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Dr. Ajay Kohli

Director for Research

The drive to move forward in pandemic circumstances

Message from the Director for Research

The year 2021 was a “wildcard” year for IRRI, and for most of the world, after the global shockwave from the COVID-19 pandemic that started in 2020. The fallout from the economic upheaval, social turmoil, and uncertainty left the world seemingly suspended in time, a year into the unprecedented health crisis. While hoping that the worst had passed, we were left wondering and waiting for what the pandemic would bring. This forced us to face every day with educated guesswork: do we take the next steps in our endeavors or do we continue to be on the safe side?

As the situation made it clear that business-as-usual was not an option, we decided to creatively adapt, plan, and deliver under the “new” conditions. For example, most meetings, including high-level ones, were held online in consideration of various time zones. We had to limit the number of staff that could conduct on-site research, and find ingenious ways to ensure that the quantity and quality of our outputs were not compromised. We adopted these changes as quickly as possible, built our resilience, and strengthened our resolve to come out stronger.

Despite the challenges with the lockdowns and strict health protocols to ensure the safety of IRRI staff, I am happy to report that our team of scientists, researchers, and support staff achieved a number of notable milestones in 2021.

At the core of our research is the mandate to generate novel rice varieties that help alleviate hunger, malnutrition, and poverty, and combat certain noncommunicable diseases in the rice-consuming regions where such problems are more common. To these ends, we demonstrated the genetic basis of increasing yield without the classical trade-off in grain quality, and generated pre-breeding lines towards such varieties. We also identified the genetic basis for low glycemic
index (GI) rice and are now in a position to convert most rice varieties into low-GI rice. This will decrease the chances of developing obesity and diabetes.

We also provided support on the approval of commercial propagation of Golden Rice in the Philippines. In partnership with our fellow CGIAR centers, we were able to identify the role of cereals in addressing hidden hunger. This is a step towards
developing more nutrient-rich varieties of not just rice but other staple crops as well. Rice productivity is restrained through many biotic and abiotic stresses. Our attempts at pyramiding multiple stress tolerance in selected varieties made appreciable strides especially in relation to diseases in Africa such as the rice yellow mottle virus.

We were also able to reinforce our scaling-up projects with site-specific nutrient management, water management, and seed distribution apps. The Rice Crop Manager app was especially successful and adopted by the Philippines, with a sister project starting soon in Indonesia. We generated critical maps for rice fallows, methane emission, soil type, and other climate change factors.

Through various strategies, we were also able to produce outcomes that are useful for our partners and stakeholders. For example, we reinitiated the policy dialogue on Seeds Without Borders and created a network of our NARES partners.

Given the constraints brought up by the pandemic, and a changing landscape for research as we joined One CGIAR, we prioritized flagships to bring a paradigm shift in rice-based agri-food systems. Direct Seeded Rice is one, a method that we support and recommend because of its economic and environmental benefits.

Nutritious Rice, Climate-resilient Farming, and Accelerated Impact are the other flagships that are product-driven, time-sensitive efforts. Under the Accelerated Impact Flagship, IRRI Education demonstrated its ability to sustainably integrate
education and capacity development activities through virtual modes as necessitated by the pandemic. The flagships concept is a dynamic approach to prioritizing proximal deliverables. We have been working on formalizing this approach with our Board of Trustees and CGIAR.

While face-to-face interactions have been highly limited during the past year, we found ways to further establish scientific partnerships. This was done through efforts in collaborating with our partners on a number of webinars and articles that speak to the work that we do in the areas of climate change, food security, nutrition, gender, livelihoods, the environment, and policies, among others.

Over the past year, our scientists and researchers have also collaborated with other centers to develop 19 of the 32 initiatives that are identified in the new CGIAR portfolio. A number of our colleagues are at the forefront of these efforts, leading the development of the proposals for six of these initiatives: ClimBeR: Building Systemic Resilience Against Climate Variability
and Extremes, Excellence in Agronomy, Market Intelligence and Product Profiling, SeedEqual, Securing the Food Systems of Asian MegaDeltas for Climate and Livelihood Resilience, and Precision Breeding.

The abovementioned efforts are capped off by the more than 240 papers published in notable research journals by the end of 2021.

Our desire to deliver the best outcomes for our stakeholders fuels our drive to thrive through volatile circumstances. Though the pandemic is far from over and we are still in uncertain times, we look forward to a bright future as we join our fellow research centers to create One CGIAR.

Our novel product and process pipeline is now an extremely cohesive and coherent pathway to multiple products in the next few years due to the passion and perseverance of the staff at all levels. The successes at the horizon provide further impetus and in collaboration within One CGIAR we are in a strong position to deliver on our mandates of socioeconomic benefits to our stakeholders. We appreciate the continued support from our Partners & Investors as we gear up for this new and exciting era.

 


Dr. Ajay Kohli
Director for Research