Dr. Robert Zeigler
International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)
Summary of presentation given at Thailand's First National Rice Research Conference, 15-17 December 2010.
The world needs more rice to help keep rice prices affordable and to meet growing demand. By 2035, an additional 116 million tons of rice are needed. However, major challenges face rice production: yield stagnation, less natural resources, inadequate infrastructure, and a more sophisticated and varied demand. Thailand faces these same issues and, as the world's largest exporter of rice, how Thailand responds to these challenges will affect the global trade of the commodity.
Because of its export status, the country's export rice prices are commonly considered to be the benchmark price for rice products from other nations. However, when it comes to rice yields, Thailand is lagging behind global averages. There is therefore huge potential for Thailand to increase its yields to help meet some of this growing demand.
To take advantage of this opportunity, Thailand must remain competitive through innovation. In particular, Thailand can help develop and adopt new rice varieties with higher yield potential that retain the quality Thailand is famous for, and develop and adopt better resource management practices that improve water and nutrient use, crop establishment, and pest management. These technologies, coupled with innovative ways to encourage farmer adoption and provide farmers with real-time advice along with access to credit and crop insurance, will all help.
Major flooding in Thailand in 2010 demonstrated the extent of havoc such extreme weather events – which are predicted to become worse with the onset of climate change – can wreak on rice production. New rice varieties that can tolerate long periods of submergence, such as that experienced in Thailand, are now available. Indian farmers have been adopting them at unprecedented rates.
Submergence-tolerant rice was bred using a very precise breeding technology called “marker-assisted breeding.” Marker-assisted breeding ensures that only the trait of interest is incorporated from the donor variety, in this case submergence tolerance, while retaining all the positive characteristics of the recipient variety. This solves a particular breeding problem for Thailand that could ensure that the country’s unique and premium brand of aromatic rice is not compromised. For example, it is now possible to breed the gene for submergence tolerance into Thailand’s Kao Dok Mali, thereby making it more tolerant of flooding, without negatively affecting its excellentgrain quality characteristics.
Currently conserved in IRRI’s International Rice Genebank are 5,185 types of rice received from Thailand that are available for sharing under the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. Another 417 are also conserved, but not shared, as requested by Thailand.
Thai rice breeders and farmers can access this rice and other non-Thai rice from the International Rice Genebank’s collection of more than 110,000 types of rice. So far, 5,245 different rice samples have been dispatched to Thailand to help breed new rice varieties.
The integrity and uniqueness of Thai jasmine rice will not, however, be compromised through this sharing process because the unique aromatic properties of Thai jasmine rice are a combination of the presence of various aroma genes and the climatic and soil conditions in which Thai jasmine rice is grown. Such conditions are not easily duplicated outside of Thailand, thus ensuring a place in the market for Thai rice for many years to come.
Moreover, IRRI scientists have discovered that the version of the major gene for fragrance found in Thai jasmine rice is shared with at least 300 other varieties of aromatic rice from 17 Asian countries. The research also suggests that the aroma gene did not originate in Thai jasmine rice.
Thailand, along with other major rice-producing countries, must work toward more sustainable and productive rice production systems. Three and even four rice crops per year are not a sustainable solution, nor is the indiscriminate and excessive use of fertilizer and pesticides. We must also come up with better ways to grow rice that reduce the backbreaking labor currently associated with rice production and implement better water-saving technologies.
The good news is that better choices are available to Thai farmers.
Techniques such as alternate wetting and drying can be used by farmers to help them apply irrigation water only when it is needed. Likewise, Nutrient Manager for Rice helps guide farmers to less wasteful and more strategic fertilizer use.
Severe brown planthopper outbreaks across Thailand and other parts of Asia in 2009 were a reminder that damaged ecosystems are vulnerable to insect attack. Policy decisions can reduce both the likelihood and impact of such outbreaks if they are focused on restoring ecological balance and reducing pesticide use.
Across the world fewer and fewer young scientists are entering agricultural research. This is especially true in Southeast Asia and Thailand is no exception. If Thailand is to take advantage of the revolution in genetics and I.T. it must develop a new generation or rice scientists. To do so it must engage much more effectively with the international scientific community. Becoming scientifically isolated will be catastrophic for the Thai rice industry.
IRRI has had a longstanding relationship with Thailand. The first formal link was made in the year IRRI was established, 1960, when Thailand's Prince Chakrabandhu became a founding member of the IRRI Board of Trustees.
Following this, in 1966, IRRI's Thai office was established in Bangkok with the appointment of the first IRRI scientist assigned to Thailand. During that year, the IRRI variety IR8-288-3 was crossed with tall Thai rice cultivars to produce RD1 and RD3 the first non-glutinous, semi-dwarf, photo-period-insensitive, high-yielding varieties released to farmers in the country.
IRRI has maintained a close relationship with Thailand throughout the last 50 years, over which time four Thai scientists have worked at IRRI headquarters, and, between 1966 and 2009, 191 scholars came from Thailand.
Thailand's royal connection with IRRI has continued throughout the years and, in 1996, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) became the first and only Royal Patron of IRRI. In November 2009, Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn launched IRRI's 50th anniversary. And, in August 2009, I had IRRI's first Royal audience with His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej. Discussions focused on a range of issues, including the role of the
International Rice Genebank and IRRI's work in Thailand. His Majesty urged me to make sure IRRI communicated clearly its important role in managing the world's rice varieties.