LOS BANOS (PHILIPPINES) - FOR the world's leading rice research institute, solving Asia's grain production woes - and avoiding future crises - is a far from barren hope.
On a 200ha estate outside the Philippine university town of Los Banos, experimental rice varieties grown by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to boost yields and make them withstand harsh climatic conditions sprout in meticulously tended paddy fields.
Soon, some of these varieties may be in the frontline of a global effort to squeeze more rice out of less farm land; other strains will have a much further development horizon.
1961: Born in Jena, in the former East Germany.
1987: Completed a master's in tropical-subtropical agriculture at the University of Leipzig, Germany.
1989: Conducted research on rice fields in southern Russia.
1991: Completed a doctorate on soil science at the University of Leipzig.
1992-2000: Soil nutrient specialist with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.
2002-2007: Professor, soil science and nutrient management, University of Nebraska, United States.
2008: IRRI head of research.
Soaring rice prices and falling stockpiles in Asia have propelled the IRRI, which helped spur Asia's 1960s green revolution, firmly into the limelight.
'We saw all this coming years ago,' said Dr Achim Dobermann, its head of research.
During bountiful times, the IRRI's ground-breaking research was often overlooked by the media, and its work buried in specialist journals. But now, with concerns over food security reaching a fever pitch, the German-born scientist, a world authority in his field, is being courted for interviews.
Dr Dobermann sat down with The Straits Times last week to discuss the rice crisis from the viewpoint of the research world.
'Because of urbanisation and farmers converting to other crops, it will be very difficult to expand rice-growing areas in some Asian countries,' he said.
'So, the most important intervention is to raise yields.'
In the 90-minute drive to the IRRI from the Philippine capital, Manila, it is not hard to see why: Housing developments, shopping malls and factories are spread out across prime rice-farming land.
The IRRI wants to make rice land more productive and the grain more resilient with new strains whose seeds could then be produced on a massive scale.
The IRRI, which has 10 regional offices, also works with the authorities to improve crop management techniques.
Asia's paddy fields produce on average of four tonnes of rice a hectare, though there are sizeable differences across the region.
China's irrigated rice fields produce just over six tonnes a hectare, while land in drought- prone India, where crops depend heavily on seasonal rains, produces only half that amount.
The IRRI believes the region's yields could be raised by one to two tonnes a hectare through better seeds and more efficient farming.
'We are convinced that this is do-able - and it still does not come close to what we consider to be the yield potential of rice,' said Dr Dobermann, who joined the IRRI in 1992.
'But just one to two tonnes extra would be enough to keep pace with world rice demand - and it could be achieved in the short term.'
Back in the 1970s, global rice production suffered a similar supply squeeze, and governments and the international donor community reacted swiftly by investing and lending heavily to the agriculture sector.
'Maybe it was too successful, and a level of complacency set in,' said Dr Dobermann.
According to World Bank data, public spending on farming in agriculture-based countries as a share of total public spending fell to 4 per cent in 2004, down from 6.9 per cent in 1980.
Dr Dobermann picked up a chart from his desk and ran his finger along a rising trendline for global rice production over the past 40 years.
'The problem is pretty clear,' he said, jabbing a finger at a sharp drop in production in 2002. Since then, the chart showed, production had remained well below the trendline.
It is not a conclusion he draws just from charts. As a soil scientist, he is in the field as often as in the research lab.
After graduating from Leipzig University in then communist East Germany in 1987, he spent two years doing field research in Russian rice fields.
He ended up in the IRRI, he said, because of German reunification. 'IRRI's director-general at the time was a West German, Dr Klaus Lampe, and he wanted to make a personal contribution to the unification process by helping a young East German scientist come to the Philippines to develop a career.'
Grain that can survive floods
RICE that is flood-tolerant and will overcome one of agriculture's oldest challenges is being tested for production in the Philippines, Bangladesh and several other countries.
A gene - Sub1A - which enables rice to survive even when completely submerged in water for more than two weeks was identified by researchers at the International Rice Research Institute and the University of California in 2006.
This is not a new rice variety, but a so-called characteristic - in this case flood-tolerance - that could be transferred to any type of rice.
The discovery stands to transform the livelihoods of millions of poor farmers in flood-prone areas.
Q & A with Dr Dobermann
What is the focus of the International Rice Research Institute's (IRRI) research and development strategies for helping raise global rice production?
The first is raising the yield potential by developing plant types utilising light, water and nutrients more efficiently. The second is anything we can do on breeding and crop management to close the existing yield gap. In other words: How can we get those extra one to two tonnes out of a hectare of rice land?
What progress is being made in breeding higher-yielding rice?
Since the release of the first-generation rice varieties in the green revolution, everything has been better in terms of resistance to drought, soil stresses and insects - but not higher-yield potential.
It has been very difficult. We want to revitalise research on this, but there has not been enough investment. The latest research suggests that yields could be raised by 10 to 15 per cent.
But it will take time, and these new varieties are not going to be in farmers' fields for another 15 years - and this won't help the current crisis.
So, what then are the short-term remedies?
For irrigated land, the primary intervention should be on the so-called extension side: Bringing new technologies to farmers, better fertilisers and higher-quality seeds, and improved land-preparation techniques.
In some countries, 10 to 20 per cent of rice is lost after harvests through poor storage and drying. Improving these areas will hopefully have quick impact.
What have been the most encouraging areas on the breeding side?
Tremendous progress has been made on understanding the genetic control of specific traits. For example, identifying the gene that allows rice to survive even if it is completely submerged in water.
This is a problem affecting one million hectares in Asia a year. The other climate-proof genes we are working on are drought, salinity - which affects Asia's rain-fed lowland areas - and heat. We are focusing on this quite a bit now.
When will these be ready for farmers to use?
They are at various stages of development. Some will make it into mega-varieties, which are grown on millions of hectares, within three to five years; and it will take five to 10 years for others.
What is the IRRI's stand on genetically modified rice?
From a scientific point of view, we do look at selected trans-genetic events. But the emphasis is on non-GMO (genetically modified organism). Acceptance is much greater, and new molecular technologies allow us to do this. It is not necessary to have a GMO solution for all traits. The gene for submergence-proof rice is being moved through conventional breeding for it to become a mega variety.
As the IRRI sees it, how are governments across the region handling the rice crisis?
They are trying to buffer the panic and avoid major social disturbances by controlling rice prices - and it is costing them a lot of money.
Many governments are taking more aggressive measures by increasing spending on agriculture, such as India and the Philippines. But if these are one-time measures, they won't have a lasting impact - and that is what worries us.
Rice, of course, is not a staple food for Germans. Has it now become one for you?
Heck, yes, every day since moving to the Philippines.