2.1 Rice Research Community
2.2 Challenges for Rice Research
2.3 IRRI in the Rice Research Community
The size and capacity of the international rice research community has expanded rapidly over the last decade. The globalization of rice research has been due to several factors: expansion of the research agenda and more emphasis on partnerships because of (i) increased concerns about sustainability and management of natural resources, (ii) funding pressures, and (iii) very recently, the success of international rice biotechnology initiatives that led to upgrading of research capability in developing country laboratories. The enhanced research capacity as well as new scientific opportunities promise to help bring us nearer the goal of increasing food production sufficiently to feed the greater populations of the 21st century.
The expanded rice research agenda will require broader, more sophisticated and integrated approaches. IRRI by itself will not be able to fulfill the expanded agenda requirements; indeed, no single research organization will be able to do so. What is needed is an array of institutions working together around the world to carry out basic research in, inter alia, the biological, chemical and physical sciences, coupled with strategic and applied agricultural research, including inputs from extension services and sometimes NGOs, to develop and deliver an array of improved technologies to farmers.
New partnerships will be required to deal with the new realities facing the research systems of rice-producing countries. Some partners will be new to agricultural research, but will be brought into rice research because of developments in biotechnology, molecular genetics and global change. Today, rice is about to become a 'model' organism for genetic research, particularly for genome and molecular biology studies relating to all major cereals.
A decade ago, IRRI was the centre of strategic and applied rice science. Today, IRRI still holds its position as a major centre of indica germplasm improvement for the tropics and subtropics and in rice technology transfer to developing countries, but soon it may no longer be their only provider.
The changes in rice research are most dramatic in biotechnology. Ten years ago, most scientists working in rice were based in agricultural research institutions and were grounded in agricultural research and development. When in 1986 the Rockefeller Foundation (RF) established its Rice Biotechnology Programme, a number of advanced molecular laboratories in the USA, Europe, and Australia began rice research. Early on, the RF programme provided a means for many promising Asian students, initially from China, India, Korea, Pakistan, and the Philippines, to train in basic research laboratories in industrialized countries. Research in the Programme became more focused as major factors in rice production were analyzed to determine the likelihood of their solution through biotechnology. Today, the Programme is centred almost entirely in advanced laboratories of the developing countries from whence came the first groups of students, and the laboratories that supplied the first waves of scholars are now equipped to carry out modern molecular genetics research.
Using IRRI materials, the first molecular map of rice was developed at Cornell University as part of the RF Programme; this map, along with the DNA markers used to produce it, was central to much of the later work. National rice genome programmes were established first in Japan, and then in China and Korea. Japan's Rice Genome Programme at Tsukuba took genetic maps to a new level of precision and provided a new analytical method to produce the first physical maps, a prelude to obtaining the entire DNA sequence of rice. A laboratory in Shanghai arguably leads the world in rice physical mapping, and a more modest programme at Suwon, Korea, is attaining the same capability.
Rice transformation - genetic modification by the introduction of isolated genes - has been achieved in many laboratories. IRRI has become a major centre for rice transformation, but still probably holds a secondary position to the Scripps Oceanographic Institute in San Diego, USA, and the John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom. IRRI's transformation programme focuses on rice improvement for diverse ecosystems.
Today, a large number of laboratories can provide information on genetic control of key agronomic traits in both indica and japonica rices and, through genetic modification, apply isolated and engineered genes to rice improvement. Many such laboratories are in NARS that IRRI serves, and are linked collaboratively with IRRI research groups.
Private sector laboratories have become interested in rice biotechnology. Also, questions of 'ownership' have come into play in both publicly funded and private laboratories, not only regarding potential income, but also as a way to gain access to the intellectual property of others and to control to some degree the use of a scientist's own discoveries. Today, life in rice science is complex indeed.
But it is not only in the fields of biotechnology and genetic engineering that life has become complex for IRRI and its collaborators. In the last decade the International Convention on Biodiversity has taken effect, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development issued its Agenda 21, and the International Convention on Biological Diversity was signed. These developments were brought about by a worldwide shift in attitude concerning the environment and sustainability. As a consequence, questions have been raised about the role and effects of rice production - as well as other agricultural practices - on such matters as (potential positive and negative) effects of global warming, water quality, ownership of genetic resources, agricultural sustainability, and global food security. Each of these developments has brought new concerns and partners into the rice research community. A notable development has been the increasing involvement of Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in CGIAR research efforts.
The above discussion covers mostly developments in science and the consequences of international meetings and/or agreements. But we cannot go further here without coming back to the reasons why the CGIAR was established, to help increase food production and raise the well-being of the poor in developing countries. Here too, changes have taken place that affect the global rice community. The NARS in some countries have been strengthened and are now taking their place as full partners in planning and carrying out research. For years, scientists and decision-makers from NARS have been members of TAC, IARC boards, and the advisory committees that help define priorities and strategies for rice research. New partnership arrangements to improve rice science are being made by IRRI, CIAT, and WARDA in improving the productivity, profitability, and sustainability of rice farming. However, in spite of this, there are still rice-producing countries whose NARS are unable to develop the quality and quantity of technology required to meet national needs. In such countries, IRRI and the international rice research community must help them obtain needed technologies, and assist in training and strengthening their national capacity. It would be ideal if all rice-producing countries could participate in rice research partnerships as full peers, but, unfortunately, that is still not possible. Therefore, strategies and support to strengthen some NARS will still be necessary for at least the next decade. To illustrate this, IRRI's efforts through the ARBN foster capacity in biotechnology and its integration with breeding programmes.
To sum up the global situation facing rice research today, the tasks of IRRI and its research collaborators - traditional, emerging, and novel - are likely to remain complex and lively.
The rice research challenge is even more daunting than before. Gains in productivity are essential to meet human needs. In Asia, where more than 90% of rice is grown and consumed and where the land frontier is mostly closed, the only option is to produce even more on existing lands. To meet India's needs in 2020, and with little scope for bringing more land under rice, yield improvement of no less than 2.5% per year must be achieved. Other Asian countries also face the need to intensify rice production; this remains a major challenge for IRRI and its partners. The promising results with hybrid rice in China, India, and Vietnam are exciting and interesting in raising yield potential, as are the initial efforts to modify plant architecture to raise the basis for higher yield. Also, the fact that IRRI's conventional breeding programme still is able to maintain a 1% annual yield improvement rate is noteworthy and commendable.
Continuing intensification of rice farming also brings other challenges for IRRI's four existing ecosystem programmes. These involve managing inputs, including increasingly scarce water resources, achieving higher input use efficiencies, raising yields on less favourable lands, and achieving all of these without degrading the natural resource base and the environment. Another challenge will be to help meet rice needs in countries that are moving toward agricultural diversification and high-value crops. Each year, urbanization and industrial growth are removing good rice lands from production and placing even greater production pressures on remaining rice lands, both favoured and less favoured. Crop intensification brings problems of crop establishment and management, in nearly year-round systems of double or triple cropping of rice and other crops. Here direct seeding, with related factors including tillage, land levelling, dry or wet seeding, broadcast or line sowing, weed control, and water management, raises all kinds of questions for IRRI and its partners.
Keeping ahead of pests and diseases is as always a challenge. Solutions to some of these challenges may emerge as new molecular genetic tools are made available to breeders, pathologists, and entomologists. Further challenges are to understand soil nutrient deficiencies in the various rice cropping systems, determine optimum systems of nutrient management, and minimize pollution problems.
New plant materials from biotechnology will pose new questions for IRRI and its collaborators, particularly regarding matters relating to proprietary science and the new working arrangements and agreements that may be required. In particular, partnerships with the private sector will increasingly become important, especially in matters pertaining to access to new technologies or tools developed in private laboratories.
In the middle of all these problems will be IRRI, which has always sought to position itself in the most suitable role(s) to work with, and serve, NARS partners. Such partnerships have usually required both peer and mentor relationships to identify and solve pressing problems and thereby improve productivity and the welfare of rice producers and consumers.
Few institutions, if any, have had a more profound effect on how research is done in a crop and in its global development than has IRRI. Thirty-eight years ago, when IRRI was formed, there was almost no collaboration between countries in rice research. No global germplasm collections had been made, and prospects for rice improvement - especially in the tropics - appeared bleak. When IRRI was formed, many questioned what a small staff of international scientists located in the Philippines could do to improve rice in the developing countries. And, some said, indica rices had little scope for improvement. With the release of IR8 and IR5 in the late 1960s, a new era of rice research and rice productivity began. And with it came a global rice research community, growing, strengthening, moving ahead. And as the global community changed and developed, so IRRI also had to change.
Over the years, IRRI has proved its worth in developing successful research, first to raise the productivity of irrigated rice in Asia where for centuries little yield improvement had been gained, and later extending that work to problems of rice in less favoured areas. Genetic improvement work proved to be the first major innovation of the Institute. Then, as the new genotypes began to spread and boost agricultural production, other problems appeared requiring new arrangements for collaboration with national programmes for which there was no operational model. Some attempts at collaboration were successful, some less so. But each time new lessons were learned in the process of finding out just how an international centre with a limited staff could serve as catalyst, mentor, training centre, and bridge to agricultural and basic science elsewhere.
Today, IRRI has become a centre of knowledge of rice science. Its library is unparalleled in the world. Several of its scientists have become recognized as international authorities in their areas of specialization. Many national programme leaders and research scientists have received part of their research training or education at IRRI or through the help of IRRI. These people have returned to their countries to lead research efforts and are key persons in helping to find ways to collaborate with colleagues in other countries on similar problems that cross national borders. The enabling function of IRRI has perhaps been overlooked in many cases, but it is certainly true that many developments in rice science and knowledge generation could not have been made without the leadership, help, and support of IRRI. NARS scientists appreciate opportunities to participate in monitoring tours, e.g., those of INGER, to see their own and others' genetic materials elsewhere under different threats and ecological conditions, and for the career development afforded by their contacts with IRRI.
IRRI has had many challenges over the years, but perhaps it faces some of its greatest challenges now. There is a vastly different situation now than at the time of the last EPMR. The developments in science coming from molecular biology have changed tremendously the environment in which IRRI works. The first meeting of an international group to formulate plans for sequencing the entire rice genome took place during the time of this EPMR. By the time of the next EPMR, a large proportion - maybe all - of the 25,000 or so rice genes will be known, and many of them may have been patented. IRRI will have to change again to meet the challenges and the needs, and in doing so it will have to change somewhat the way it deals with the rice research community. To do so will require forward vision, intelligence, care, agility, and, perhaps above all, goodwill on the part of its partners and constituencies.