India’s Cup of Rice Runneth Over

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    For the star of a global revolution, it doesn’t have a very glamorous name. It’s simply called ‘IR8’. Yet, this very special variety of rice saved millions from starvation in India and elsewhere in Asia in the 1960s and ’70s. IR8 was a hybrid strain of rice at the centre of the Green Revolution.

    In the 1950s and ’60s, India was hit by a double whammy. Not only had the Second World War (1939-45) caused global food shortages, India was on the verge of a famine due to drought and skewed agricultural practices that were a legacy of the colonial British.

    India thus embraced the Green Revolution in the 1960s, a period that saw a jump in the production of staples such as wheat and rice due to the application of science and technology to agriculture.

    Farmers started to use high-yielding varieties of seeds and modern methods of farming such as irrigation and chemical fertilisers.

    Together, the yield per hectare shot up and it set the stage for a nation that could, at last, enjoy food security.

    Rice was one of the crops at the forefront of this agricultural revolution. IR8 or ‘miracle rice’, as it came to be known, was a high-yielding variety developed at the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) set up in 1960 to address the global food crisis. It was developed from a cross between a Taiwanese dwarf variety called ‘Dee-geo-woo-gen’ and a tall Indonesian strain called ‘Peta’.

    This hybrid was a semi-dwarf strain developed in the early 1960s by Dr Peter Jennings and Dr Hank Beachell. It was called ‘IR8’ as it was developed from the ‘eighth’ cross of only 38 crosses made.

    How exactly did IR8 transform the global food landscape?

    A ‘Miracle’ Cross

    - IR8 was high yielding – double the yield of traditional rice varieties (From 1-2 tonnes per hectare to 4-5 tonnes, sometimes even more)

    - It was very responsive to fertilisers – which further increased yield to even 10 tonnes per hectare

    - It was pest-resistant

    - But none of the above would matter if it wasn’t a semi-dwarf. Tall varieties of rice are prone to ‘lodging’ or, literally, falling over when they mature, making them impossible to harvest. The relatively short IR8 was able to bear a heavier grain mass and still keep standing.

    In June 1966, IRRI officially called IR8 ‘miracle rice’ and in November that year, the hybrid strain was formally unveiled to the world, kick-starting the Green Revolution in rice.

    The next year was a watershed for India.

    IR8 Unveiled In India

    In 1967, Nekkanti Subba Rao (in the cover photo), a 29-year-old farmer from Andhra Pradesh, was chosen to test IR8 in his fields, in Atchanta village in West Godavari district. He demonstrated the ‘miracle’ to other farmers.

    Apart from planting IR8 on his own farm, Subba Rao supervised its cultivation on 2,000 hectares in nearby fields as well. The next year, IR8 seeds were distributed across India and Subba Rao earned the nicknames ‘Dhaan Pandit’ (‘Rice Expert’) and ‘Mr IR8’.

    Farmers who had sown IR8 could hardly believe their eyes – or good fortune. In Tamil Nadu, after his first bumper harvest of IR8, one farmer, K N Ganesan, was so wonderstruck that he named his second son after the hybrid – ‘IR-ettu’ in Tamil, or ‘Irettu’.

    And it wasn’t just India. Rice is a staple in South-East Asia and IR8 not only fed millions in countries like Burma, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam but also created food security and sustainability. Farmers in Vietnam called IR8 ‘Lua Honda’ or ‘Honda Rice’ because a single harvest brought enough money for a farmer to afford a Honda motorcycle!

    The Revolution Rolls On

    IR8 may have saved a large part of the world from starvation but no one said the rice was great. At the time, people were just grateful to have enough food to eat. The truth is, IR8 grains were fat, it tasted chalky and it hardened upon cooking.

    The miracle needed improving.

    Indian plant scientist Dr Gurdev Singh Khush, who was appointed as the head of IRRI’s Plant Breeding Department in 1972, cross-bred IR8 and developed IR36, a semi-dwarf variety that was highly resistant to a broader range of pests and diseases, and that ripened faster than IR8 did. It took 105 versus 130 days for IR8 and 150-170 days for traditional varieties. Most importantly, for consumers, IR36 produced the slender grain that was much more palatable.

    IR36 was all the rage in the 1980s and, of course, many other hybrid strains have been developed since. But agricultural scientists are now faced with another global challenge, developing climate-resilient seeds and agricultural practices to counter the effects of climate change on food security.

    As science wrestles with new challenges, the world prepares to celebrate a very special anniversary on 28th November – the 55th anniversary of IR8, the miracle the started a revolution.

    All images are courtesy of the International Rice Research Institute.

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