Philippines’ climate-smart rice varieties: A potential game-changer for climate change and agriculture

Screenshot 2023 06 01 at 06.17.38 Large

A breed of climate-smart rice, designed to withstand droughts, floods, and rising sea levels, is being developed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. The experimental variety, cultivated in flooded rice paddies south of Manila in Los Banos, is poised to combat the impacts of extreme weather on agriculture, which has been exacerbated by climate change.

One of the key features of this experimental rice is its resilience. Unlike regular rice, it can survive being submerged underwater for an additional two weeks. This trait was made possible due to the research conducted by senior scientist and plant breeder at the IRRI, Shalabh Dixit. Dixit emphasised the urgency of their work, saying, “With climate change, with increased biotic and abiotic stresses, with the reduced amount of water available, we need better genetics for rice to be able to provide stable yields in fluctuating environments.”

In pursuit of superior rice varieties, the research team at the IRRI is not only focusing on flood-resistance but also on drought and saline-resistance. The team is utilising an advanced breeding method known as marker-assisted breeding, allowing them to detect genes with desirable traits from rice grains and merge them with other rice varieties to produce a more advantageous crop.

Rhulyx Mendoza, a research manager at the institute, explained the process, saying that the “donor parent” donates desirable traits, such as drought or submergence tolerance. These traits are then received by the “recipient parent,” which already boasts positive traits like high yield, early maturity, and good eating quality.

The drought-resistant variety is now being grown by farmers in India, Nepal, and the Philippines. These crops have been genetically enabled to survive weeks longer than regular crops and continue to grow with minimal water. One of the farmers, Alex Abortiz, from the northern province of Bulacan, known for its droughts, is optimistic about the climate-resistant rice, stating that this innovation will undoubtedly enhance his yields.

The urgency of this development cannot be understated. The Southeast Asian rice-producing country endures an average of 20 tropical storms annually. In 2022, floods caused agricultural damages worth over 37.6 million Philippine pesos (US$670,000), with rice crops constituting more than US$450,000 of those losses, according to the Philippine Department of Agriculture.

It is hoped that these climate-smart rice varieties will stabilise and reduce risk in rice cultivation, lower production costs, and improve farmers’ income and life quality. This pioneering research not only addresses the immediate threat of climate change but also creates a sustainable solution for the future of global agriculture.

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