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Message from the former Director General

Matthew Morell
Former Director General

First of all, I would like to welcome you to my final annual report message as the director general of IRRI, as I step down after five years in that role. Throughout my tenure, there have been many mileposts that I would describe as absolutely fulfilling which is, of course, what I expected from this great organization. 

 
As many of you know by now I have taken on a new challenge but I intend to bring the valuable insights and lessons that I have acquired from working with wonderful colleagues and partners, all with a deep passion to make a difference. This is particularly true during my last year of service at IRRI.
 
To characterize 2020 as a year of unprecedented global challenges is truly an understatement.
 
At IRRI headquarters in the Philippines, operations were interrupted by major natural calamities, like the eruption in January of Taal Volcano in the neighboring province of Batangas, and various typhoons during the year. But the COVID-19 pandemic was--and continues to be--the biggest threat not only to IRRI’s operations throughout Asia and in Africa. It impacted global agriculture and our food systems in ways we have not seen before.  

 

The COVID-19 pandemic sharply emphasized the folly of the world’s complacency about food and nutritional security, a position reached so soon after the 2008 Food Crisis. If there is a silver lining, it is to remind us that science and evidence-based policy are essential to finding paths through such compelling challenges.
 
Although the spread of the COVID-19 virus was inexorable, we can take great pride in the fact that we did not let this pandemic stop us. In March, we strictly followed restrictions on nationwide and international travel and on work in our labs and in the fields. We took every step we could to prioritize the well-being and safety of every staff member and their families. In IRRI Headquarters, we implemented a policy of having only skeletal staff in-campus, while the majority of our people in the Philippines and across our country offices adopted work-from-home arrangements.

 

At this time of physical isolation, we strengthened our digital network to allow us to remain connected. Online communication had its challenges but we adapted and we continued to get things done. We learned to lead teams and people virtually. Through our regular COVID-19 updates newsletter everybody received fact-based information about the disease, its incidence, its management, and the latest government regulations in all the countries where we work. Meanwhile, our weekly IRRI Community newsletter sought to reestablish that all-important human connection among our people.
 
Also compensating for the limited research activities in 2020 is the advancement in the area of partnerships and collaborations. Nothing can replace face-to-face meetings and the affirmation of handshakes. But the meetings, workshops, and other events we could not do in the real world, we conducted online and we accomplished much in advancing research and innovation.

 

Among this year’s successful activities, in partnership with respective government partner agencies, include a regional training workshop with Vietnam to introduce tools that support planning and decision-making for mitigation projects in rice farming; a webinar on laser land-leveling for Filipino farmers as well as the launching of the Rice Crop Manager Philippines; a blended virtual training for agricultural extension workers on delivering advisories to rice farmers through a weather-rice-nutrient integrated decision support system; and a blended workshop on digital data collection in Myanmar.

 

Despite the COVID-19 disruption, 2020 continued to be a time for strengthening collaboration and building more inclusive and robust partnerships with various governments. Our efforts in this regard have resulted in a four-year work plan to modernize and accelerate the rice sector in Cambodia; the launching of a new project to develop short-duration, cold-tolerant, and high-yielding varieties for the boro season and the wetland rice ecosystem of Bangladesh; a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with South Korea to fight poverty and hunger in developing countries through rice science and modern agricultural technologies; an MOU for furthering research and academic cooperation to solve current challenges in the agriculture and forestry sectors of Nepal; and exploring the future directions of the research collaboration between Vietnam and IRRI and Vietnam’s role in South-South cooperation, especially with African countries, on rice sector development.
 
IRRI South Asia Office in India also convened a multi-sectoral panel discussion on Creating Sustainable Value Chains for Transforming Food Systems where senior representatives from agriculture, nutrition, environment, R&D, and policy deliberated on how to collaborate for operationalizing food system transformation in India and South Asia.
 
Still in South Asia, the remarkable progress of the IRRI South Asia Regional Center (IRRI-SARC) since its founding two years ago was highlighted at its 4th Coordination Committee Meeting. That IRRI-SARC was able to maintain its activities on facility development as well as research on grain quality, nutrition, climate resilience, and capacity development in 2020 is a very good indication of its stability and ability to effectively manage risks of global proportions.

 

Our private sector engagement also remained on track. We launched the IRRI Bio-Innovation Center to nurture technology and knowledge-based agri-enterprises, as well as strengthen our collaboration with the private-public sectors, key partners in food and nutrition security. IRRI and AgriPlex Genomics entered a partnership to combine AgriPlex’s Next Generation Sequencing genotyping technology with our advanced breeding of rice and DNA marker development. Advanced Chemical Industries Ltd. and IRRI entered into a partnership to build a state-of-the-art rice breeding program in Bangladesh. The institute and Bioseed, the hybrid seed business of DCM Shriram Ltd., signed a memorandum of agreement enabling Bioseed to leverage IRRI’s world-class research facilities and technical expertise to advance their company’s biotechnology research.
 
Speaking of hybrid rice, the Hybrid Rice Development Consortium (HRDC) introduced Platinum Membership for-profit organizations or companies that have commercial activities related to rice R&D and/or commercial ventures. The upgrade opens up more access to HRDC material, information, and expertise relevant to the hybrid rice sector. This is expected for private-sector players to further rev up the development of hybrid varieties for global food security.
 
Following 2019's track record, we are also happy to announce a net surplus of USD 267 thousand in 2020 thanks to prudent cash management and effective cost control, which allowed IRRI to counteract the negative effects of the slowdown in research operations.

 

We also extended our support to our host community as it strived to cope with the economic fallout from the pandemic. The institute distributed food packs to families whose household incomes and means of livelihoods were hit hard by the lockdowns. IRRI also supported the establishment of the COVID-19 testing center at our partner University of the Philippines Los Baños by providing laboratory equipment and essential chemicals.
 
The year saw the One CGIAR reform process move through a progress set of milestones to further develop, fine-tune, and then begin the implementation of the One CGIAR System. In April, IRRI’s Board of Trustees took the decision to adopt the key elements of the One CGIAR reform and as a consequence, in September 2020, modified its Board composition and Charter to enable IRRI’s participation in the One CGIAR System. As 2020 ended, the One CGIAR System Board and the Executive Management Team of the CGIAR accelerated the pace of change for the CGIAR System in support of the goal of developing more unified and impactful research for development agenda across the CGIAR and its partners.
 
As I hand on the reins, I urge our staff, our partners, our funders, and the One CGIAR leadership to build on the tremendous research for development impact that IRRI has achieved over 60 years. IRRI did not achieve what it did alone, but in close partnership with our many NARES partners and with research institutes across the globe. Those partnerships are the foundation of the future success of the rice research for the development mission of the CGIAR and must be nurtured and supported in order to provide the research and evidence-based solutions for farmers and communities that will be so badly needed in the post-COVID-19 world.
 
Finally, I would like to congratulate Jean Balié to whom I pass the reins as IRRI’s new director general. Jean has provided strong leadership in his time at IRRI as a research leader, and I have full confidence in Jean’s ability to steer IRRI, its staff, and its mission as the Institute becomes a full partner in One CGIAR. 

It has been a year filled with incredible obstacles that caused chaos and upheavals in all aspects of our lives. Not knowing for certain when this scourge will finally end greatly adds to the fear and anxiety. However, we chose optimism over despair and a shared sense of community over isolation and I cannot be prouder of what we have accomplished.
 
On behalf of Dr. Balié, I am very pleased to present the hard-earned fruits of our determination and resilience.

Message from the IRRI Director General

Jean Balié
Current Director General

The year 2020 has been an exceptionally difficult year, and I would like to express our gratitude to my predecessor Mathew Morell for deftly steering the institute through all the many disruptions and challenges that it has brought. I hope I can do as well as him as we continue to navigate during the ongoing pandemic.   

 

Matthew mentioned the transition to One CGIAR, which will continue to stretch out until the latter half of 2021. One CGIAR will consolidate its member organizations under one governance to enable its partnerships, knowledge, assets, and global presence to reach greater integration and impact in the face of the interdependent challenges facing today’s world. This transition will have long-term implications for how the institute will function in the future, and these changes will be communicated to the staff regularly. 

 

Matthew also mentioned the health protocols and monitoring measures we took to ensure the safety of our staff. We are not stopping there. We have taken the next step towards protecting our people through a voluntary vaccination program to be shouldered by the institute. IRRI has secured 5,000 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, which will be distributed to IRRI HQ staff and their dependents. The start of the vaccine rollout is expected by June 2021.


As we look back at 2020, I hope that this will not be seen as just a year of unprecedented adversity and disruption for IRRI, but also as a year that we as an institute came together to work creatively, surmount challenges, and inspire hope.