IRRI studies medicinal traits of rice

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TITA C. VALDERAMA

RICE is an important part of the Filipino meal. A Filipino breakfast, lunch or dinner is not complete without rice, even if you have other carbohydrate-rich food like bread or pasta. Some of us even have rice meals for snacks. We tend to eat more rice with favorite Filipino recipes such as adobo, sisig, and kare-kare.

Suggest removing rice from the Filipino diet and you’ll be in big trouble. Remember when it was reported, albeit erroneously, that Sen. Cynthia Villar was planning to file a bill to restrict restaurants from offering unlimited rice servings, known as unli-rice in support of government efforts toward self-sufficiency in rice production?

She was pilloried and called names. Issues raised against her family that had been long forgotten were resurrected and memes against her went viral in the Internet. Villar, who chairs the committee on agriculture and food at the Senate, had to issue a clarification that she was simply raising concern over the dietary implications of eating rice in excessive quantity.

We at The Manila Times learned some of the complex issues about rice from Dr. Bruce J. Tolentino, deputy director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), who graciously visited the office on Thursday last week. He gave us a substantive briefing on what IRRI is about and what it has been doing.


One of the many interesting information we learned was that the Philippines may soon have climate-smart rice variety that can withstand drought and flood. IRRI and its local counterpart, the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), have already submitted the 2-in-1 (drought and submergence) tolerant rice for approval by the Bureau of Plant Industry (BPI).

Once this is approved for commercial use, the country may be importing less rice or attain self-sufficiency as it confronts the challenges of climate change.

The Times has run a story on this (http://www.manilatimes.net/irri-developing-climate-resilient-rice/347936/) and other more newsworthy parts of Tolentino’s presentation and statements so let me just write here some tidbits of the load of information we got.

The visit was prompted by a mention of IRRI in this column three weeks ago (http://www.manilatimes.net/declining-agri-budgets-wont-entice-youth-go-farming/344302/) when I said: “We hardly hear about the IRRI nowadays. Perhaps, the government could again boost its support for the IRRI by sending more trainees to spur renewed interest in the agriculture sector.”

Tolentino happened to read it and sent me a message right away offering a full briefing to the editorial team.

From the briefing, another interesting study on IRRI’s plate delves on the traits of heirloom rice varieties. Red, purple and black rice mostly harvested in the Cordilleras are high in anti-oxidants and some say these may have cancer-fighting properties.

“We are working with biologists and health experts (to find out) if these varieties can be used as medicines, not just food,” Tolentino said.

IRRI is likewise experimenting on making rice more nutritious by inserting zinc, iron and Vitamin A through genetic engineering. This would be a better option to the white rice which, when taken in excess, cause Type-2 diabetes.

Through the C3 (rice)-C4 (corn) photosynthesis, IRRI is also looking at the possibility of making rice behave like corn which was found to be a more efficient factory of food. This will, however, take 15 to 20 more years of anatomical and biochemistry changes and testing.

What may not be known to many is that IRRI has a rice gene bank at its headquarters in Los Baños, Laguna that has 128,000 rice varieties, of which less than 5 percent is in use, and less than 3 percent is in commercial production.

The Philippines has 7,000 rice varieties while India, which has a much bigger land area, has the biggest contribution of 13,000.

Apart from the researches that IRRI has been doing, it was enlightening to learn that IRRI is neither part of the Philippine government nor of the United Nations. It is not a non-government organization either.

It is an international organization created by a treaty with 28 country-signatories. “It is kinda unique…one of a kind,” said Tolentino, who served as agriculture undersecretary from 1986 to 1993. He was an intern at the old Manila Times in 1970, before getting a degree in Mass Communications from the St. Louis University.

IRRI’s sprawling headquarters is located within the University of the Philippines in Los Baños (UPLB). The land where it sits was part of the property owned by the heirs of the national hero Jose Rizal which was acquired by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations in 1960. In the event that IRRI ceases operations, the land will go to UPLB with which it has a lease agreement renewable every 25 years.

IRRI’s mandate is international while PhilRice, which is part of the Philippine government, takes care of the local research and training of farmers. “We don’t want to intrude into what government can do. The national government has PhilRice. We work with DA and Philrice,” Tolentino explained.

The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations have stopped funding IRRI for almost 20 years now. The United States, Australia and the Philippines are its top three funders now. The funding from the Philippines is coursed through the DA and the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) in the context of the country’s national rice program.

Tolentino wishes though that the Philippine government would infuse more funds into irrigation to boost rice production. He noted that while 30 percent of the agriculture department’s budget supposedly goes to irrigation, there has been no corresponding improvement in the size of irrigated land.

Perhaps it would be a great help if our politicians were to put their pork barrel money where their mouths are. It is not true that the pork barrel is gone. It’s still in the budget. They just made it more difficult for us to find where it is hidden.

If they are sincere in their statements in support of achieving self-sufficiency in rice, they should put more money into agriculture, from research to development to production up to the marketing of produce.

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