The road toward global food security is not without challenges. The population will balloon to 9 billion in 2050. The signs of climate change have never been so real—frequent floods, droughts, and storm surges. Storm surges make farmland in coastal areas too salty for most crops to grow. Also, pathogens and pests evolve. Therefore, a rice variety may lose its resistance to new strains of pathogens or insects.
“With so many challenges that we are facing now, we can’t just continue with what we are doing,” said Eero Nissilä, head of the IRRI Plant Breeding, Genetics, and Biotechnology Division at the International Rice Research Institute. “There need to be changes in the way we do breeding at IRRI.”
IRRI plant breeder Bert Collard agrees. “A revolution in rice breeding is what we need now,” Dr. Collard said. “Not much has changed for the last 50 years. The methods used today in Asia are generally the same as the ones used in the 1960s-1970s. More importantly, the rate of yield increase or genetic gain for irrigated varieties is less than 1% per year.”
Dr. Nissilä and his team are now restructuring IRRI’s entire breeding operations. Transforming Rice Breeding, a project funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is one important component of this new breeding factory, which focuses on irrigated rice. IRRI is aiming to double the rate of genetic gains—the increase in crop performance that is achieved through genetic improvement programs per unit time of breeding—or even make it higher (more than 2%).
“To make breeding more efficient, we need to change how we organize our breeding operations,” Dr. Nissilä said. “We need to restructure the overall breeding pipeline.”