Wall St Journal on IRRI and GM rice (31/7/2007)

For the IRRI profile referred to in the article


Feeding Billions, A Grain at a Time
As development and climate change imperil rice yields, scientists seek new Green Revolution

Ludhiana, India

"Even the most resourceful housewife cannot create miracles from a pantry that lacks rice."
--Chinese proverb

Famine was still a scourge a generation ago when farmers in this dusty region received the first seed packets of a new strain of rice designed to grow hardier plants, and feed more people, than ever before.

The rice, known as IR8 by the scientists who developed it, brought the Green Revolution here to India's Punjab region. In the 1960s, local farmers were on the front lines of a movement that affected billions of people around the world who depend on rice as their staple food. The new varieties of rice, developed by a small laboratory in the Philippines, spurred an agricultural boom that transformed lives and nations.

It's a boom that now is at risk of going bust.

Rice yields are flat-lining. Overproduction has exhausted the soil that once supported the larger crops. Water shortages abound. And the price of the world's most eaten food is rising steeply, up about 70% since 2001, according to U.S. agencies.

Now, huge populations that subsist on rice, in mostly poor stretches of the globe, are suffering the deleterious effects.

In China, where higher food costs have contributed to a troubling rise in inflation over the past year, 63-year-old grain vendor Meng Qingyu said he recently hiked the price of rice by 11% to about 25 cents a pound. "I can't stop the price from rising," he said. "People always complain."

It's not just an issue for his customers. Mr. Meng, who's been running his grain shop selling rice and other goods on a bustling street in downtown Shanghai for 15 years, said that higher grain prices have already wiped out some of his profits. The trend could worsen if prices keep climbing.

In the foothills outside Manila, scientists at the International Rice Research Institute, a laboratory with a staff of 1,000, are scrambling to overcome these problems by breathing new life into the revolution their predecessors helped create.

Some researchers are experimenting with seed varieties that can withstand droughts or floods. Others are growing rice in dry soil, much like corn, rather than flooded paddies. Strategies also include trying to alter the way rice plants perform photosynthesis and concocting hybrid varieties that can boost yields by as much as 20%.

"We're not naive enough to think we'll solve everything," says Robert Zeigler, a 56-year-old American who is director general of the IRRI. But when it comes to new high-tech rice, he adds, "If we don't take a hard look at that, who the hell will?"

The Green Revolution's benefits reverberated well beyond food, allowing developing nations like India to set aside fears of famine and focus more on building modern economies by investing in other industries. But now economists are worrying about the lack of new advances in agriculture. Stalled progress, they say, is starting to weigh on growth in India and elsewhere, and could force governments to divert more resources back to agriculture or face slower growth in the years ahead.

Dan Basse, president of AgResource Co., a Chicago research firm, estimates that as many as 55 million to 70 million acres of additional arable land may need to come on line globally over the next three to four years just to sustain current agricultural stocks -- already at very low levels.

Many of the pressures facing rice have been building in other agricultural products as well, especially in Asia. After years of healthy gains in production, farmers are also now facing constraints in their ability to increase yields on wheat, barley, palm oil and other crops.

The construction of factories, apartment blocks and highways is paving over usable land in China, India and Indonesia. India has underinvested in agriculture for decades as it fostered its high-tech services and manufacturing industries. Climate change may be playing a role, too, by increasing the frequency of extreme droughts and floods.

Surrounded by about 500 acres of test paddies, the scientists from IRRI raise plants in climate-controlled chambers from more than 80,000 seed varieties collected by IRRI since the 1960s. The seeds are stored in a refrigerated unit with walls thick enough to withstand a nuclear blast near Manila.

Some of the institute's recent advances already are being tested in the Punjab, including one strain of rice that grows in dry dirt. But the scientists readily acknowledge it is an uphill battle to find breakthroughs that will make a big difference. Many of their innovations -- like some that turned out to be highly susceptible to insects -- have fallen far short of expectations.

At the same time, demand for some agricultural commodities is expanding at its fastest pace in decades as new markets open up for grains to make ethanol and other types of alternative energy. That has sent grain prices soaring. It also has increased the price of foods that aren't used for alternative fuel, including rice, because farmers are dedicating more land to alternative-energy crops. The amount of land dedicated to rice has fallen to less than 380 million acres from 385 million acres in 1999 and many economists believe it will decline further.

Although rice yields are still inching up world-wide -- by slightly less than 1% a year, says the U.S. Department of Agriculture -- the rate of increase has slowed considerably since the 1970s and 1980s, as gains from high-tech seeds developed in the 1960s and afterwards peter out. Stocks of rice -- which is responsible for one fifth of the world's caloric intake -- are at their lowest levels since the 1970s when food shortages led to temporary famines in Asia.

Hostile Environments

One answer, economists and experts say, is to find ways to cultivate rice in less-than-ideal land and in marginal places. Similar strategies are now being tested in t

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