Thursday, October 20, 2016

JICA, PhilRice, and IRRI team up to develop Africa’s rice seed sector

MANILA, Philippines—Increases in rice consumption in Africa have outpaced the continent’s rice production, according to Jason Beebout, the leader of a capacity-building project for Africa being supported by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). “This is why there is a need for training programs aimed at increasing rice production beginning with the seed sector,” he said.

JICA, PhilRice, and IRRI have joined forces to help several African countries develop their respective rice seed sector. The three organizations formalized this partnership during a brief ceremony for the signing of the agreement at the JICA Philippine Office on 18 October.

In the agreement, which is part of the Extension for Capacity Development for Rice Food Security in Africa, IRRI is partnering with PhilRice in training the next generation of seed production professionals from member countries of the Coalition for African Rice Development (CARD). In 2017, two 8-week training courses on rice seed production and extension will be conducted by PhilRice for selected participants from CARD countries. The overall extension capacity project started in March and will continue until 2019.

The agreement was signed by Corinta Guerta, IRRI director for External Relations, and Dr. Sailila Abdula, PhilRice executive director, in the presence of Susumu Ito, JICA’s chief representative at the Philippine Office. (See photo)

"This three-party cooperation among JICA, PhilRice, and IRRI is an important milestone for the IRRI-Japan partnership that dates back to 1960,” said Guerta. “It is first time we have a direct collaborative program with JICA, which made it possible for IRRI and PhilRice to hold the season-long training on rice production techniques for extension agronomists from 23 CARD countries.”

“The signing ceremony is symbolic of a strong partnership that is at the heart of JICA's activities,” said Ito. “JICA is very pleased that its support to PhilRice during the early years is now bearing fruit through its contributions to sharing knowledge with Africa. I hope that by working together, IRRI, JICA, and PhilRice may be able to improve food security for all.”

This is not the first time IRRI and PhilRice have worked together to train researchers, technicians, and extension workers from Africa. During the first phase of the IRRI-JICA collaboration, they trained 142 participants from various African countries.  Earlier this year, IRRI also conducted two 3-week training programs on quality breeder and foundation seed production that was attended by 34 African researchers and extension professionals.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Experts get lifetime achievement awards for unraveling rice blast’s mysteries

MANILA, Philippines, 12 October—Three renowned experts in rice blast research were presented with lifetime achievement awards during the 7th International Rice Blast Conference (IRBC07) for their contributions in helping understand and manage the complex and destructive disease.

The awardees were Dr. Shinzo Koizumi, technical adviser, Japan International Cooperation Agency Tsukuba International Center; Dr. Seong-Sook Han, director of the Korea Project on International Agricultural (KOPIA) Ethiopia Center; and Dr. Robert Zeigler, director general emeritus and former plant pathologist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

Koizumi (photo left) spent around 40 years studying rice blast in several institutions across Japan, including the Tohoku Agricultural Research Center and the Central Region Agricultural Research Center (formerly the National Agricultural Research Center), among others. His foray into rice blast research started as an undergraduate student. After working as a researcher of the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries in Japan, he became increasingly more involved in rice blast research, looking into the variations in the disease.

"I think research may be important to reduce application of chemicals to increase profit," Koizumi said. "The farmer does not have enough money to buy expensive chemicals. So, this is timely and very important.”

Han started her journey as a plant pathologist in the Rural Development Administration of Korea where she studied the disease for 33 years. She became the director of the KOPIA Ethiopia Center two years ago.

"My focus was solely on the blast fungus," she recalled. "And then I realized that it was a mistake because of how limited the available information was and I was only studying the fungus itself. So, now we look at the rice plant as well. We should know what kind of interactions there are between the fungus and the plant."
Dr. Leung (left) presented Dr. Han (right) with the lifetime achievement award. 

Her insight very much agreed with that of Zeigler’s, who spent nearly half a lifetime studying and understanding the shifty disease. "The trick is to work on the plant side so it's able to resist or identify the blast fungus and keep it at bay," he said.  “What makes rice blast so tricky is that, unlike other serious rice disease such as tungro, the progression of rice blast disease involves thousands of fungal genes." That means it has a range of mechanisms to generate variation.

"It's the variation that's critical to how it interacts with the rice plant," said Zeigler. "In fact, the genome of the rice blast fungus can be thought of as being infected with viruses and those viruses actually enable the fungus to change its genome. Those are called transposable elements—it's DNA that moves around the fungal genome. When they move, they cause mutations that can either cause genes to lose function or possibly even create a new function.”

Dr. Valent (left) conferred the award on Dr. Zeigler (right). 
As a scientist, Zeigler noted the importance of pursuing not only what is intellectually interesting, but also what is applicable. "I think we need to be able to turn questions around and ask in the opposite direction.” He said. “Like, a lot of people say, 'we want to understand how the pathogen works.' And I like to say, I'm not interested so much what the pathogen can do; I'm interested in what it can't do.”

The awards were conferred by Drs. Hei Leung and Bo Zhou, IRRI plant pathologists and cochairs of the local IRBC07 organizing committee, and Dr. Barbara Valent, chair of the event’s international organizing committee.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Indonesia targets rice self-sufficiency

JAKARTA, Indonesia, 11 October—“Indonesian law requires the country to maintain food self-sufficiency, but achieving this goal is becoming more and more challenging,” said Dr. Hasil Sembiring, director general for Food Crops with the Ministry of Agriculture for Indonesia. He was addressing a recent forum jointly hosted by the Indonesian Agency for Agriculture Research and Development and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

 “Despite these challenges, the Government of Indonesia is fully committed to achieving self-sufficiency and even export status,” he added. “Almost 56% of our farmers are small-scale subsistence farmers, working less than a half hectare of land. We cannot become food self-sufficient in this way.”

Added to these challenges are: an aging farmer population where 44% are more than 50 years old, limited education with only 25% graduating from elementary school, and a shortage of agriculture extension workers. Indonesia also faces significant agriculture security challenges.

This is the Indonesian agriculture landscape that was described to participants of the forum, Rice and Food Security Indonesia: The global market, scientific research, and action programs. It was an opportunity for individuals from the agriculture sector in Indonesia to gather and discuss current challenges, interventions, and future goals.

Sembiring went on to describe a number of key action programs the Ministry of Agriculture in Indonesia has spearheaded over the past 10 years. These included innovations such as the introduction of farm insurance, seed, and fertilizer subsidies for small-scale farmers; water infrastructure, including dams and improved irrigation channels; and introduction of new high-yielding, stress-tolerant rice varieties. As a result, rice production in the country increased 2.6% during the 2010-15 period. The government’s intention is to continue introducing new innovations and action plans to achieve food self-sufficiency by 2045.

Dr. David Johnson, head of IRRI’s Crop and Environmental Sciences Division, commented on the various elements of the action programs presented by Sembiring. He highlighted the ways in which collaboration between IRRI and Indonesia can help secure Indonesia’s sustainable food security.

Dr. Harry Priyono, secretary-general of the Ministry of Agriculture, represented the Agriculture Minister Amran Sulaiman.  In his keynote, Dr. Priyono stressed the commitment of the government to the far-reaching goals of the rice program.

In another session, Dr. Sam Mohanty, head of IRRI’s Social Sciences Division, shared his economic insights with the group. “Indonesia’s land rent and hired labor costs compared to other regional competitors are significantly higher,” he said. “This means that the cost of producing 1 ton of rice in Indonesia is almost 50 to 100% greater than the cost to produce rice in China, India, or other ASEAN countries.”

Mohanty went on to explain that the level of mechanization found on Indonesian farms is very low compared to other rice farms in the region. “When it costs more to produce the same amount of rice, it becomes very difficult for a country to remain competitive in the region or to even be able to feed its own population without importing rice,” said Mohanty. While he complimented the Indonesian government on its active engagement in supporting the rice sector, he also urged the government to consider an action program focused on increasing the country’s mechanization.

“Forums such as this allow us to directly engage with policy makers and leaders in agriculture in the countries in which we work,” said IRRI Director General Matthew Morell.

Dr. Jacqueline Hughes, IRRI’s deputy director general for research, added, “The forum is invaluable in increasing our ability to shape our research agenda to suit the needs of those who we serve.”

The forum was attended by more than 125 participants including key officials and staff from the Indonesia’s most influential agriculture agencies. Some officers of private sector corporations also participated.  Members of IRRI’s Board of Trustees, who were in Jakarta for the board meetings, also attended the forum.

Dr. Bruce Tolentino, IRRI’s deputy director general for Communication and Partnerships, moderated the forum.

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Saturday, October 15, 2016

Bart Duff, former IRRI economist, passes away in Manila

Dr. Bart Duff, 76, an agricultural economist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for 20 years (1970-90), passed away in Manila, Philippines, of cardiac arrest on 13 October. At IRRI, he pioneered research on the role of women in rice production and also conducted studies on farm mechanization.

As early as 1979, he had gathered data on the role of women in rice production. At that time, he found the contribution of female labor in non-mechanized rice production systems in West Java, South Sulawesi, central Thailand, and the Philippines ranged from 43% to 56% of total labor. For a time in the 1980s, he coordinated the Women in Rice Farming Systems (WIRFS) Program. WIRFS was the framework for addressing women’s concerns in both research and extension programs on rice farming systems.

Duff was the economist assigned to IRRI’s then Agricultural Engineering Department to work specifically on the economics of farm mechanization. In that assignment, he was involved in IRRI’s long-time loop survey, a frequent survey of rice farms along the national highway in Central Luzon, Philippines, to observe farm practices, particularly in land preparation. He also researched energy requirements for alternative rice production systems in the tropics

In a 2009 IRRI Pioneer interview, he stated, “I believe the greatest challenge for IRRI will be to continuously revise and re-invent itself to more meaningfully anticipate and address contemporary issues while optimizing its limited resources. The need for rice research is no less now than it was three decades earlier. The complexity and sophistication of IRRIs research today are awesome, but in many instances simply addressing old problems with new tools. For example, IRRIs pioneering work in genome mapping and gene manipulation continues to focus on yield, disease, and environmental constraints, but is now able to overcome problems considered unsolvable 25 years ago.”

He went on to say, “I always admire IRRI for maintaining its position on the frontier of rice research using a combination of visionary leadership, superb science, a dedicated staff, and the foresight to forgo research better done in collaboration with national programs. I’ve been gone for nearly 20 years, but I feel very proud and gratified when I learn of IRRIs unique initiatives to incorporate better nutrition and grain quality into the rice grain and improve the inherent resistance of the rice plant to diseases and insects.”

“We are making progress,” he said. “But with a growing population and anemic economic development in many countries, IRRI is trying to hit a moving target. We haven’t won the race against hunger and poverty yet!  And, as a global issue, climate change and global warming present an immense challenge for IRRI to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions stemming from rice production. IRRI will not run out of challenges during its second 50 years.”

A native of Pendleton, Oregon, Duff had degrees from Washington State University (1962) and Stanford University (1970). He was also an American Peace Corps volunteer in the early 1960s. He was active in the local Puerto Princesa community (Palawan, Philippines), serving as president of the Palawan Chamber of Commerce and Industry. He operated, with his wife Paz Aurora, an NGO, Poor No More, Inc., on Palawan.

In addition to Paz Aurora 'Baby', his wife of 33 years, he is survived by son Aaron, and daughter Shannon.

Condolence messages may be placed on Bart Duff’s Facebook page.

Watch a clip from his 2009 IRRI Pioneer Interview.

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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Rice blast, a continued threat to global food security

MANILA, Philippines— "Rice blast plays a major reason for the loss of production of rice grain. That loss of rice production feeds into poverty and hunger issues," stated Director General Matthew Morell of the International Rice Research (IRRI). “The topic of rice blast fits with IRRI’s mission of securing rice supplies.” Morell made the comments in a pre-recorded welcome to participants of the 7th International Rice Blast Conference held in Manila, 9-13 October.

This sentiment was echoed in the keynote address of IRRI Director General Emeritus Robert Zeigler (right photo). “Anything that threatens rice production threatens the lives of the most fragile people in the world,” Zeigler said, before more than 200 scientists and researchers from 26 countries attending the conference. They came to learn of the latest developments in host-pathogen interactions, genomics, resistance breeding, and management practices to combat the insidious fungus.

“So, the work that we’re doing to assure stable and growing rice production is critical to the overall food security of the world,” said Zeigler. “That’s something we should never forget.”

He added that the situation is going to continue for the foreseeable future. “The demand for rice is going to increase in the coming decades—certainly during my lifetime as well as in the lifetimes of every person in this room,” Zeigler emphasized. “And that increase will further be threatened by rice blast unless we do something about it.”

Zeigler, one of the world’s leading plant pathologists, admitted that he once was captivated by this fungus pathogen early on as a graduate student. “It is very, very difficult to get our hands around rice blast despite the excellent efforts to completely manage the rice crop. This interesting and complex disease never ceases to surprise us.”

Zeigler urged the participants to pay attention to climate change. “We must work with our crop modelers to try to predict where climate might exacerbate future problems with the fungus. Changes in management practices will be critical in determining remedies for decades to come.”

The conference was an opportunity for experts from all
over the world to discuss scientific innovations in managing
one of the biggest threats to rice production and food security.
With the theme, New Insights into the Rice-Magnaporthe oryzae interactions for better management of rice blast, the 4-day conference also featured a keynote lecture by Dr. Jin-Long Qiu from the Institute of Microbiology at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He talked about Genome editing for crop improvement.

“It is amazing to see a community come together and reconnect right away because of a common passion,” said Dr. Hei Leung, head of IRRI’s Genetics and Biotechnology Division and conference chair. “This conference has been a great opportunity for each one of us to learn and respect each other’s achievements—I think that’s the driving force of the rice blast community. It’s functioning as a community of practice.”

The conference also featured the soft launch of the online resource, Rice diseases: their biology and selected management practices. Featured online, for now, are the Preface and Introduction (The Future Impact of Rice Diseases by Zeigler and Leung) and the full section on rice blast. The latest information on around 70 more rice diseases will be placed online as it becomes available from the technical editors.

Participants spent the last day of the conference visiting IRRI headquarters to meet with relevant rice scientists and learn about IRRI’s work on rice blast.

IRBC07 participants came from Bangladesh, Benin, Brazil, China, Colombia, Egypt, France,
Guyana, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kenya, Korea, Madagascar, Nepal, Philippines, Russia, Singapore,
Spain, Taiwan, Thailand, Turkey, United Kingdom, Uruguay, USA, and Vietnam.
IRRI's work on disease and pest-resistance rice


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Friday, October 7, 2016

Taiwan strongly supports management of brown planthopper—a major threat to rice production

Experts from all over Asia attended the workshop Developing an integrative strategy for 
sustainable management of brown planthopper.

TAIPEI, Taiwan—Every year brown planthopper (BPH) infestations in farmers’ rice fields cause severe yield losses in South, Southeast, and East Asia valued at more than USD 300 million. That is why Chen Chi-Chung, the deputy minister of Taiwan Council of Agriculture (CoA), expressed his strong support for the sustainable management of one of the most serious pests of rice crops in Taiwan and the continent.

The deputy minister recognized the importance of controlling the pest during the workshop on developing an integrative strategy for the sustainable management of BPH held on 20-21 September. The workshop highlighted the problems caused by the insect and presented scientific papers related to its management. The workshop was followed by a meeting to formulate an integrative strategy to combine genetics and ecological approaches for sustainably managing BPH outbreaks.

The output of the workshop will be the development of project proposals to be presented to CoA and other potential donors for funding. BPH management is an area for new research collaboration between CoA and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). CoA and IRRI are currently collaborating on developing climate-resilient and high-nutrition rice varieties.

In addition to the direct damage through feeding, planthoppers can transmit rice grassy stunt and rice ragged stunt—two viral diseases that can cause significant yield losses.  Major BPH outbreaks can cause up to 100% crop loss. The most extensive losses from the pest have occurred in India, Indonesia , the Philippines, Japan, and Taiwan. It is important to find the right balance between breeding, genetics, and management strategies to reduce the population of BPH and the resulting pest damage.

The BPH workshop was organized by the Taiwan Agricultural Research Institute and CoA’s  Rice Promotion Team in coordination with IRRI.

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IRRI Director General enjoins ASEAN states to invest in science for global food security

IRRI file photo

SINGAPORE, 6 October—“It is imperative for the ASEAN nations to invest in scientific research to ensure the improved productivity, quality, health, and resilience of Asia’s rice sector, and strengthen global food security.” This was the call issued by Matthew Morell, director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). 

Morell (photo above) addressed the preparatory meetings of the Senior Officials of the ASEAN Ministers of Agriculture and Forestry (AMAF), as well as the AMAF+3, in meetings in Singapore, 3-7 October. Senior officials from the ASEAN 10 countries - Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam, as well as the “Plus 3” countries - China, Japan, and South Korea, participated in the meeting.

Morell presented IRRI’s proposal to establish the ASEAN Genetics and Rice Breeding Platform, a regional program and mechanism that will allow the ASEAN+3 countries to conduct collaborative research. Through this platform, the countries could work together to develop and share improved rice germplasm that could help their respective rice sectors cope with rising demand for rice as well as demand for safe, high-quality production.

“Climate change is expected to significantly lower grain yields and raise the price of rice across the developing world,” Morell added. “That and the combined impact of rapid population growth, diminishing  natural resources, and increasing demand for land for non-farming uses make new technology innovation for agricultural production all the more urgent.” 

Advances in basic science require significant and stable investments by governments in research for public goods.  Traditionally, investments in rice research have been made by Western countries, even though the rice-growing countries of Asia, especially China and India, have largely benefited from the research. 

During his time there, Morell and Bruce Tolentino, IRRI deputy director general, also had a series of bilateral meetings with the ASEAN Secretariat and the delegations from Brunei Darussalam, Malaysia, and South Korea.

The feedback from the meetings was highly positive, reconfirming the threat climate change poses to future food and nutritional security. It acknowledges the role of science in finding solutions as well as the importance of rice germplasm exchange and breeding programs to the region. In consultation with the ASEAN+3 countries, IRRI will be working on the development of a road map for the ASEAN Rice Germplasm and Genetics Platform.

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