‘Climate change-ready rice’

It was on the 8th of November 2013 that Yolanda first made landfall in Guiuan, Eastern Samar and, thereafter, in five other places in the Philippines. The typhoon provided a true test of emergency preparedness for both national and local government units. The storm surge killed thousands; those who survived were left with nothing.

According to the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, the productive sector (which comprises agriculture, mining, trade and services, tourism sector and cultural sites) shared the second largest amount of damages next to the social sector.

Elsewhere in Asia, extreme weather disturbances and climate change have similar impact on other agricultural lands. Tons of agricultural products are wasted.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Banos, Laguna developed “climate change-ready” rice that can help reduce the growing amount of damage due to flooding, drought, and too much salinity in water.

Pal, a farmer from Northern India who planted submergence-tolerant variety or flood-resistant rice that was developed by IRRI, experienced flooding for more than two weeks but managed to have the highest yield in their area.

Dr. Abdelbagi M. Ismael, IRRI’s Principal Scientist-Plant Physiologist, explained that IRRI started working with climate change-ready rice since the 1960s when the institute was still focused on how rice can manage to survive distressing areas and weather.

Discoveries and development of rice science paved the way to save billions of losses and to serve IRRI’s mission to feed people. Yolanda is an unforeseen occurrence and rice science provided a solution to minimize its effects.

There are challenges, however, to public acceptance of climate-change ready rice. One of these has to do with business.

“Advertisement,” according to Dr. Glenn Gregorio, IRRI’s Senior Scientist—Rice Breeder. Private sector players are not inclined to sell climate change-ready rice due to the slow return of investment. It is not comparable to selling technology that people will buy the latest gadgets and can easily adapt to change.

The acceptance of farmers is also considered to be one of the challenges due to their attachment to their Customs. Embracing change is contrary to their traditional ways.

Industrialization has also gotten in the way of rice self-sufficiency in the Philippines. An agrarian society will encourage people to engage more in producing crops and maintaining farms while an industrial society will be more active in manufacturing.

Setting the bar high, Yolanda changed the course and effects of weather disturbances in the Philippines. Despite the El Niño phenomenon, another Yolanda entering the country is not a remote possibility. The Philippines can no longer afford to lose a single seed.

The dream of rice self-sufficiency is held back by weather disturbances and climate change impacts.  IRRI provides and develops options for farmers. The institute appreciates strong partnerships with government units, since farmers may not have the capacity to avail of the institute’s services directly. When farmers are self sufficient, the country might eventually be self sufficient as well.

Yolanda taught us many different lessons. Filipinos never lose hope and farmers will start replanting their crops after all the tragedies. Our faith is never questioned by the world and it is a trademark of a resilient country. The perseverance of our farmers contributes to our economic growth. Agricultural lands may be damaged and losses may reach billions, but we are still holding on to our culture, where rice plays an important part.

Climate change and weather disturbances are here to stay, but so is IRRI. We might not be able to control weather, but IRRI can help create rice that is disaster resilient and that can adapt to the local climate.

As rice is already embedded in our culture, looking for an alternative crop will no longer be a solution. IRRI is not about changing the crop and turning away from the main staple; rather, rice research is about valuing and understanding rice and the science behind it.

Filipino tastes and culture already have embraced rice. If farmers would allow the smart rice to be planted in their farm, they’ll be amazed that such rice exists—it is the smart choice, after all.


Mr. Jim Balunday is a government employee and a graduate student.

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