Editorial

Nature 423, 1 (1 May 2003) | doi:10.1038/423001b

Rice institute needs strong support

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Despite rumours to the contrary, the role of the International Rice Research Institute is as important as ever.

Rice has been a great success story. Since the Green Revolution in the 1960s, rice production has more than doubled, thanks to a 2.5-fold increase in productivity per hectare. Vietnam, which once struggled to meet its needs, is now an exporter. There is now more than enough rice to go around, but the eastern regions of India, suffering floods and soil alkalinity, struggle to meet their own needs despite the abundance of rice produced in the well-irrigated Punjab region. Telling people to redistribute rice won't help much. Local growers need to be able to look after themselves — for them, research into productivity continues to play an essential role.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) near Manila in the Philippines is adapting to these circumstances. Rather than offering a finished product that can be used in any region, the institute is developing materials, methods and training so that breeders can take advantage of genomic tools to meet their local needs, whether the soil is acidic or alkaline, and whether the regions are prone to floods, drought or both (see Nature 422, 796–798; 2003).

The problems facing farmers will only get worse. Rice demand is expected to increase at 1% per year over the next 25 years. As sea levels rise and soil becomes salty and eroded, even greater productivity will be necessary. Nearly half of the diverted water in Asia goes to rice irrigation, but water, too, is becoming scarcer and tainted.

Researchers hope to tap the secrets of the rice genome to meet these challenges — a good bet, considering the unexplored biodiversity in the rice germ stocks. But there are significant obstacles to bringing genomic science to bear on farmers' practices. IRRI, whose rice lines have been bred into over a third of the new lines produced world-wide since the 1960s, is well positioned to take up that challenge.

But the institute is facing huge cutbacks (see Nature 416, 777; 2002). In the three years from 2001 to 2003, IRRI's annual core funding dropped by 26%, and similar cuts are expected in the future.

It is essential that support for IRRI be mobilized. Researchers there, where research that spurred the Green Revolution was carried out, sometimes hear their success in producing abundant, high-yielding rice as a justification for cutting their budget, as if to say "your job is over". But the institute's job is not over — it has just begun.