As food prices and demand continue to dominate global politics, Dr. Achim Dobermann, newly appointed deputy director general for research at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), talked to FoodNavigator about the science and future of rice.
Although prices vary on exporter and rice type, IRRI gives monthly exporter figures for Thai rice 5 per cent unbroken as a guide. Between April 2007 and April 2008, the price of this commodity has rise from US$317 per tonne to a staggering $907.
The root causes of the rice price increase are manifold. Droughts in Australia and floods in Bangladesh have meant that recent harvest have been below requirements. In addition, as the price of other grains such as wheat has increased, people have turned to rice as a cheaper alternative.
This has had the effect of increasing demand which, in turn, impacts on price.
Boosting productivity in response to the rice price is do-able, said Dr. Dobermann, because there is currently an exploitable yield gap.
"We think that even with the present varieties and with the knowledge and technology of good crop management, we could improve yields by about one to two tons per hectare," said Dr. Dobermann.
So why is this not happening? According to Dr. Dobermann, getting the technology and knowledge about crop management to farmers is not easy, and farmers, for various reasons, are still using varieties from 20 years ago. "Every year these varieties lose a little bit of yield potential," he said. This can be due to slight changes in the climate, in the soil, and there are always changes in pathogens, he said.
If farmers would sow clean, certified seeds, and the crop management can be implemented, then Dr. Dobermann predicts that farmers could produce enough rice for the next 20 years or more.
"It's not rocket science.And we're not even talking about transgenic rice," he said.
"This would lead to a secured rice supply for the next 20 years. Beyond that we would need new technology and new higher yield rice varieties than we have today, but these take 15 to 20 years to produce so we need to start now."
Focussing on the science here and now is central to achieving future goals for rice, as is highlighted by IRRI's strategic plan, said Dr. Dobermann.
The five-point plan focuses firstly on reducing the poverty of the farmers and those dependent on rice - an issue with a higher priority than in the past, he said. Secondly, IRRI is continuing research into improving the health and nutritional profile of rice, focussing on boosting the beta-carotene, zinc and iron content of the crops.
Golden rice is the most famous example of this biofortication, but Dr. Dobermann indicates that transgenic strains under investigation have a beta-carotene content three times that of current golden rice. Varieties have been produced containing between 25 and 30 mg/kg, he said.
Vitamin A deficiency (VAD) is a public health problem in more than 50 per cent of all countries, especially in Africa and South-East Asia, according to the World Health Organisation, and causes blindness in up to 500,000 children each year. The human body converts beta-carotene in the diet into vitamin A.
"This rice is being used in field tests currently, and in about three years we will have these varieties in final testing," said Dr. Dobermann.
But getting the rice into people's stomach will require governments approving the transgenic varieties, something that no transgenic rice has achieved to date in Asia.
The progress in zinc biofortification may be easier to implement since this is achieved using conventional breeding techniques. "We've reached the enrichment targets [of 24 mg of zinc per kg of milled white rice], and farmer field testing will start in the next two to three years," he said.
The iron biofortification is further away, and will most likely employ both transgenic and conventional methods, said Dr. Dobermann. IRRI research has currently achieved enrichment of half the intended target.
The third point in the strategic plan is environmental, with the focus on sustainability in irrigation-based systems. This includes improving the efficiency of the use of water and fertilisers.
Fourth on the list is ensuring access to information for all involved in rice production, including the collection and dissemination of information of rice. And this leads on to the final point in the plan, which is to make better use of the genetic information about rice. This is to be achieved by using modern techniques for genotyping and phenotyping, and using this information more systematically in breeding programmes.
"With biotechnology tools there are new possibilities particularly in breeding in different environments and traits," said Dr. Dobermann.
Funding - you can never have enough
Implementing the strategic plan will obviously require money, and IRRI's annual spending is about US$42 million. This may sound like a lot, but is actually 50 per cent less than 15 years ago, said Dr. Dobermann. While absolute aid is up, agriculture aid is down.
IRRI receives the majority of its funding from about 60 different donors, mainly governments, but also institutional donors such as the World Bank, and private foundations, most notably the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
"We don't really have much funding from the private sector," admits Dr. Dobermann. "But we are working on possible scientific collaborations with some companies."
Current food prices
"When you have a crisis this bad, it is a wake-up call," said Dr. Dobermann. "Governments need to do something of long-lasting value."
And this involves facilitating an agronomical revolution to close the yield gaps. Improvements to processing of rice would also have an impact on boosting rice quantities, he said. "Between 10 and 20 per cent of rice is lost in processing, and that equals a large opportunity to reduce loss."
Work must also focus on accelerating and delivering testing schemes, and faster variety replacement. But breeding pipelines are the subject of declining funding, he said, and the new varieties are being produced.
So how many varieties do we currently have? "I have no clue," Dr. Dobermann said candidly. "We have over 110,000 types of rice in our genetic bank [not all are edible], and there are still 1,000s of wild and traditional types that have not been collected."
"In the Philippines, between 15 and 20 new varieties are released every year," he said. "But this could be more if we could ramp up the breeding and testing."