Dr Robert S Zeigler
International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has achieved early breakthroughs in combining multiple traits in rice plant so that farmers in the predominantly rice-growing Asia can effectively fight the climate change fallouts.
The visiting Director General of IRRI Dr Robert S Zeigler disclosed this to The Daily Star in an exclusive interview at the institute's Dhaka office yesterday.
“You know in recent years we've successfully developed several varieties tolerant of various stress conditions (drought, salinity, submergence) and Bangladesh also released some of those through local adaptation. As a next big thing, we're now combining multiple traits in rice plant,” said Zeigler.
He revealed that IRRI scientists have already achieved initial successes in developing rice plant tolerant of both salinity and submergence, and yet another one that is tolerant of both submergence and drought. “Now the challenge is to combine all the traits in one variety so that farmers can effectively fight the climatic adversities.”
The IRRI DG's disclosure came at a time when Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina asked scientists to invent new varieties of rice compatible with the climate change and different seasons.
“We have to produce rice that will harmonise with the seasonal changes and adjust to the changing climate,” Hasina said yesterday at a city function where Zeigler also was on the dais. The special programme was arranged at Bangabandhu International Conference Centre in celebration of the 50th founding anniversary of IRRI.
The Philippines-based IRRI is the world's largest rice research and training centre and one of the 15 food and agro-research centres funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an association of public and private donor agencies.
An internationally acclaimed plant pathologist with 20-year experience in agricultural research in developing world, Zeigler said, “We're trying to come up with rice varieties that'll enable poor farmers to face the stress conditions like drought, salinity, submergence, water scarcity etc. And these are the areas where things are feared worsened because of climate change. So, we see it as a convenient convergence.”
Appreciating Bangladesh's tremendous success in augmenting food production keeping pace with population growth since its independence in 1971, the IRRI DG said the country still holds potential for further growth in food production.
Referring to the rise in population and rapid depletion of croplands as major challenges, an optimistic Zeigler said, “If Bangladesh can provide its farmers with stress-tolerant varieties and can help farmers bridge the yield-gap, this country can still achieve dramatic production growth in the coming 10 years.”
Yield-gap means the difference between per unit crop production in breeders' fields (in ideal lab condition) and farmers' fields.
As investments in agricultural research in the past gave the world enormous dividend in terms of fighting food insecurity, Zeigler thinks the governments of Asian countries with agro-based economies should not shy away from investing more in agriculture.
“Sometimes people in finance departments don't really understand research and what benefits research can provide. Agriculture science is not sexy enough to draw much attention. But all should reckon the 2008 world food crisis and financial meltdown as a wake up call,” observed the IRRI DG.
Zeigler thinks the biggest investment Bangladesh can make is for creating a congenial environment where new generation brilliant ones can take agro-science study and research as career, and brain drain is halted.
A citizen of the United States, Zeigler has been at the helm of IRRI since 2005. Earlier, he had a six-year stint as a plant pathologist at IRRI from 1992 to 1998. Then Zeigler left to become professor and head of the department of plant pathology, and director of Plant Biotechnology Centre at Kansas State University in the US, before briefly working as director of the Generation Challenge Programme of the CGIAR in Mexico.