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Gates funding to help poor rice farmers

Los Baos, Philippines The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is receiving significant new funding to harness major scientific advances and address some of the biggest unsolved problems in agriculture. IRRIs new project will help develop and distribute improved varieties of rice that can be grown in rainfed ecosystemswhere farmers have little or no access to irrigationand withstand environmental stresses such as drought, flooding, and salinity.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation today announced a grant to IRRI for US$19.9 million over three years to initially help place improved rice varieties and related technology into the hands of 400,000 small farmers in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Farmers are expected to achieve a 50 percent increase in their yields within the next 10 years.

The grant to IRRI was part of a package of agricultural development grants announced today by Bill Gates, co-chair of the foundation, at the World Economic Forum in Davos. All of the grants are designed to help small farmers boost their yields and increase their incomes so they can lift themselves out of hunger and poverty.

IRRI will draw on its past success in improving incomes for millions of poor farmers to reach its ultimate goal: more than 18 million households benefiting from improved rice varieties that will generate income increases and help lift farmers out of poverty. IRRI will work closely with other national and international agricultural research centers, including the Africa Rice Center (WARDA). In addition, the project will build the capacity of researchers and seed producers in poor rice-dependent countries.

The success of the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 70swhich sharply boosted production, causing rice prices to steadily fallhelped lay the foundation for the economic growth and prosperity in Asia in the two decades that followed. The new funding comes at a vital time for rice farmers, who are now facing major production pressure and rising prices that threaten Asias continued economic growth.

The project is underpinned by IRRIs new strategic plan, Bringing Hope, Improving Lives. With its focus on reducing poverty, the plan, which gives fresh impetus to research at the Institute, is now attracting support that will help some of the worlds poorest people.

If we are serious about ending extreme hunger and poverty around the world, we must be serious about transforming agriculture for small farmersmost of whom are women, said Gates. These investmentsfrom improving the quality of seeds, to developing healthier soil, to creating new marketswill pay off not only in children fed and lives saved. They can have a dramatic impact on poverty reduction as families generate additional income and improve their lives.

The grant to IRRI is part of a package totaling $306 million that nearly doubles the foundations investments in agriculture since the launch of its Agricultural Development initiative in mid-2006. The initiative, part of the foundations Global Development Program, is focused on a range of interventions across the entire agricultural value chainfrom planting the highest quality seeds and improving farm management practices to bringing crops to market. The foundation believes that with strong partnerships and a redoubled commitment to agricultural development by donor- and developing-country governments, philanthropy, and the private sector, hundreds of millions of small farmers will be able to boost their yields and incomes and lift themselves out of hunger and poverty.

Rice is a food staple for 2.4 billion people and provides more than 20 percent of their daily calorie intake, and up to 70 percent for the poorest of the poor. In order to meet the projected global demand for rice production in the 21st century, the worlds annual rice production must increase by nearly 70 percentfrom 520 million tons today to nearly 880 million tons in 2025. With nearly all irrigated rice-growing lands already in production, there is considerable potential to increase rice yields on rainfed lands.

IRRIs project will target the poorest rice farmers in Africa and South Asia, who have little or no access to irrigation and who are totally reliant on sufficient, timely rains. These farmers are regularly exposed to drought, flooding, or salinityconditions that reduce yields, harm livelihoods, and foster hunger and malnutrition. The development and distribution of new rice varieties tolerant of these environmental stresses can help avert hunger and malnutrition while improving livelihoods for millions of farmers and their families. With minimal access to irrigation and fertilizer, these farmers, who own small plots on marginal land, are inevitably most exposedand most vulnerableto poor soils, too much or too little rain, and environmental disasters.

IRRI Director General Robert S. Zeigler emphasizes that, with climate change threatening to worsen the frequency and severity of these problems, the need for insurancein the form of stress-tolerant cropsis growing ever urgent.

Scientists have been confounded by the challenges of stress tolerance for decades, said Dr. Zeigler. But the rice-science community in general and IRRI in particular have recently taken significant steps forward through precision breeding to develop stress-tolerant varieties. As a world-class scientific facility with links throughout the rice-consuming world, we are uniquely positioned to produce crop varieties that canand have, and willbenefit the poor.

A team co-led by IRRI scientists made a key breakthrough in 2006 with the discovery of a gene that allows rice to survive up to two weeks flooding with minimal yield loss. Varieties without this gene that are subjected to more than a few days flooding can be completely ruined.

The gene, known as Sub1, has been bred into several popular varietieswhich in the absence of submergence behave exactly as the original varietyand these are already being tested in farmers fields in India and Bangladesh.

A United States National Public Radio report in October 2007 visited a field of Sub1 rice grown by Bangladeshi farmer Gobindra, the only person in his village who planted the seed before an 8-day flood hit. After the water subsided, his crop recovered and now every other farmer in Gobindras village plans on planting the flood-tolerant variety. A striking time-lapse video showing the relative effects of 10 days flooding on a Sub1 rice variety and its non-floodproof counterpart is available at

Even Bangladeshi farmers who were devastated by Cyclone Sidr in November last year which was so fierce that no rice crop could fully withstand itcan benefit from new varieties with sufficient tolerance of submergence, salinity, and stagnant flooding. Such varieties can mitigate the immediate effects of severe storms and offer yields that will avert hunger until the next harvest.

Several other major donors have signaled their confidence in IRRIs research. A series of significant grants has recently come from the government of Japan (499.5 million$4.7 millionfor flood tolerance in Southeast Asia), Germanys Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in combination with the Eiselen Foundation (1 million$1.45 millionfor salinity tolerance), and the International Fund for Agricultural Development ($1.5 million for sub-Saharan Africa, in partnership with the Africa Rice Center).


Contact: Duncan Macintosh
International Rice Research Institute

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