Feeding the Nation: Kudos to Rice Scientists

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Bangladesh’s birth as a new nation in 1971 faced, among many other hurdles, the challenge of feeding around 71 million people with its limited agricultural resources and technological know-how. Food aid and imports were not something that Bangladesh could afford depending much in a cold war era. The famine that stalked some parts of Bangladesh in 1974 was a classic example of how a nation’s sovereign decision of trade relation with one country made it suffer for not getting the supply of food aid in time. The United States had withheld 2.2 million metric tons (MT) of food aid, as the then US Ambassador to Bangladesh made it abundantly clear that the US probably could not commit food aid because of Bangladesh’s policy of exporting jute to Cuba. And by the time Bangladesh stopped jute exports to Cuba, the food aid in transit was too late for famine victims.

Nearly five decades later, Bangladesh today grows nearly enough rice to feed its people whose number now well crossed 160 million-mark. Of course, the last year has been quite a departure from the rice autarky status given the reality that Bangladesh had to import nearly four million MT of rice thanks to 2017 devastating flashflood badly hitting the rice-rich northeastern backswamps. Besides, a wrong food reserve policy pursued found the government granaries largely depleted at a time when people needed the food succor most. Except that exception, Bangladesh has done quite well over the past six years in producing enough rice to meet the growing domestic demand and exporting some surplus to neighbouring Sri Lanka.

Advancements in the country’s rice science and dedication and perseverance of agricultural scientists along with necessary policy supports deserve a big kudos for this wonderful journey of increased cereal production in the country. Yearly rice output, on an average, has grown over three times higher now than what it has been in the ‘70s. Though wheat production did not mark any rapid growth over the years but Bangladeshi farmers have succeeded in growing increasing volume of maize, which was not the case before, thereby, contributing a lot in import substitute burgeoning feed industry. In tandem with the growth achieved in cereal output, Bangladesh’s fish and livestock sectors also posted growth exponentially. This is no mean feat for a country having diminishing arable lands and limited natural resources to be able to, not only, feed a growing population but also adding nutritional value in their daily diets.

Scientists working in the nation’s premier farm research station – Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (Brri) – made, arguably, the biggest contribution in taking our agrarian economy to this far. Developing rice varieties with higher yield potentials is so very crucial for Bangladesh’s farm sector because arable lands, largely occupied by paddy production, can only be released for other cereal and non-cereal crops to grow if higher per unit rice output is ensured. And all along the Brri scientists have been doing this. Establishment of Brri (the then East Pakistan Rice Research Institute) predate the birth of Bangladesh. Come October 1 Brri will turn 48-year old an institution, two years shy of a grand golden jubilee celebration. Set up in 1970 in Gazipur, Brri presented Bangladeshi farmers with as many as 86 inbred rice varieties (high yielding ones – HYVs) and six more hybrid rice varieties. Farmers in Bangladesh grow Brri-developed varieties in four fifth of the total rice lands, fetching 91 percent of their yearly rice output. Farmers in many other Asian countries also grow Brri-developed rice varieties. On Tuesday (September 18) government announced that Bangladesh has posted an all-time high 7.86 percent GDP growth in 2017-18 financial year and the per capita income increased to USD 1,751 in 2017-18 from USD 1,610 in the previous fiscal. Briefing newsmen Planning Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal attributed the growth mainly to successes in farm sector.

Yet, complacence is one word missing in the dictionary of Brri scientists. Because they know it very well – if the present population growth rate continues, population of the country will be about 189 million by 2030 and demand for rice will be 18 percent higher than that of the present production level. Brri is committed to meet-up this demand to save the nation from hunger and has taken certain strategies to fulfill this commitment. Their priority areas of research interests include, but not limited to, development of short duration early maturing rice varieties preferably with 90 days growth duration for Aus and Aman seasons; development of premium quality inbred and hybrid rice varieties; development of disease and insect resistant varieties; development of salt, submergence, drought, cold and heat tolerant, early maturing rice varieties; development of iron, zinc, vitamin-A enriched, low glycemic index (GI) value and antioxidant enriched rice varieties; development of rice varieties suitable for alternate wetting and drying (AWD) condition; development of deep water rice varieties suitable for varying water depth condition and improvement of management packages for obtaining higher yield; manipulation of planting practices including water, fertilizer and soil health to minimize yield gap; improvement of livelihood of the farming community; utilising short duration varieties for the north-western Bangladesh; and development of effective sustainable, eco-friendly control of pests and diseases through biological and chemical methods.

Boro rice in Bangladesh is fully irrigated and the Aman rice is partly irrigated. An estimated 3,000 to 5,000 litres of water is required to produce one kilogram of rice. So Brri started promoting low-water intensive rice farming by using Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD) system. AWD reduces 30 percent water use, if not more, without compromising yield. AWD is a simple technology where farmers are advised to dig a 20 cm deep hole in the rice field and install a perforated plastic pipe to monitor the level of the water table after each irrigation. The resultant savings of irrigation water have big impact on environment because of reduced withdrawal of ground water, and reduction in burning diesel. This has the potential of reducing arsenic contamination in rice grain and straw as well.

Replacing old varieties with new promising ones

Over the years Brri developed as many as 92 rice varieties. And all of those have diverse features and respective advantage points like some are good for one season over the others while some are submergence tolerant, some are salt-tolerant while some are good for having finer and scented grain quality etc. However, since their release in 1994, two Brri varieties won farmers heart all over Bangladesh – these are Brri dhan 28 and Brri dhan 29 for their high yield potentials during Boro season.

Of the three rice seasons – Aus, Aman and Boro – the last one being the irrigated dry season rice gives us more than half of the yearly rice output (19 million MT out of 35 million MT). And Brri dhan 28 and 29 are grown in over 60 percent of rice lands during the Boro season. But after over two decades of high performance, these varieties are now getting vulnerable to degeneration and pest infestation. So Brri scientists consider it’s high time they better replace Brri dhan 28 and 29 with two other HYVs with further yield advantage and of shorter duration. Brri plant breeder and Director (Research) Dr Tamal Lata Aditya told the Dhaka Courier that Brri dhan 88 and 89 are in the pipeline and may be released in a month time as replacements to Brri dhan 28 and 29.  The new varieties are coming at a time when two of the country’s most productive rice varieties are losing potential due to ageing. The prospect of higher rice yield through the release of the new varieties also comes against the backdrop of diminishing returns from the country’s rice fields.

Brri released biotech rice late last year

Scientists at Brri developed a biotech rice variety giving farmers an answer to the difficulties they face in harvesting the staple with machines. Stems of Brri dhan 86, the variety that got official release approval in last December, are strong and stout and easy to reap by mechanical harvesters. This comes handy to farm owners, who suffer from dearth of farm labourers and also find it difficult to use harvesters. BRRI breeders told Dhaka Courier that the new variety having half metric tons (per hectare) of extra yield potential over the country’s most produced rice variety Brri dhan 28 is derived from Iranian rice variety Niamat through application of a biotech tool called – anther culture. Applied for the first time in rice science in Bangladesh, anther culture is a biotech plant culturing technique where immature pollens are made to divide and grow into tissues either on solid and liquid medium. In late last year Brri scientists also developed another new rice variety – Brri dhan 84 – having highest ever zinc (27.6 mg/kg) content. It is also moderately enriched with another key micronutrient – iron.

In 2013, Bangladesh released world’s first biofortified zinc-rich rice variety – Brri dhan 62 – with 19 mg/kg of the micronutrient. Since then countries scientists at Brri and Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Agricultural University (BSMRAU) have, so far, developed six zinc-rich rice varieties. Zinc deficiency causes stunting, while iron deficiency is a leading cause of anaemia. More than one-third of under-five children in Bangladesh are stunted, while more than 43 percent women of reproductive age are anaemic.

Wait nearly over for Golden Rice release in Bangladesh

In a major development, Brri scientists have advanced a beta carotene-rich rice to a varietal release stage, heralding a new era in fight against vitamin-A deficiency (VAD). They said the wait is nearly over for release of Golden Rice, a long touted remedy to VAD. According to the World Health Organization’s global VAD database, one in every five pre-school children in Bangladesh is vitamin A-deficient. Among the pregnant women, 23.7 percent suffer from VAD. Upon receipts of positive outcome from two successive years of ‘confined’ field trials, the breeders at the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) carried out a final cycle of multi-location field trials and sought regulatory approval from the government for an ‘unconfined’ field test prior seeking variety release approval. Brri Senior Plant Breeder Dr M A Kader told Dhaka Courier that in last Boro season they’ve got 10 to 12 μg/g (micrograms/gram) beta carotene in a Brri dhan29 line genetically converted into Golden Rice, which should be enough to address half of rice-eating consumers’ daily deficiency of vitamin-A. Beta carotene, also known as pro-vitamin A, is a substance that the human body can convert to vitamin A. With this development, a long wait is nearly over for rice breeders who have been trying since 1999 for a varietal development and release of Golden Rice, long being touted by the scientist fraternity as a key remedy to acute VAD problem. Brri’s Golden Rice Project Director Dr Partha S Biswas, now on a visit to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), told Dhaka Courier that 10 μg/g beta carotene in rice is good enough to meet 50 percent of vitamin-A needs of people consuming rice in their daily diet.

The vitamin A-rich rice is named Golden Rice for its golden colour. It was first developed by splicing three foreign genes -- two from daffodil and one from a bacterium -- into japonica rice, a variety adapted to temperate climates. It is capable of producing beta carotene. But for a better beta carotene expression in rice, the daffodil genes were replaced by maize genes later in 2005. Consumption of only 150 gram of Golden Rice a day is expected to supply half of the recommended daily intake (RDA) of vitamin A for an adult. People in Bangladesh depend on rice for 70 percent of their daily calorie intakes.

The IRRI says VAD is the main cause of preventable blindness in children and globally, some 6.7 million children die every year and another 3,50,000 go blind because they are vitamin-A deficient. In April 2011, Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sanctioned a grant of over $10 million to IRRI to fund, develop and evaluate Golden Rice varieties for Bangladesh and the Philippines. Later further funding was also made available. Officials concerned at IRRI and Gates Foundation said as the Golden Rice inventors and subsequent technology developer Syngenta allowed a royalty-free access to the patents, the new rice would be of the same price as other rice varieties once released for commercial farming in Bangladesh, and farmers would be able to share and replant the seeds as they wish.

‘Super Rice’ in sight

Scientists have long been considering the idea of engineering rice plant in a way that the global production of the cereal gets a dramatic boost. The idea came from the concern that the traditional research, which results in just one percent rise in the yearly yield, would not be enough to meet the ever-growing demand. So the plan was to convert rice into a photosynthesis-efficient plant, which would produce substantially more grains using the sunlight. Nine years into the initiation of an ambitious rice plant engineering project, a group of scientists last year declared a major breakthrough in improving photosynthesis for the cereal. They said this would change the plant architecture of rice once for all, make it more energy-efficient and thereby, increase the yield of the world’s third most consumed grain, after maize and wheat, by 50 percent. It would eventually help meet the food needs of billions of people around the world, including Bangladesh.

During photosynthesis, plants take carbon dioxide, water, and light, and turn them into sugar and oxygen. The sugar is then used by the plants for food, and the oxygen is released into the atmosphere. Rice uses the C3 photosynthetic pathway, which in hot and dry environments is much less efficient than the C4 pathway used by other plants such as maize, sugarcane and sorghum. Scientists thought that if rice could “switch” to use C4 photosynthesis, its productivity would increase by 50 percent. Scientists and researchers drawn from 12 institutions in eight countries declared on October 19 last year that they achieved a major breakthrough by being able to engineer the rice plant accordingly. They are involved with the C4 Rice Project, often dubbed as “grand challenge” of the 21st century. University of Oxford, one of the 12 institutions which are at the forefront of this multi-billion dollar 15-year mega project, claimed that the scientists have been able to infuse a single maize gene into rice leaf thereby finishing off the first step of converting rice into a C4  plant.

Experts noted that successful completion of engineering rice into a C4 plant would be a “game-changer” since the ‘60s of last century when scientists had first developed semi-dwarf rice varieties heralding the famous “Green Revolution”. The C4 Rice Project is an international collaboration between 18 research groups, from the 12 institutions in eight countries. The institutions are: Australian National University (Australia), University of Toronto (Canada), Chinese Academy of Sciences (China), Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology and Heinrich Heine University (Germany), International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) (the Philippines), Academia Sinica Institute of Molecular Biology (Taipei), University of Cambridge and University of Oxford (UK), Donald Danforth Center, Washington State University, and University of Minnesota (USA).

After first substantive media reporting on C4 Rice Project in Bangladesh by this writer, the government of Bangladesh sent its agriculture minister and key rice scientists to IRRI late last year to see how Bangladesh can be a part of the project. Brri Director General Shahjahan Kabir told Dhaka Courier that since their engagements with IRRI during and after that IRRI visit, two Bangladeshi rice scientists have been involved with the work of C4 Rice. He said they are now working at Brri as part of the project but would soon scientists at IRRI for further research. Brri DG considers this breakthrough in rice engineering will be ushering in a new hope for countries like Bangladesh, where growing more food from increasingly scarce land and water resources is getting difficult.

All the aforesaid developments in rice science come at a point when a recent International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) report says Bangladesh’s rice production growth slowed down to just 0.7 percent during 2012-16 period, whereas the growth was as high as 4.8 percent in the preceding five years (2007-11). Akhter Ahmed, the country head of the Washington-based food research think tank IFPRI, said, “Rice production more than tripled since the country’s liberation [in 1971], but the [agricultural] growth is slowing down.”  He observed that the most popular rice varieties in Bangladesh are ageing and they require better replacements so that farmers can reap more yield from less land and go for agricultural diversity by growing other high value crops. Akhter put emphasis on the agricultural extension service’s role in demonstrating and popularising the new potential rice varieties among the farmers. As a third of Bangladesh’s total farm households are pure tenants -- who work in lands owned by others -- it’s very crucial for the state to take extension services to them, he added. The farm sector contributes about 17 percent to the country’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and employs more than 45 percent of the total labour force. Currently, nearly 75 percent of the total 7.84 million hectares of arable land is being used to produce rice, thanks to land scarcity and people’s rice-centric dietary habit.

  • Feeding the Nation: Kudos to Rice Scientists
  • Issue 11
  • Reaz Ahmad
  • Cover Story
  • Vol 35
  • DhakaCourier

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