The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the global agricultural research and training organization that has been in the Philippines since 1960, has made strides in its new and important mission: producing rice ready for climate change.
“Climate change is a serious problem and rice is vulnerable. How to make rice resilient is our job and our next giant leap,” V. Bruce Tolentino, deputy director general of IRRI, said during a roundtable discussion with The Manila Times editors on Thursday.
Although IRRI has developed several rice varieties that are flood-resilient, another big challenge is how to grow rice in poor soil, even in swamps, because land is becoming scarce, he said.
Climate change has decreased arable land, in addition to increasing temperatures and sea levels, he noted.
“We are having dialogues with each government and we work collaboratively to solve problems and ensure stable supply of quality rice,” said Tolentino, who was an intern at The Manila Times in the 1970s.
Tolentino said 112 million tons of rice, the staple of half of the world’s population, would be needed to feed the world by 2040.
Fortunately for the Philippines, it has become the fastest-growing country in terms of rice yield, better than Thailand and Vietnam. Central Luzon and Cagayan Valley remain the biggest producers.
Yet Manila continues to import rice from the two countries. Tolentino noted that Thailand and Vietnam have bigger rice fields, while the Philippines has to manage three major crops, namely rice, corn, and abaca.
Ninety percent of rice is produced in Asia, with China accounting for 30 percent and India, 27 percent. Members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including the Philippines, account for the rest.
Golden Rice approval sought
Aside from producing “climate-smart” rice varieties, Tolentino said there should be huge investments in irrigation and the propagation of the so-called “Golden Rice,” a variety that has higher nutrients, particularly iron and zinc.
“Once the permit is released, then we can do human tests. No one has tasted Golden Rice yet,” he said.
IRRI and the state-run Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) have submitted the variety to the Bureau of Plant Industry for approval. New Zealand has approved it while IRRI is awaiting Bangladesh’s go-signal, he said.
More scientists needed
Tolentino said IRRI produces knowledge for global food security, particularly to ensure the continuous supply of rice.
“We don’t sell our technology. If you want a variety of seed, you write us and we will send to you the seed,” he said.
But the Philippines must produce more scientists to keep IRRI alive, noting that some Filipino scientists have been lost to more lucrative jobs abroad.
“We are not investing much in science. Scientific works now are collaborative outputs. We should form an environment conducive for scientists,” he said.
IRRI, headquartered in the Philippines with offices in 36 countries, was opened at the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) campus nearly six decades ago because at the time, it was the only university in Asia with an agronomy department.
For years it was financed by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, but is now mostly funded by governments like the United States and Australia and by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Philippines is the third biggest contributor to the IRRI.
IRRI has 1,300 personnel, about 900 of them graduates of UPLB and major agricultural universities in the country.