The rice that changed the world


In 1967, when a 29-year-old N. Subba Rao sowed a semidwarf variety of rice in over 2,000 hectares in Atchanta, West Godavari district in Andhra Pradesh, he wouldn't have thought he would be part of a revolution in rice cultivation.

What Dr. Rao sowed in his farm was IR-8, a rice variety developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) that could produce as much as seven tonnes of rice per hectare, while the traditional seeds could produce only two tonnes per hectare. The rice was first introduced in 1966 in Philippines, where the agri-research firm was based.

The research for a developing a high-yield variety of rice began in 1960s when most Asian countries, including India, were reeling under famine. Peter Jenning, who joined as a rice breeder at the IRRI began experiments with rice crossing. The team tried as many as 38 crosses involving rice varieties from China, Taiwan and Indonesia.

After years of research, Henry M. Beachell, who worked with Jenning, developed the IR8-288-3 by crossing Dee-Geo-woo-gen and Peta variety of rice and tested it in the Philippines. The results were amazing. From 88 kg of pure seeds sown, 71 tonnes were harvested. The following year, in 1966, IRRI distributed IR-8 seeds to Filipino farmers for free. Impressed by the harvest, the news of "miracle rice" spread IRRI officially released the variety re-christening it as IR-8 on November 29, 1966.

Green revolution in India

At around the same time, Agriculture Minister C. Subramaniam invited Nobel-laureate Norman Borlaug to work on improving the agricultural sector in the country. Borlaug went on to revolutionise wheat cultivation in the country. But India was largely a rice-eating nation. Rice was cultivated in every

region, from the hilly terrains of north and north-east to the coasts of south. And IR8 came as a boon.

Dr. Subba Rao's mass cultivation paved way for farmers using this high-yield variety. At an event to mark the 50th anniversary of the IR8 variety, eminent agricultural scientist Prof M.S. Swaminathan said, "The success of IR8 was largely due to its high yield potential and the synergy generated between technology and public policy." Dr. Swaminathan had a key role in popularising the IR8 and subsequent high-yielding varieties of paddy in India.

He recalled how a farmer in Tamil Nadu's Thiruvannamalai district named his son Irettu (8 is 'ettu' in Tamil). Mr. Ganesan, the farmer, had harvested about 16 tonnes per hectare of paddy, said Prof. Swaminathan, while the earlier yields were less than two tonnes per hectare.

Farmers' favourite

The IR8 became popular with farmers because it had a short growth duration and a high yield related to its response to nitrogen fertilizer, says the IRRI on its website. The resistance of this variety to pest and insect attacks was another reason why farmers preferred it. Being much smaller in size, the IR8 could withstand wind action unlike the traditional tall paddy. These paddy are ready for harvest in just 105 days.

Indian scientists took a cue from this on rice crossing and developed more dwarf varieties such as IR 20, IR 36 and IR 50.

Seeing the success in India and the Philippines, a member of Dr. Jenning's took it to war-torn Vietnam. It was fondly called "Honda rice" in Vietnam, as a bumper harvest assured farmers enough money to fund a Honda motorcycle. The rice variety travelled to Latin America the same year and eventually became the most sought-after variety in the tropical regions.

Impact of climate change

A study published by Field Crops Research journal in 2010 explains how the yield has dropped by 15 per cent due to climate change. Researchers have blamed hotter nights, frequent flooding and air pollution for the drop in the yield of IR8.

The same was emphasised by Dr. Swaminathan. "In the future, rice will play an important role in climate change management since it can grow under a wide range of altitudes and latitudes. For example, rice has grown below sea level in Kuttanad area of Kerala. At the same time, it is grown in high Himalayas. Wheat has no such resilience and is very much depended upon favourable night temperature. Therefore, more research should be done on the role of rice in climate change management," he said on Monday.

As IR8 turns fifty, it might get ready for another makeover, this time to stand the tests of climate.


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