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Achievements of Indian rice research and IRRI partnership showcased at IRC 2023

Manila, Philippines (18 October 2023) ~ The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) showcased the many accomplishments of Indian scientists and agencies in advancing rice science and rice sector development during a special session in the recent 6th International Rice Congress (IRC).

Entitled IRRI-India’s contribution to rice food and nutritional security, the session was a noteworthy gathering of prominent scientists and officials of IRRI and Indian rice agencies, who talked about the history, legacy, and achievements of the IRRI-India partnership, and how it has contributed to India’s leading position in the global rice sector.

J.K. Ladha, an IRRI alumni and currently adjunct professor of Plant Science at the University of California Davis, looked back at the inception of the IRRI-ICAR research cooperation in 1967, and remarked on how this evolved into a multi-faceted partnership across multiple fields, including breeding, capacity building, genetics, grain quality, and social and gender studies, among many others.

“IRRI’s collaboration with India is the largest and is very active and vibrant,” Dr. Ladha said. “India has been a key participant in many of IRRI’s programs, including consortia and networks, and plays a collaborative role in priority setting, strategy planning, scientific advisory, and implementation.”

Equally important presentations from other foremost Indian agricultural experts also highlighted urgent needs and priority research areas for the country.

Raman Sundaram, Director of ICAR-Indian Institute of Rice Research, talked about how the India Coordinated Research Project on Rice (AICRPR) plays a significant role in boosting India’s rice sector.

Established in 1965, AICRPR (formerly the All India Coordinated Rice Improvement Project) is supported by the largest research network devoted to a single crop. It has over 45 funded centres, 100 voluntary centers, and 30 private organizations across the country. To date, the project has released over 1,500 rice varieties and hybrids in India, including several high-yielding mega-varieties, stress-resistant varieties, and zinc- and protein-biofortified varieties.

“The project successfully consolidates and accelerates India's research and development into improved rice varieties, benefitting food and nutrition security,” said Dr. Sundaram. “Current and future initiatives for AICRPR include market-oriented breeding, developing varieties and hybrids suited for direct seeding, and integrating varietal improvement with crop production programs.”

Amaresh Kumar Nayak, Director of ICAR-National Rice Research Institute, discussed how agronomic interventions and direct-seeded rice (DSR) can help sustain productivity in intensive rice cropping systems.

The DSR system is practiced in approximately 4.5 million hectares across India. Trials in land preparation, seed selection and treatment, and mechanized seed sowing demonstrated good results for DSR. Herbicide-tolerant rice varieties and integrated nutrient management are being tested to control weeds and enhance nutrient-use efficiency. Mechanization in seed establishment and drone herbicide spraying are also being studied.

“Tested against traditional transplanted rice, modern and optimized direct seeding offers greater water and energy productivity, with methane emissions reduced by up to 30%,” said Dr. Nayak. “The challenges we need to overcome for the greater adoption of DSR include the development of suitable varieties and herbicides, effective weed and pest management, and lack of awareness of DSR cultivation methods.”

With the strong collaboration of ISARC and IRRI, the breakthrough of ultra-low glycaemic index rice varieties with a GI value below 45 has been developed. A first set was formally presented to Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. during the IRC 2023 opening ceremony. Mr Pankaj Yadav, Joint Secretary of the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare and also present in the event lauded IRRI for this breakthrough and expressed their full support of this undertaking as it gets rolled out in India. “On behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer’s Welfare, I congratulate ISARC and IRRI for this significant achievement,” said Mr. Yadav.

Dr. Sudhanshu, Secretary of the Agricultural & Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), presented his agency’s role in promoting Indian agri-exports, particularly rice and rice products. Cereals make up 51% of APEDA’s exports, with rice categorized as Basmati and non-Basmati. India is the leading exporter of Basmati rice to the global market with over 4 million tons exported in 2022.

APEDA leads efforts to monitor the registration and trademarks of Basmati rice to protect the variety in the market. APEDA has also collaborated with IRRI on grain and nutrition profiling of non-Basmati rice, as well as the development of value-added rice-based food products such as ice cream, pasta, and biscuits.

“While not a research institute, APEDA is a partner of ICAR and IRRI in the rice sector,” said Dr. Sudhanshu. “We work towards marketing and promoting India’s rice varieties and rice-based products in global trade, contributing to India’s position as a top player in rice,” said Dr. Sudhanshu who also echoed Mr. Yadav’s support of IRRI's efforts on low and ultra low GI rice for India. “We will aim for creating stronger private-sector linkages which will promise a wave of exciting innovations in the commercialization of quality rice products in the region.”

Rice productivity is on an upward trend, with 63 improved varieties released in 2022 and over 1.3 million tons of seeds of stress-tolerant rice varieties reaching more than 5 million farmers, according to Dr. Nese Sreenivasulu, IRRI-India research coordinator and leader of IRRI’s Consumer-Driven Grain Quality and Nutrition Unit, who reported the progress of the IRRI-ICAR 2017-2022 work plan. Exports of non-Basmati rice had also tripled to more than 17 million tons in 2022, worth USD 6.1 billion.

Ongoing research areas include overcoming the yield barrier of low-glycemic rice, advancing zinc-enriched biofortified lines, and expanding breeding pipelines and seed systems across the country. “

The pathway forward for the India-IRRi partnership is aimed to position India as a global rice player,” said Dr. Sreenivasulu. “Initiatives include developing climate-resilient varieties and direct seeding of rice through a systems approach, creating value-added rice products, and a diversity value proposition for non-Basmati rice. Key goals will be advancing healthier rice for nutritional security and South-South collaboration for food security.”

Dr. Sudhanshu Singh, Director of the IRRI South Asia Regional Centre (ISARC), highlighted the triple burden of malnutrition and micronutrient deficiency as one of the pressing challenges being tackled by ISARC through its various units.

ISARC’s Centre of Excellence in Rice Value Addition (CERVA) develops improved rice landraces with premium high-grain quality, and rice-based products such as rice bran, flakes, and cookies. IRRI leads the development of low and ultra-low glycemic rice in close collaboration with CERVA.

This value-addition research is complemented by the Centre of Excellence in Sustainable Agriculture (CESA), which focuses on breeding innovations such as speed breeding, a geospatial hub for digital agriculture, and agronomy and soil health for on-field initiatives.

Finally, the Centre for Education, Innovation, and Research for Development (CEIRD) supports capacity building, product development, and scholar and youth engagement.

Aside from its technical capacity, ISARC’s key strength lies in its ability to facilitate and contribute to bilateral and multilateral projects in India and around the world. ISARC is currently part of 12 international projects and 19 bilateral projects with Indian agencies. Opportunities for collaboration include modernization of breeding systems, intensification and diversification of rice-based cropping systems, and rice value chain improvement, among others.

“ISARC’s research plays a key role in the region for feeding a growing population, providing a healthy diet, protecting the environment, and tackling the climate crisis,” said Dr. Singh. “Moreover, by coordinating with national and international stakeholders from the public and private sector in scaling research and innovations, we enhance South-South cooperation for South Asia and Africa.”

Uma Shankar Singh, IRRI Asia and Africa advisor for Research and Partnerships, presented an update on Seeds Without Borders, a groundbreaking regional seed policy agreement that began in 2013 and now includes Bangladesh, Bhutan, Cambodia, Fiji, India, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam.

The latest agreement, signed in November 2022 in Thimphu, Bhutan, significantly expands the scope of the agreement, to include roots and tubers and fruit crops, varieties developed by the private sector, and the development of a database of different crops for sharing among the group. Examples of this cooperation and sharing include India requesting 10 varieties from Bangladesh and two from Nepal, Nepal releasing 3 rice varieties from India, and Fiji requesting 1 sorghum, 1 pearl millet, and 2 rice varieties from India.

“All signatory countries will establish nodal cells for greater coordination,” said Dr. Singh. “Expanding the agreement will contribute to the enhancement of seed systems, varietal improvement, and capacity building to support food and nutrition security in member countries. Looking ahead, we hope to include more countries, especially in Africa, promoting greater seed sharing and South-South cooperation.”