In the first full year of implementation of IRRI’s new strategic plan, we have begun to see the seeds of change take root and flourish. This year IRRI has broken new ground in research, stewardship of our most important genetic assets, and delivery of innovations in the countries and communities we serve.
IRRI’s integrated research agenda has been strengthened this year through the infusion of new talent, new strategies, and additional financial investments. We have welcomed several new senior leaders to the organization in 2018. Arriving from complimentary international organizations, our sister CG centers, and the private sector, they bring with them a range of expertise and experience that will broaden IRRI’s horizons and introduce new ideas and approaches. I am confident that these new points of view will propel IRRI’s research agenda forward to address the increasingly complex challenge of creating an equitable and sustainable global rice sector.
A great example of new approaches to our Research-for-Development mission is the transition we saw this year from two of our flagship research programs to an integrated global strategy for rice breeding.
The Stress-Tolerant Rice for Africa and South Asia (STRASA) program delivered over half a million tons of climate-smart seeds to more than 18 million smallholder farmers over ten years. Today, these seeds are helping farmers secure their harvest in the face of abiotic stresses and environmental adversities. This investment has generated extensive national and regional networks across India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Mozambique, Burundi, Sierra Leone, Madagascar, and Mali, to name a few. These partner networks will be central to future efforts to develop varieties that outperform long-standing mega-varieties and meet farmer and market expectations.
By the same token, the Transforming Rice Breeding (TRB) investment enabled IRRI to continue its breeding modernization effort and we were delighted to assist partners such as the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute embark on their modernization journey.
The STRASA and TRB investments were made by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and we are delighted that the foundation will continue to support the needs of smallholder farmers through the Accelerated Genetic Gain in Rice (AGGRi) Alliance program. This new integrated strategy will aim to create a unified, modernized, and globally-aligned NARES-IRRI breeding network. It will provide enhanced trait development and data-driven variety dissemination, market- and gender-responsive product profiles, and will monitor the rate of genetic gain delivered to farmers. We anticipate even greater benefits for farmers and their families through this program. I would like to take this moment to express our gratitude to our STRASA and TRB partners. The gains from these investments would not have been possible without their unwavering support. We look forward to continuing our work together.
In 2018 IRRI also made great strides in enhancing our joint research agenda with the University of the Philippines in Los Baños (UPLB) in our host country of the Philippines. Over the course of the year we have worked closely with the academic leadership at UPLB to put several new research collaborations into place that will benefit the Philippine rice sector and Filipino academics. One example is the Improved Resource-Use Efficient rice varieties for the Philippines. The project will identify suitable introgession lines for high-yielding, weed-tolerant rice cultivars in order to develop rice varieties that require less inputs of N-P-K fertilizers and irrigation water, which can help Filipino rice farmers reduce cost outlay while maintaining yields.
As a research institute, I am also proud to report that IRRI’s impact factor has been steadily rising over the past five years. In 2018, IRRI scientists published over 223 peer-reviewed articles, with nearly half of them immediately available for public access. Most notably, the practical implication of this research means that information from the sequencing of 3,000 rice germplasm accessions is now being used to develop healthier rice varieties and to discover a potential new genetic weapon against bacterial blight, a rice disease that robs millions of farmers—and their families—of their livelihood each year.
In our strategic plan, IRRI renewed its commitment to steward our genetic resources and establish new opportunities for future generations to access the extraordinary genetic resources contained in our genebank. This is why we were particularly pleased to sign a landmark agreement with the Global Crop Diversity Trust that will guarantee perpetual funding of the International Rice Genebank.
As the first CG Center to achieve the qualifying standard and receive this funding, the agreement comes at a time when a safe and secure repository of rice biodiversity is more urgent than ever. As challenges arise from climate change, urbanization, environmental degradation, and a growing global population, the International Rice Genebank provides plant breeders with the biodiversity they need to develop robust crop varieties that are highly productive and resilient for farmers and provide urban consumers with improved nutritional values.
This year we have also accelerated the pace of engagement with partners across the spectrum, including the private sector. Over the last year, we signed several new agreements for shared access to germplasm collections as well as precision breeding technologies. The goal is to expand our joint capacity to develop new rice varieties that deliver higher yields and better resilience to biotic and abiotic stresses. These agreements demonstrate IRRI’s commitment to harnessing the best agricultural innovations to build a sustainable and equitable global rice sector.
We believe that IRRI’s greatest impact can be felt in the regions where we work. Over the past year we have been actively pursuing our regionalization strategy; strengthening our capacity for partnerships and delivery in locations where it is needed most. IRRI broke new ground in 2018 with the establishment of two new centers—the IRRI Regional Office for Africa in Nairobi, Kenya and the IRRI South Asian Research Centre in Varanasi, India. These centres will be catalysts for South-South collaboration, enhancing the research expertise and capacity of rice-growing countries in their regions.
Late in 2018, IRRI held the much anticipated 5th International Rice Congress in Singapore. The Congress is a unique global platform for current scientific endeavors and exciting disruptive technologies in agriculture such as robotics, nanotechnology, 3D printing, and gene editing. The Congress also featured keynote addresses from global authorities such as Gilbert Hongbou, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and Dr. Kundhavi Kadiresan, assistant director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
In closing, I reflect on the idea that change, by its very nature, is often uncomfortable and challenges us to think differently about the world around us. Change can also bring great rewards. As we’ve seen through the achievements and activities listed in these pages, IRRI and its partners have risen to the challenge of change. In facing these challenges, the passion and dedication of our staff have helped the institute to meet its mission. I’d like to take a moment to thank our staff, our Board of Trustees, our partners, and our investors for coming along with us on this journey, and for their support and trust in our vision.
I am confident that 2019 will prove to be another rewarding year. Our vibrant research agenda and extensive partnership network will help IRRI develop and translate innovations for those who need them most. I am deeply excited about the potential that our research and our partnerships have for solving key challenges in the rice sector and look forward to seeing the work of IRRI and its partners translate into further significant improvements in the lives of rice farmers and consumers across the world.