Year after year, tropical storms bring economic disaster to rice farmers across Asia whose fields are submerged in pools of brown stagnant water. A season's rice harvest can rot, and along with it, the family's prospective income.
However, a solution may be at hand. At the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), scientists are developing a rice variety with high tolerance to submersion under water for extended periods.
IRRI has produce three widely grown varieties of rice that are flood tolerant - the Swarma and Mahsuri from India and the IR64 produced at IRRI’s facility in the Philippines (in Los Banos, Laguna Province) - David McKill, the head of IRRI’s plant-breeding division, told IRIN.
Three more varieties from Laos, Bangladesh and India are being developed at Los Banos, he said.
"These new varieties do not show any differences from the originals, except for submergence tolerance," Mackill stated in a research article in IRRI's in-house journal Rice Today, noting that work on the genetics of submergence tolerance began in the 1990s when researchers first mapped rice DNA to isolate a gene responsible for the phenomenon - Sub1 gene.
"Rice is considered a semi-aquatic plant, and it thrives in the wettest agricultural environments," he said. "However, most rice varieties will be heavily damaged and die if they remain underwater for more than four days."
The new varieties being developed are designed to withstand up to three weeks of submergence and recover after flood waters subside, according to Mackill.
"This is important for the vast rain-fed lowland areas of Asia where intermittent flooding causes frequent submergence," Mackill said. "Estimated crop losses (due to flooding) are around US$1 billion annually."
He said some of the varieties are now being tested in areas in India and Bangladesh, noting that "submergence stress" is more common in areas where poverty is also a major problem, principally because such poor areas lack proper flood control infrastructure.
|The potential impact is huge. Submergence-tolerant varieties could make major inroads into Bangladesh's annual rice shortfall and substantially limit import needs|
But while flood-resistant rice is a breakthrough for the scientific community, traditional farmers like 57-year-old Trinidad Domingo, of CabanatuanProvince on Luzon Island,are welcoming it cautiously as past experiences with hybrid rice have not always been successful, she told IRIN.
"I think it may be a big help to farmers like us, because we invest everything in our farms and seeds and if your field gets flooded, the rice plants die in a matter of two days," Domingo said. "If you are a small or subsistence farmer, you will lose much, including food for your family."
However, she said she knew farmers who had used hybrid rice - distributed by the government and intended to boost yields - but it had produced empty grains and had stunted growth. They were forced to plough back their fields and absorb huge losses, she said.
"I hope once they introduce the flood-resistant rice, it will not have the same problem," said Domingo, whose earnings from her farm provide an income to her, her 10 siblings and over 40 grandchildren.
Opposition to GM rice
Che de Jesus, a policy officer at the Southeast Asia Regional Initiatives for Community Empowerment (SEARICE), which campaigns against genetically modified plants, said flood-tolerant rice should not be touted as something “that would solve the world's hunger".
"These crops are not really proven to be safe to humans [yet]; they have only been tested on animals," said de Jesus, whose group includes farmers’ organisations in the region. "Farmers throughout the years have managed to naturally develop their own rice varieties that could adapt to different conditions, be it in rain-fed areas or dry areas."
But IRRI's Mackill said recent field testing of waterproof rice in Bangladesh had been completed "with flying colours." Bangladesh and Indian seed certification agencies are also now close to releasing the crop variety and both countries are hoping to cut losses from flooding, he said. Such crop losses are estimated at four million tonnes a year - enough to feed 30 million people for nearly a year.
"The potential impact is huge," Mackill said. "Submergence-tolerant varieties could make major inroads into Bangladesh's annual rice shortfall and substantially limit import needs."
Mackill contends that in creating the water-tolerant rice seeds, they were not genetically modified, thus he believes they can be put to use fairly soon as they need not go through years of regulatory testing.