you need a variety that can tolerate all of them. Now that we have the molecular-marker technology, we can actually put all these genes together. The new generation of rice varieties will have multiple stress tolerance,” he said.
Ismail said the most import thing is that the rice varieties it develops get to reach their designated target, which is the farmer.
Apart from this, he said the impact of what the IRRI has been been doing is huge, reaching millions of farmers and millions of hectares, new areas where rice has not been grown before.
“Most of these areas, because they are less favorable, they are highly populated with the most poor people, because poor people are always pushed from the good places,” he said.
He said farmers are now considering marketing their produce for the first time. “Before, they just wanted food enough for them but now they are looking for varieties with a better market value,” Ismail said.