Millionaire Superheroes: the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)

Justin Rowlatt at The BBC celebrates the 50th birthday of IR8, a strain of rice developed by the IRRI in the Philippines that more than doubled rice productivity.

It is thought that IR8 saved many millions of lives and transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people.

Back in the 1950s it was obvious that Asia, home to half the world’s population, faced an impending food crisis.

Rice accounts for 80% of the calories consumed in the region and you only needed to plot population growth against rice production to see that, within a few years, there would not be enough to go around.

Something needed to be done and in 1960 two American charities, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, joined forces to found the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.

… Dr Gurdev Singh Khush tells me… “Normally we get 1 or 2% yield increase every year,” …IR8 was different. It married a tall high-yielding strain from Indonesia (PETA) with a sturdy dwarf variety from China (DGWG) with astounding results.

“There was never any instance in the history of the world where rice yields doubled in one step,” says Dr Khush, clearly still amazed by what his team achieved.

In fact, according to some studies, IR8 yields in optimal conditions could be as much as 10 times that of traditional varieties. He says the “miracle” lay in the fact that the hybrid was short. “Much more of the energy from the sun went into producing the grain,” Mr Morell explains, “So there was more grain per plant and secondly it didn’t grow taller and fall over when fertiliser was applied.”…

IRRI played a key part in the development of the controversial so-called “Golden Rice”, a genetically-engineered strain designed to address vitamin A deficiency, which is estimated to kill 670,000 under-fives a year.

And now the Institute is also working on varieties that help combat the effects of having too much food.

Diabetes is a huge problem in Asia and IRRI has helped develop strains of rice with a low glycaemic index. That means once digested the rice releases its energy slowly, keeping blood sugar levels more stable – a crucial part of diabetes management.

IR8 dramatically reduced the price of rice which allowed everyone to eat more, but it also increased the real wage gap between urban and rural work because it lowered the wage of farming and increased the real wage of urban life because food was the majority of the budget for most urban households during the Green Revolution. It was still nearly 40% of household budgets in the major rice-consuming nations in 2008. In contrast, food was less than 7% of the average household budget in the US.

The FAO estimated that increased productivity decreased the price of rice 40% over the four decades after the introduction of IR8. Since rice accounted for 80% of calories in Asia, and food was well over half the average household budget, that meant that real urban wages could have risen by something like 16% merely due to the longstanding decrease in the price of rice. That helped increase rural migration to cities where productivity growth was greater and cities reduce fertility rates which slowed down population growth to a more sustainable level. Smaller families also helped increase economic development.

The IRRI is a superhero that probably saved millions of lives by increasing the productivity of rice.

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Posted in Development, Millionaire Superheroes

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