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The role of hybrid rice
– by Philippe Dumont, Stéphane Pouzadoux
© Bayer CropScience ImageBank
Hybrid rice farmer in India
The early years of the 21st century have seen sharply rising staple food prices, culminating in the global food riots of 2008. Early this year, the wave of protest and revolution in Arab countries was driven not only by a desire for political freedom, but also by poverty in rural communities. In its bi-annual Food Outlook Report last November, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) reported that commodity prices were close to the record levels of 2008 and warned that a further rise could lead to more political instability, riots, malnourishment and starvation.
In this context, public and private bodies, governments, corporations, local communities and individual farmers must work together toward sustainable solutions. Such solutions must help feed a fast-growing global population, provide farmers in developing countries with a decent income and take a long-term view of the impact on environment.
Innovations that increase crop yields, safeguard the environment and benefit communities will play an essential role in building sustainable solutions. Hybrid rice is one such innovation. Rice is the staple food for more than half of the global population. In ten years’ time, the world will need to produce 80 million tons more than it does today, according to the Manila-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). In its 2009 annual report, IRRI stated that “hybrids are a key technology for closing yield gaps as well as raising the yield potential and increasing the income of rice farmers.”
Bayer CropScience decided to invest in developing and commercialising hybrid rice over a decade ago with the dual aim of creating a sustainable business model and offering farmers a highly efficient technology to improve yield. Hybrid rice seed is produced by crossing two parental lines with very distinct genetic backgrounds. The result is a high-performance plant offering what is known in agriculture as hybrid vigour or heterosis.
Hybrid varieties have, over many years, boosted the yields of other more readily crossed cultivars like maize, for instance. The production of hybrid seed demands specific efforts, however. The parent lines must be cultivated separately and crossed to supply rice growers with the seed that is of most value to them. Rice growers benefit most from planting hybrid seed each year as it delivers consistent high yields.
Rice plants are mainly self pollinating and, therefore, not easy to cross on a large scale. First grown in China, hybrid rice has taken some 30 years to develop. It is in China that the high-yield performance of hybrid rice was first demonstrated. According to the FAO, China and India were the world’s biggest rice producers in 2008, producing 193 and 148 million tons of paddy rice respectively. Average yield in India stood at 3.3 tons/hectare, whereas the figure in China was almost double at 6.5 tons/hectare. This substantial difference is partly due to 55 % of China’s paddies being planted with hybrids, compared with just three percent in India.
Arize® is the global brand of the Bayer CropScience hybrid rice seed. Arize hybrids have proven to yield around 20 % more than the best semi-dwarf inbred varieties that currently dominate the Asian markets. The investments made by rice growers in purchasing these high quality seeds are compensated through additional volumes harvested from their fields and also by substantial savings on inputs. In India, for example, FAO-validated figures show that farmers’ net income is almost double when using hybrid rice instead of inbred varieties.
Bayer CropScience cooperates with IRRI to investigate further benefits from innovation in rice production. The traditional way to cultivate rice in Asia is to grow seedlings that are later transplanted into rice fields. An IRRI-Bayer CropScience programme in Indonesia is demonstrating the value of switching from transplanting to direct seeding, which gives farmers more flexibility. Crop duration is reduced by up to 14 days. One result is a more flexible sowing window: farmers can plant the seeds later if the monsoon season is delayed, for example. Added to that, a shorter crop cycle means less exposure to pests and disease and thus a lower risk of crop failure. Direct seeding is also less labor-intensive.
This new direct seeding practice also addresses several long-term environmental concerns in rice growing: it requires less water and reduces emissions of methane, one of the most potent greenhouse gases (GHG). Initial IRRI-Bayer CropScience studies of GHG emissions in Indonesia in 2010 have shown promising results, and the direct seeding programme is now being extended to the Philippines and India.
An essential part of helping farmers understand the benefits of hybrid rice is the extensive training Bayer CropScience offers. As well as giving farmers who grow hybrid rice technical and business support, it also provides specific training on producing the high quality seed to over 23,000 growers in India each year. Another example of Bayer CropScience’s commitment to supporting local communities and improving efficiency is in addressing the challenges of supplementary pollination in seed production fields. Wind alone cannot be relied upon to transport pollen from male to female rice lines in order to produce hybrids. Workers have to go through the seed production fields, beating the male rice lines to make it release its pollen when the female rice line is flowering. The company has introduced four meter long bamboo sticks to achieve this. These simple tools allow optimal release of the pollen.
The need for public-private cooperation
Reliable production of high quality hybrid rice seed remains a challenge, with output remaining highly volatile. Establishing sustainable production requires long-term investment, and costs are set to remain high. In this context, government-level leadership is essential. Both private and public plant breeders require access to a wide range of germplasm to permit genetic improvement and increase yields. Governments need to ensure there are adequate mechanisms for both protection of intellectual property rights and the unhindered movement of seed material for further development – separate from food or grain security restrictions.
In 1970, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to agronomist Norman Borlaug, considered to be the father of the green revolution, “in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace”. Although today the environmental impact of his legacy may be controversial, there is no doubt that the creation of new varieties, development of crop protection products, access to fertilisers, irrigation and the mechanisation in agriculture have contributed to saving millions of lives.
As the 21st century unfolds, Bayer CropScience is convinced that its hybrid rice varieties and their uptake by rice growers will help contribute to sustaining a second green revolution: increasing food production and encouraging stable prices, while conserving and preserving natural resources.
Agricultural innovation can only benefit populations on a large scale if there is a coordinated and concerted effort between the public and private sectors to create an enabling environment. It means increasing public budgets for agriculture and facilitating public-private partnerships to research, develop, commercialise and promote new solutions. It means providing farmers with training to facilitate the development of modern agriculture. It also means encouraging the introduction of innovative and sustainable solutions, ultimately including those derived from plant biotechnology, by harmonising and implementing pragmatic and science-based policy and regulatory systems around the world.
In the first of its Millennium Goals, the United Nations pledged to halve the proportion of people suffering from hunger between 1990 and 2015. If that goal is to be achieved, it is essential for agriculture to become a priority on the political agenda.
Only with clear political commitment, moreover, will it be possible to build and maintain roads and storage facilities to enhance the movement of food and significantly decrease post harvest losses, organise appropriate financing systems to allow farmers to access the credit they need to invest, improve links between farmers and millers, or facilitate trade by simplifying or removing import and export barriers.
If the world is to succeed in feeding its growing population and at the same time reduce the environmental footprint of agriculture, the many stakeholders involved must all work together to create an enabling environment to support the adoption of innovations like hybrid rice. Today, Bayer CropScience is committed to producing hybrid rice in multiple geographies, including India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Thailand, Brazil and the United States, with a network of breeding stations resulting in a comprehensive hybrid rice portfolio which is higher yielding, high quality and well adapted to local tastes and culinary traditions.
The adoption of hybrid rice as a more profitable and sustainable solution for rice farmers requires considerable efforts. Bayer CropScience is working in partnership with thousands of growers across Asia and with major institutions like IRRI, with the aim of enabling access to the many benefits of hybrid rice for them and their communities. The company sees this both as a long-term investment for its future and for the future of agriculture.