Scientists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, Laguna, in the Philippines are developing varieties of rice that can survive droughts, temperature extremes, and flooding. The scientists state that they are working around the clock because they believe that “no crop is as vulnerable to global warming as rice.”
In recent years, the institute and its partners have produced rice varieties that can grow amid adverse weather conditions and in soil exposed to high levels of salt. According to experts, soil with high levels of salt is a trend that is expected to become more frequent and extreme due to climate change.
“We do expect in the coming years, with climate change and with frequencies of typhoons and droughts, that we may be needing more of these varieties,” said Alice Laborte, senior scientist at IRRI, to a small group of visiting reporters invited to the institute.
For many people in Asia, rice is a main source of food. Five of the world’s most populous countries, namely India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, are located in Asia.
“So at IRRI, what we’re doing is looking at where these varieties are needed the most,” Laborte said. According to Philippine Agriculture Secretary Mercedita Sombilla, once the varieties are made available, farmers can do their planting in any “stress environment.”
“They can continue to harvest rice under different conditions and if rice is available, of course, that will stabilize local production and local supply and that would sort of stabilize rice prices,” Sombilla added.
Earlier in July, the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization issued about higher and warmer temperatures, reporting that the El Niño weather phenomenon had emerged in the tropical Pacific for the first time in seven years. Simultaneously, the Philippines’ state weather bureau declared the onset of El Niño and warned the country that its effects could be felt towards the end of the year.
Drought is considered the most widespread and damaging of all environmental stresses. With little to no rain, farmers who rely on rain-fed fields or do not have irrigation facilities would fail to accumulate enough water to prepare their lands for transplanting rice. IRRI stated that drought-tolerant varieties have been released in several countries in recent years, including the Philippines which has the Sahod Ulan variety.
Flood is another environmental stress that affects rice crops at any stage of growth. Flood-tolerant rice is also being planted in the Philippines as it is a country that experiences an average of 20 typhoons per year.
According to Laborte who cited an IRRI experiment, regular rice varieties were completely obliterated during flooding but the submergence-resistant varieties were “still standing up.”
“It’s not as high yielding as hybrid rice, but in a situation where there is flooding, it’s the best bet for farmers to be able to still get income from rice production,” Laborte said.
Global warming has significant effects on rice. Extreme heat can damage yield, plant processes, and grain quality. Furthermore, frequently occurring low temperatures can lead to heavy losses for farmers. IRRI reported that China alone has recorded rice crop losses of 3 million to 5 million tons caused by low temperatures.
Aside from extreme temperatures, rising sea levels threaten rice production as well with salt water moving inland. Regular rice varieties aren’t able to withstand the high salinity in the soil.
The scientists at IRRI have found ways to increase rice’s resistance to salt. They also found characteristics of salt-tolerant and flood-tolerant rice varieties that could be combined to create another variety capable of tolerating floodwaters and high salinity.
Philippine agriculture undersecretary Sombilla noted that it is a challenge for the local government to convince farmers to plant new varieties, stating that local farmers are reluctant to try new ways until they see the effect on others or after they experience a calamity.
“It’s usually wait-and-see for them,” Sombilla said. “Sometimes there is hesitancy by them adopting immediately, especially if they see what they’re using now is doing well, so why do they have to change?”