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RECOMMENDATIONS FOR SUSTAINABLE AND EFFECTIVE USE OF RICE GENETIC RESOURCES AND IMPROVEMENT AT NATIONAL, REGIONAL AND GLOBAL LEVEL

1. Lack of precise information about economic traits has been one of the reasons for the poor use of accessions in gene banks. The characterization and evaluation of conserved germplasm is the weakest link in many of the national, regional and global collections. For a crop like rice with a large gene pool, the development of core collections will facilitate easy accessibility to and effective use of the genetic diversity preserved. Without knowledge of the specific economic value of a genetic material, how can it be categorized as a genetic resource? Hence, greater effort is essentially needed to evaluate and optimize genetic resources in national, regional and global rice improvement programmes.

2. A core collection - i.e. a representative set of accessions covering maximum diversity with minimum repetition and consisting of ecologically and genetically distinct accessions - needs to be developed at national, regional and international centres for crop species with a large collection (such as rice). Besides reducing conservation costs and increasing management efficiency, it promotes effective and sustainable use of genetic diversity by facilitating rapid and precise identification of germplasm sources for improvement of desired traits. For delineation of a core collection, the extent of diversity to be covered and number of accessions to be included in the set must be established. A core collection can be made more dynamic with the integration of molecular techniques to increase the number of distinct alleles, remove duplicates and create scope for the addition of new accessions whenever identified as different from the present ones. Efforts should be made to develop attribute-based core collections, which will help reduce the sample size as well as facilitate rapid identification of donors for desired traits with increased precision. Genetic enhancement of significant economic traits needs particular attention.

3. Germplasm collection expeditions should be organized regularly to complete the gaps in germplasm collection from underexplored and unexplored centres of diversity. Systematic characterization of the collected germplasm is then vital. The genetic resources generated in research institutions/stations - i.e. released varieties, breeding lines, advanced material evaluated in coordinated trials, mutants, genetic stocks etc. - must be conserved. Many of the mutants developed, discarded and then lost may have been vital for functional genomics, crucial for future breeding with great velocity and precision.

4. Other procedures worth consideration are: discarding duplicates by systematic evaluation; development of a national accession system; and careful management of seed gene banks, closely monitoring germplasm for viability and periodical growing for rejuvenation of seed and providing an opportunity for evolution under natural conditions.

5. It is essential to re-orient future breeding research to improve and sustain genetic diversity, broadening the genetic base for important economic traits. Biotechnological tools should be used, for example, DNA fingerprinting of released varieties/elite breeding lines to analyse genetic diversity in the collection and marker-assisted selection.

6. The entire genus Oryza has been included in the agreed list of crops under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA), signed under the auspices of FAO and in harmony with the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in November 2001. It has thus become mandatory to facilitate the flow of materials for rice breeding. The use of a standard Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) and assured multilateral benefit-sharing on an equitable basis are essential features of germplasm exchange under the ITPGRFA and in sharp deviation from the earlier International Undertaking on Plant Genetic Resources (IUPGR), which had successfully provided a valuable platform for germplasm sharing and varietal breeding since 1983. While observing that an elaboration of the term equitable is not provided in the Treaty, the institutional mechanism to govern the ITPGRFA must play a balancing role between the breeders and the benefit claimers, with the overall objective of promoting rice breeding for the improvement of varietal technology on an incremental basis to ultimately mitigate global food insecurity through increased quantity, quality and availability of rice. Nevertheless, there is a need for augmentation and conservation of rice agrobiodiversity under both ex situ and in situ farm conditions as per the Global Plan of Action (GPA) and Agenda 21. Liberal funding and financial mechanisms from concerned international institutions and interested donor agencies are required to secure the current diversity for sustainable use and future posterity.

7. Germplasm curators should be made responsible for the valuation of rice germplasm, which is essential for staking higher benefit claims, albeit on the principles of equity. In the past, the use of resistant germplasm from wild relatives originating in gene-rich countries was relatively inexpensive, taking into account its commercial value. The world is destined to witness interesting claims for potentially useful raw genetic resources on the one hand, and for the technologies for using the resources to develop and commercialize the final varietal products on the other. It is much easier to estimate the cost of technology rather than the intrinsic and predictable values of a genetic resource. Therefore, one of the major challenges in rice breeding in the future is the correct valuation of the ingredients and techniques in breeding in order to fix the price tag on products and subsequently to share commercial benefits on an equitable basis.

8. Food security is the total of economic and ecological security in terms of the quantity and quality of the food commodities available. Rice breeding in the future must therefore be much more concerned with and oriented towards varietal technology development in the ecosystem perspective. It has been observed that in terms of ecosystem-wise varietal release in Asia, Africa and Latin America in the post-green revolution period, more than two-thirds of efforts and results have focused on favourable agro-ecologies (e.g. the irrigated and wetland rice cultivation systems). On the other hand, marginal rice ecosystems, such as rainfed upland, rainfed semi-deep water, deep water and mountainous, are more important from the point of view of household food and nutritional security, which places greater emphasis on more rational breeding approaches, such as incorporating wide adaptability in rice genotypes or developing varietal and hybrid technologies suited to these specific situations.

9. In addition to its wide diversity, the rice genotype also has a high degree of phenotypic plasticity, with some rice cultures able to adapt to wider ecological ranges than others. There are several genes of intrinsic value and there are many threshold genes in the rice genome. While landraces tend to be rich in the phenotypic buffers, breeding has tended to narrow down diversity and variability, especially with regard to buffering traits. Genes of both economic and ecological importance must be pyramided in future rice varieties in order to obtain rapid results for more productive and stable rice genotypes. Attention is now turned towards biotechnological tools for incorporating individual genes, and recurrent breeding approaches are required to achieve affordable, incremental gains in the NARS breeding programmes. Although conventional breeding nowadays is less at the centre of attention, there is a need to infuse the result-oriented interest of the existing and potential donor agencies with financial mechanisms capable of promoting such activities under network or consortium approaches. At the same time, more investment is required to verify the already reported gene maps and record newer genes and gene relationships, using alternate sets of germplasm and the same or different sets of techniques. The aim is to have the capability and the required genetic resources for the pinpointed transfer/incorporation of the particular genes into the desired target varieties or hybrids.

10. With the advent of new technologies, hybrid culture is likely to prevail in decades to come, cutting across crops and commodities, and modes, mechanisms and systems of pollination. If parents are appropriately selected and breeding efforts well directed, hybrids can provide far greater resilience to harsher environments. Hybrid breeding therefore offers great potential in a crop such as rice which is grown in harsh environments. Furthermore, in all favourable and unfavourable environments, heterosis could be suitably exploited when there is the appropriate combination of parents.

11. In an era of intellectual property rights protection, a breeder’s consent is required for the repeated use of a variety in the development or production of any new variety. Future rice breeding will, therefore, obviously require much more secretarial and legal assistance and paperwork, as well as more work in the field and laboratory. Capacity-building requires better equipped laboratories and trained technical assistants dedicated to the job. Human resource development is important for both gene-rich and technology-rich segments/streams of scientists, particularly in the area of seeking cross references.

12. To ensure the future of rice breeding, a better understanding is needed of the architecture of the rice plant, population buffering, target gene incorporation and pyramiding. It is necessary to respect intellectual property rights and informed consent should be sought in advance for genetic manipulation/modification and to guarantee biosafety. Status reports in Pest Risk Analysis (PRA) on a crop, national and regional basis will become more important than ever before in the rice breeding and varietal protection/commercialization programmes, particularly for import and export. Export is essentially demanding in terms of product quality control. Hence, breeding for quality traits together with value addition and quality control will also have to constitute important parts of any future research, breeding and commercialization strategy.

13. Future rice breeding will essentially be guided by policy-setting and commensurate instruments for managing the change from the present scenario (focusing on seed for the public good or profit-making in an evenly placed public-private breeding environment showing elaborate responsibilities and contributions) to a future scenario dominated by new concerns and issues, such as genes and gene sources, chemicals and agrochemicals, biofertilezers and biocontrol agents, organic farming and, above all, various forms of IPR.

Nevertheless, plant breeding must make more serious and strenuous efforts, using all possible tools, whether singly or in combination.

14. Genetic engineering for the development of transgenics/GMOs/LMOs (genetically modified and living modified organisms) and value-added products is a challenge worth accepting, despite the new risks (foreseen and unforeseen) involved in the gene product, changes in plant phenotype, stability of transgenes, transgene position effects, unintended gene introduction, gene transfer, interaction with pathogens etc. The much talked of genetic use restriction technology (GURT) or terminator technology would also inherit some drawbacks in a sustainability perspective. For example, farm-saved seed cannot be re-used and may affect conservation of invaluable recombinants. Future breeding efforts must combine familiar and innovative approaches, with the necessary precautionary measures and testing, so as to meet biosafety and environmental safety standards.

15. Rice breeding already presents two classic examples of sovereign/community rights and ownership of breeding materials affecting the unconditional use of germplasm as parental lines, particularly when repeated use of the line is required for breeding a variety or for producing seed. First, the parentage of IR 64 is known to have more than 70 lines originating from as many as eight countries, and developed, nurtured and maintained by farming and tribal communities in different parts of the world. India alone has contributed eight parental lines in the pedigree of IR 64. Equitable sharing of benefits accrued from the commercial use of IR 64 was not an issue at the time, and a well-respected institutional mechanism provided by FAO/IUPGR and the absence of CBD and the like meant that such varieties were bred for the public good. Hence, the institutional mechanism established for the enforcement of ITPGRFA (which has now replaced IUPGR) must be more determined and stronger in order to create a balance between varietal development and genuine calls for benefit-sharing.

16. The presence of a number of proprietary genes, such as those in the Golden Rice pedigree, presents a challenging scenario for both breeders and institutions of IPR management. Breeders must incorporate further diversity and stability in the new varietal technology to make it a lasting proposition, while intergovernmental understanding and agreements are required to develop provisions that create a more suitable environment for the use of proprietary genes in future rice breeding programmes. The value of sale and profitability criteria are important concerns emerging in the planning stages of future rice breeding programmes. These would also influence the organization’s or company’s strategies for the protection of intellectual property, whether de facto or de juro. Smaller companies entering into hybrid breeding programmes may like to adopt de facto protection by non-disclosure of parents of hybrids, encashing their new products in the market, whereas big companies tend to choose patent protection. Strategic research areas - for example, the specific adaptability of new hybrids in abiotic or biotic stress-prone areas, or quality and seed production potential improvement in hybrids - would, however, require the focused attention of the public sector research centres/NARS, which need liberal funding. In this context, public-private partnerships with a clear role and contributions in terms of materials and funding, as well as results-sharing, are essential in order to perpetuate this essential component of future rice breeding efforts. It is also important to diversify the value addition approach by the application of transgenics or by empirical methods in the preparation of rice-based foods, which will also require breeding attention for rice grain qualities.

17. The issue of geographical indicators in rice is likely to become highly important. All botanical varieties of rice (i.e. indica, japonica and javanica) have unique characteristics, such as aroma, flavour, stickiness and softness, and consumer preference depends on the location and market. A possible consideration of such agricultural goods in the review process of TRIPs (the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) for special protection under geographical indicators is likely to emphatically bring in this new element in the IPR protection portfolio that the future rice breeding programmes may not ignore. Strengthening of the varietal protection regime, whether by patents, an effective sui generis system or a combination of the two, is likely to bring in changes in the composition of breeding blocks of future rice breeding programmes. This would need to include new series of reference varieties, most similar varieties and other checks related to the examination of essential criteria for the protection of a new variety, i.e. distinctness, uniformity and stability (DUS criteria). Utilization of the computer shall similarly become more important in future rice breeding efforts for the development and use of systematic databases.

18. Patenting of micro-organisms and genes is destined to become the norm with an impact on the overall rice improvement programmes. It is true that with the advent of high-yielding varieties (particularly in the last four decades), biodiversity in rice is decreasing. However, the available genetic variability to be used for developing improved rice varieties is increasing due to science and technology, because, technically, there is no barrier to gene flow across the kingdom due to the availability of biotechnology as a powerful tool. On the earth, about 1.72 million biological species are documented and 10 million estimated. With the current level of expertise and facilities available, several hundred years would be required to even partially assess the value of the genetic potential of these materials and their utilization through modern methods of biotechnology for the improvement of rice. There is an opportunity to improve rice varieties to suit people’s needs, provided nations or systems develop the capabilities to capitalize on the enormous future opportunities.

19. Transgenics are also becoming the norm and a happy marriage between the approaches followed by traditional breeders, biotechnologists and agronomists is likely to harness the fruits of rice research in terms of its enhanced productivity, sustainability, profitability, improvement in quality, resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses, genotypic input-use efficiency etc. However, it would require the risk-assessment-based release of rice varieties and hybrids. This would again raise questions on the capabilities of nations, and on ethical and environmental concerns.

20. Due to the conflict of interest of major donors, far more investment in natural resource management through the Consultative Group of International Agricultural Research Centres (CG centres) is likely, in contrast with the earlier thrust on seed development through: IRRI on rice; CIMMYT on maize and wheat; ICARDA on lentil, chickpea and barley; and ICRISAT on ground nut, pigeon pea, chickpea, pearl millet and sorghum etc. In such a scenario, seed may be defined as private wealth. Hence, to ensure that research in the seed sector continues and is accelerated, developing nations will have to own far more than ever before by enhancing their contributions for genetic enhancement of rice lest the flow of semifinished/finished products and materials should dry up in the foreseeable future. This will have serious consequences, considering the enormous contributions of international rice research institutions in terms of varieties released for commercial cultivation.

21. The investment in self-pollinated crops is not likely to flow much from the private sector as farmers can retain, use and exchange the seed as per likely IPR provisions in most of the developing countries where rice is grown. However, this would not be the general case where hybrid rice is likely to come. Hence, the public sector will have to invest much more in future inbred rice varietal improvement programmes through their respective national agricultural research systems on rice research and development.

22. Networks (of scientists) and consortia (of institutions) will be extremely important in the years to come. They may be public-public, public-private or private-private, operate at national, regional or global level, and capitalize on complimentarities and harness synergies at national, regional and global level. This would be one of the best ways of developing cost-effective rice varieties and hybrids.

23. Developing economies essentially require consultancy, human resources development, training etc., in order to capitalize on unfinished potential rice materials and rice research. Critical analysis demonstrates that there are a number of national agricultural research systems which are so undeveloped that they cannot go beyond selection and to a very limited extent the conventional breeding. They are not at all in a position to capitalize on the modern tools and techniques of biotechnology. Hence, in the existing and emerging IPR regimes, the developments are likely to be more lop-sided, unless corrective measures are taken.

24. Examining the genetic potential available, it is possible to: develop C4 rice plants; evolve varieties with lower methane gas emission and varieties genetically tailor-made for specific ionic uptake; deploy drought-resistance genes in rice; enhance the quality of protein and the protein per se; improve input-use efficiency; and develop vitamin-A- and iron-enriched rice. Similarly, more areas which are important to sustainability, environmental safety, and food and nutrition security, including poverty, hunger and malnutrition, could be tackled as part of a research programme, for which it would be necessary to strengthen an institution such as IRRI.

25. In general, in developing countries, resources for research and development efforts in agriculture (including rice) are either decreasing or static (in real terms). This situation is highly explosive, particularly as rice is bred for diversified climatic situations - upland or non-assured rainfed, deep-waterlogged, flood-prone, salinity-, alkalinity- or drought-prone - on hill tops and in the valleys, and therefore demands specific research efforts in all areas of rice improvement and management. This is not likely to happen without more investment from the public sector.

26. To address the situation, a UN institution (such as FAO) should convene a meeting involving all the stakeholders, including donors, to develop a strategy for serving science, society and humanity through rice improvement and development, and to address the concerns of food and nutritional security, equity and balanced and harmonized growth of rice in different regions, situations and systems.


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