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IRRI DG: Work underway for a dramatic rise in rice yield

  • Published at 10:11 pm March 25th, 2019
IRRI
IRRI DG Dr Mathew Morell Courtesy

Bangladeshi scientists join forces to change rice plant architecture. Bangladesh and the Philippines advance Golden Rice to pre-release stage, Dr Matthew Morell, tells the Dhaka Tribune's Reaz Ahmad

Work is well underway to engineer a rice plant in a way that global production of the grain gets a dramatic boost. The idea is to convert rice into a photosynthesis-efficient plant, which will produce up to 50% higher yields using sunlight.

In an exclusive interview with Dhaka Tribune, Director General of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Dr Matthew Morell, said two Bangladeshi scientists are working at IRRI headquarters in the Philippines on this ‘C4 Rice Project’, often dubbed a "grand challenge" of the 21st century.

Rice uses the C3 photosynthetic pathway, which in hot and dry environments, is much less efficient than the C4 pathway, used by some other plants such as maize, sugarcane, and sorghum. Scientists thought that if rice could "switch" to using C4 photosynthesis, productivity would increase by 50%.

Dr Matthew Morell, who was on a visit to Bangladesh last week, told this correspondent last Thursday, “It’ll take more time but the prize is very big here.”

Successful implementation of engineering rice into a C4 plant has been seen as a "game-changer" ever since the 1960s, when scientists first developed semi-dwarf rice varieties, heralding the famous "Green Revolution."

The IRRI DG, expressed optimism about the way Bangladeshi rice scientists are working on research, breeding, and innovation.  “In future, Bangladesh will contribute big time in enhancing global understanding of rice science.” 

He sat with the Dhaka Tribute correspondent at a city hotel for this interview. On the same day he had an audience with Bangladesh’s Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, at her office. The IRRI DG said the prime minister had appreciated the partnership between IRRI and Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) in boosting rice production and ensuring future food security. 

Dr Matthew Morell said both Bangladesh and the Philippines have taken the vitamin-A enriched ‘Golden Rice’ varietal development to an advanced stage now. Once the last steps of the bio-safety regulatory process are completed, he hoped vitamin-A enriched rice would hit the market and address to a large extent, the acute problem of vitamin-A deficiency (VAD).  

He assured that no health risk is associated with the Golden Rice, which is as good as regular rice, yet enriched with vitamin-A.

In recent years, IRRI and Chinese scientists have succeeded in identifying the genetic makeup of over 3,000 rice varieties. Dr Matthew Morell, who has a PhD in agricultural chemistry from the University of Sydney, said they are now working on the genome mapping of 10,000 varieties of rice. He hoped that understanding of each gene's functions would help rice breeders tweak special traits. Rice breeders can use these varieties as building blocks, using the sequence data to identify genes that represent favorable traits that can be transferred to other varieties. 

“Over the years, we’ve developed different stress tolerant rice varieties, some of which can withstand drought, some submergence, and others, salinity. Now we’re trying to combine traits to develop a rice variety that will be able to withstand multiple stresses,” said the IRRI DG.

He appreciated Bangladesh’s economic progress, but added that still too many people are deficient in micronutrients and many children have stunted growth. “That’s why our focus here is to increase rice yield and develop varieties rich with micronutrients (zinc, vitamin-A, iron etc). Pest and disease patterns are also changing with the climate change phenomenon. Through our South Asia Centre in India, we’re bringing IRRI closer to home with more research focused on grain quality and nutrition.”

IRRI’s bio-fortification and healthier rice initiatives, involve linking agriculture to nutrition, bridging nutrition and micronutrient gaps, stewardship of new rice varieties to meet international standards and national needs, and improving health in vulnerable populations. 

He said, IRRI and Bangladesh embarked on a five-year work plan (2018-2023) last year, with overarching goals of promoting food nutrition security, agricultural diversity, increasing farmer income, reducing stunting in children, and enhancing climate resilience.      

The population of Bangladesh, is projected to reach 202 million by 2050, while the economy is projected to continue to grow at a rate of 7 to 8 per cent per year, said Dr Matthew Morell, adding that: “This robust emerging economy in South Asia will fuel a rise in the demand for rice. Rising food costs amid increasing demand with limited production will put 40 million people, around a quarter of the country’s population, at risk of suffering from starvation and malnutrition.”

Rice accounts for about 70% of dietary calories, and 56% of the total protein intake of consumers in Bangladesh. The rice sector accounts for 50% of the country’s agricultural gross domestic product, and provides 50% of rural employment. 

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is the world’s premier research organization dedicated to reducing poverty and hunger through rice science, improving the health and welfare of rice farmers and consumers, and protecting the rice-growing environment for future generations. IRRI is an independent, nonprofit, research, and educational institute, founded in 1960 by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, with support from the Philippines government. The institute, headquartered in Los Baños, Philippines, has offices in 17 rice-growing countries of Asia and Africa. 

Prior to assuming the role of director general, Dr. Matthew was the deputy director general for research, providing strategic leadership to IRRI’s research and outreach programs across various dimensions of rice science, including climate change-ready rice, healthier rice varieties, environmentally sustainable crop farming systems, farmer-friendly crop management and value chain practices, timely and accurate provision of rice information, capacity building, and building the next generation of rice scientists.

Prior to his senior management roles at IRRI, Dr. Matthew was the team leader for 17 years at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). Dr. Matthew also has extensive experience in identifying, protecting, and managing intellectual property, as well as establishing a means for strong compliance with the requirements of gene technology regulations, genetic modification stewardship, and occupational health and safety legislation.