A top rice research center headquartered in the Philippines, a country vulnerable to climate change, says it is developing varieties of this grain and staple of Asian diets that can survive droughts, temperature extremes and flooding.
Scientists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in the university town of Los Baños, south of Manila, say they are working around the clock because they believe that “no crop is as vulnerable to global warming as rice.”
The institute and its partners in recent years have come up with rice varieties that can grow amid adverse weather conditions and in soil exposed to high levels of salt – a trend expected to become more frequent and extreme with climate change, experts said.
“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,”Alice Laborte, senior scientist at IRRI, told a small group of visiting reporters invited to the institute earlier this month.
Rice is a main source of food for many people in Asia, which is home to five of the world’s 10 most populous countries: India, China, Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
“So at IRRI, what we’re doing is looking at where these varieties are needed the most,” Laborte said.
Once these varieties are made available, farmers can do their planting in any “stress environment,” Philippine Agriculture Undersecretary Mercedita Sombilla said during the same briefing.
“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,” she said.
Earlier this month, the United Nations’ World Meteorological Organization issued a warning about soaring temperatures as it reported that the El Niño weather phenomenon had emerged in the tropical Pacific for the first time in seven years.
At the same time, the Philippines’ state weather bureau declared the onset of El Niño and warned Filipinos that its effects could be felt toward the end of the year.
Drought, considered the most widespread and damaging of all environmental stresses, affects 88,800 square miles of rice in South and Southeast Asia, where most rice farmers live, according to scientists. With little 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 said drought-tolerant varieties have been released in several countries in recent years, including India (the Sahbhagi Dhan variety), the Philippines (the Sahod Ulan variety), and Nepal (the Sookha Dhan variety).
Another variety developed to withstand extreme weather conditions is the flood-tolerant rice being planted in the Philippines, which experiences an average of 20 typhoons per year, and elsewhere in Asia.
Floods – whether from flash floods or stagnant flooding – affect rice crops at any stage of growth. When crops are totally submerged, their chances of survival are “extremely low,” according to IRRI.
Flooding leads to farmers in Bangladesh and India losing about 4 million tons of rice annually, a volume that could feed 30 million people, scientists said.
When Super Typhoon Rai struck the Philippines in December 2021, the country lost crops and farmlands estimated at U.S. $215 million (11.7 billion pesos), with rice crops wiped out across some regions.
Citing an IRRI experiment, Laborte said 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.
In low-lying Bangladesh, which is vulnerable to flooding, it was found that farmers earn an additional $92 (10,000 Bangladesh takas) per hectare by planting flood-resistant rice varieties.
“There is immense advantage to the common man,” said Ajay Kohli, IRRI deputy director general for research.
“For me and for IRRI, what is very interesting is to see part of the money going to child education, that’s where we actually experience transformative change. Imagine in a typical household in India and Bangladesh, where the study was conducted, if the parents are not educated but the child gets educated, within a few years the entire atmosphere of the household changes,” Kohli said.
Temperature, salt resistance
Global warming has a significant effect on rice.
IRRI said it had discovered more rice varieties that were tolerant to the heat, cold and soil salinity.
While rice originates from the tropics, extreme heat can damage yield, plant processes and grain quality. At the same time, frequently occurring low temperatures can lead to heavy losses for farmers.
China alone has recorded rice crop losses of 3 million to 5 million tons caused by low temperatures, IRRI reported.
In addition to extreme temperatures, rising sea levels threaten rice production as salt water moves inland. This contributes to high salinity in soil, which regular rice varieties cannot withstand.
IRRI scientists 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.
But the challenge is for governments to convince farmers to plant new rice varieties. As Sombilla, the Philippine agriculture undersecretary, noted, many 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?”