Innovation ‘imperative’ for securing rice production

Genetic innovations and AI-driven tech can help mitigate climate risks for rice, says the International Rice Research Institute’s incoming chief.

To ensure global food security, it is crucial to develop more climate-resilient, nutritious, and productive rice varieties while also making alternatives to burning straw financially viable for farmers. Image: USAID US Agency for International Development, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

Innovations in rice production and eco-friendly practices must be made viable for small-scale farmers in the global South in the face of climate threats, says Yvonne Pinto, incoming head of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

Relied upon by more than half of the world’s population for nearly 80 per cent of their dietary needs, rice is pivotal to ensuring global food security, with consumption increasing even as the climate crisis jeopardises production and the livelihoods of millions of people.

About 520.4 million metric tonnes were consumed worldwide in the 2022-23 crop year, up by almost a quarter from 437.2 million metric tonnes in the crop year 2008-2009, according to the data platform Statista. The Food and Agriculture Organization says developing countries produce and consume about 95 per cent of the global rice output.

However, large rice-producing countries of Asia, such as India, Vietnam and Thailand, and regions with significant increases in rice consumption, notably in Africa, are facing increased drought risks, requiring adaptive strategies to sustain this staple crop.

“There is an imperative to replace conventional practices, such as, burning straw and chemical usage in rice production, and think about agriculture as an integral part of the One Health System,” said Pinto, referring to the unified approach to optimising the health of people, animals and the environment.

“Agriculture is about feeding the world, but it’s also about judiciously conserving our resources and ensuring that we are able to farm in holistic ways that are not going to destroy the planet,” she emphasised.

The alternatives to burning the straw, include harvesting it and repurposing it for animal feed or compost.

“It is vital to make these alternatives financially viable for farmers along with demonstrating their global effectiveness in reducing air pollution and associated health risks,” said Pinto, who will take over as director general of IRRI on 22 April – the first woman in the top job.

Agri-tech offers the opportunity to understand how we triangulate weather, rainfall, soil conditions; when and what to plant; how to monitor the performance and yield; and how and where to sell the produce.

Yvonne Pinto, head, International Rice Research Institute

She recommended incentivising the adoption of new technologies among farmers in order to bring about a change in production practices.

Farmers in Vietnam and Myanmar, for example, are exploring microbial mixes for the bio-degradation of the rice straw.

IRRI has also developed wet and dry rice systems, direct-seeded rice (grown directly in rice fields rather than first growing seedlings in nurseries), and new varieties which reduce methane emissions from rice fields. About half the rice varieties grown in South Asia have been derived from IRRI.

Pinto, who started her career as a research scientist at IRRI in 1985, says she will lead the organisation to further adopt, develop and scale climate-resilient, nutritious and productive rice varieties that enable sustainable livelihoods for farmers.

“Ensuring that farmers have access to technology, they understand its proper use and they can monitor its benefits, is essential for building resilience,” she said.

“We also need to engage with engineering faculties to explore ways to use rice stubble for biofuels, given that more than 3 billion tonnes of agricultural biomass as feedstock would be required by 2050 to ensure sustainable biofuels production.”

Pinto emphasised the need for equitable partnership collaborations with ecosystem actors including governments, the private sector, non-governmental organisations, philanthropic organisations and individual farmers.

Power of AI

She sees the potential of artificial intelligence (AI)-driven technologies and innovations in augmenting more sustainable farming solutions for rice and other crops.

However, she cautions: “We need to build our confidence slowly and carefully so that we generate trust around the insights that artificial intelligence creates.”

“Agri-tech offers the opportunity to understand how we triangulate weather, rainfall, soil conditions; when and what to plant; how to monitor the performance and yield; and how and where to sell the produce,” said Pinto.

“At the other end of the technology continuum, we need to carefully understand what we have at the genetic-end of the scale – the kinds of genes that are available to us, so we know how to harness them best.”

Pinto is hopeful about the role AI-driven technologies and genetic innovations can play in addressing undernourishment and malnourishment and personalising nutrition.

She said: “There are opportunities to look at the impact of varieties, such as low glycemic index rice in the human microbiome, to understand how that enhances human health by reducing incidence of diabetes and obesity. We can use machine learning models to understand that at a more accelerated pace than we currently do.”

United Nations chief Antonio Guterres, speaking at the UN Security Council last week (13 February), slammed the shrinking budget for climate action, warning that climate chaos and food crises are threats to global peace and security.

With funding in agricultural research becoming more challenging, CGIAR, the world’s largest publicly-funded agricultural research partnership, has challenged governments and donors to double funding to end hunger and halt climate change by 2030.

Pinto, who will also serve as the CGIAR regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific and country representative for The Philippines, said: “We have a tremendous opportunity for diversifying funding sources and directing the funds to where they are most needed, because the need to feed the population is not going away.”

Yvonne Pinto is the incoming director general of IRRI, a global research organisation dedicated to reducing poverty and hunger through rice science. 

This article was originally published on SciDev.Net. Read the original article.

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