IR8: The miracle rice which saved millions of lives

Mr Subba Rao harvesting the first IR8 harvest Image copyright IRRI
Image caption Mr Subba Rao harvesting the first IR8 harvest

Last week I received a very unusual invitation indeed. It was to a 50th birthday party in a swanky Delhi hotel, but the party was for a plant: a strain of rice known only by its initials, IR8.

A celebration for an angry rice variety; who could refuse?

The Indian Agriculture Minister, Shri Sudarshan Bhagat, opened the event, describing the introduction of IR8 as "a great moment in India's history".

And it is true that, if any plant has earned the right to a fancy half-century knees-up, it is IR8.

A 29-year-old Indian farmer called Nekkanti Subba Rao was one of the first to discover the variety's extraordinary properties.

He is over 80 now and chuckles with delight as he recalls sowing his first field of IR8 on his small farm in the south-east Indian state of Andhra Pradesh in 1967.

Back then you could only expect a maximum of one and a half tonnes per hectare, he tells me, looking perfectly at home perched on a gilt chair in the hotel's Mughal-styled entertaining rooms.

"Yield was 10 tonnes per hectare", he told the BBC World Service Business Daily programme, recalling that first monster harvest.

The seed from the 1,000 hectares of IR8 planted in his village the following year was sent across India, ensuring the entire country experienced its first harvest of what became known as the "miracle" rice.

"It was a time of great change, in all states in India farmers are very happy," he laughs.

Image copyright IRRI
Image caption Mr Subba Rao was guest of honour at the IR8 birthday celebrations

This jovial farmer - or Mr IR8 as he became affectionately known - had inadvertently kick-started one of the greatest revolutions the world has ever seen. Not a political or social upheaval but a "Green Revolution", a revolution in the way the world farmed.

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. They reckoned promising developments in the science of plant breeding might just be the trick that would avert the impending disaster.

The new team began patiently cross-breeding the 10,000 different varieties they had collected.

This is usually a laborious process, Dr Gurdev Singh Khush tells me. He is an agronomist and geneticist who joined the team that developed IR8 in 1967.

"Normally we get 1 or 2% yield increase every year," he says.

Image copyright IRRI

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.

"Genetics is fantastic when it works like that," agrees the current head of IRRI, Matthew Morell.

Image copyright IRRI
Image caption IR8's yield was unprecedented

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."

IR8 was so much better than traditional rice varieties that its use spread rapidly throughout Asia and output soared. Famine was averted.

Most farmers benefited from the increases in productivity and the vast increases in output drove down prices, which benefited consumers.

But Mr Morell readily acknowledges that IR8 was not perfect.

So many farmers switched to it that IR8 became the sole variety grown in some areas of Asia, reducing biodiversity and risking a catastrophe if a pest or disease hit the crop. It also led to a big increase in fertiliser use leading to problems with pollution.

Then there was the taste and texture of the rice. IR8 was chalky and hardened after cooking: it may have been plentiful, but it wasn't particularly palatable.

Dr Khush and the IR8 team spent the next two decades improving the grain quality, introducing disease and pest resistance and reducing the growth duration.

Image copyright IRRI
Image caption The IRRI continues to develop new and improved strains of rice

Today the risk of famine may have receded, but the Institute is still busy developing new rice varieties and its efforts reflect the new threats the world faces.

Much of its work goes into developing varieties of rice that can withstand the effects of climate change. Mr Morell says IRRI is working on drought, flood, salt and temperature resistant strains of rice.

At the same time it is still developing rice varieties to help tackle malnutrition.

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.

Image copyright IRRI
Image caption Some critics argue "Golden Rice" could be dangerous for human health and biodiversity

There is no shortage of food available at IR8's birthday celebration and, appropriately, the centrepiece is two steaming platters of Hyderabadi biryani - rice slow-cooked with mutton and spices and widely regarded as the finest of all biryanis.

As I tuck into a large portion, I ask Dr Khush if the rice is likely to be a descendant of IR8. I rather like the idea that we are eating the host.

He can tell I'm disappointed when he says it is unlikely, but tells me that doesn't affect the fact that IR8 changed the lives of billions of people.

"The population of Asia is four and half billion and all of them are rice consumers," Dr Khush tells me. "The price of rice is half what it used to be before the Green Revolution. In the 1980s, 50% of the population in Asia was hungry, now it is 12%."

What better tribute could there be to this world-changing plant variety?

For more from Justin Rowlatt and the Business Daily team, listen at 08:32 GMT each weekday on BBC World Service. You can also listen online or download the programme podcast,

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