Sustainable Impact Through
Rice-Based Systems

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The drive to disseminate innovative technological interventions

“As the SIRS platform lead, I continued to be ably supported by a cadre of excellent Research Unit leaders. In 2021, we continued with our weekly virtual meetings: 90 minutes every Wednesday afternoon. We did not keep minutes, there was no agenda; it was (and still is) an opportunity for each of us to discuss work and non-work issues. The meetings proved very useful, almost therapeutic and they helped us continue to feel part of a team despite COVID-19 restrictions.“

Dr. Jon Hellin

Platform Leader

Sustainable Impact Through Rice-Based Systems

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Like many, I breathed a sigh of relief on 1 January 2021, convinced that the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic was behind us and that things could only get better. My optimism proved to be  little misplaced but, at the same time, and despite the on-going challenges posed by COVID-19, things did get better.

As SIRS platform lead, I continued to be ably supported by a cadre of excellent Research Unit leaders. In 2021, we continued with our weekly virtual meetings: 90 minutes every Wednesday afternoon. We did not keep minutes, there was no agenda; it was (and still is) an opportunity for each of us to discuss work and nonwork issues. The meetings proved very useful, almost therapeutic and they helped us continue to feel part of a team despite COVID-19 restrictions.

One of the biggest challenges as the platform lead was the absence of face-to-face meetings, not just with the Research Unit leaders but with the wider staff. Just prior to COVID-19 lockdowns in March 2020, I had visited ISARC in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India for the second time and also IRRI’s excellent work in Assam. I was looking forward to more of these sorts of visits in 2021. They never materialized.

Another challenge was the uncertainties around the changes in CGIAR, and the often exhausting demands that I and others faced as we developed proposals from April onwards for the Initiatives under the reforming CGIAR.

There were many positives though; ones that have positioned SIRS and IRRI in general well for the future. The initiative design process brought together scientists from IRRI as well as across and beyond the CGIAR in conceptualizing and, from 2022, implementing exciting inter- and transdisciplinary research-for-development projects. I believe that this will pay big dividends in the months and years to come as it addresses the different ways that we as scientists need to work in order to ensure that our work has a greater impact.

CGIAR is not alone in recognizing that for our research to have more impact we need to embrace the reality that while innovative technological interventions are critical, enabling social, institutional, and governance factors provide the context within which change happens. This in no way undermines the excellent science that SIRS scientists and others do on a daily basis, it just means that projects give more attention (as SIRS scientists have done through their work on the Initiatives) to science and also partnerships, capacity building, governance, and policy.

By doing so, CGIAR research will have more impact. For a platform whose remit is “sustainable impact” this is a very pleasing way to end 2021 and look forward to great achievements in 2022.

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Missions accomplished

Bringing precision technology for rice production to the field

IRRI and the Bureau of Agricultural and Fisheries Engineering of the Department of Agriculture (DA) concluded the project Laser Land Leveling for Land Use Efficiency in the Philippines in a virtual meeting in June 2021. The one-year project was launched to enhance the capacity of laser land leveling operation and management and increase the effectiveness of the technology.

The project implemented multiple training activities and seminars on the use of laser land leveling equipment attended by more than 2,000 stakeholders, including government officials, researchers, and farmers.

In 1997, IRRI in collaboration with Trimble (then Spectra Precision) introduced laser land leveling technology to stabilize rice production and improve efficiency in field operations. Today, it is used by thousands of farmers in rice-growing economies to reduce farm inputs and water usage, while improving their yields. The technology saves more than 20% of irrigation water, reduces stagnant water, and helps increase the efficiency of input use like fertilizers and herbicides, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Translating science into accessible evidence-based information

IRRI formally transitioned Rice Crop Manager Advisory Service (RCM) Philippines to the DA. RCM Philippines is a major digital agricultural product that is a result of the partnership between IRRI and the DA, which includes intensive collaborations and research work on crop research, product development, and extension services.

IRRI, DA, and the Philippine Rice Research Institute launched RCM in 2013 to offer customized guidance to farmers on nutrient and crop-specific management. To date, over 2.6 million RCM recommendations have been generated in 16 rice-growing regions throughout the Philippines. The average yield increase of 0.4 tons per crop per hectare resulted from the use of RCM recommendations, which is equivalent to approximately USD 100/ha/cropping season added net benefit over conventional practices.

This project serves as a model of how science can be translated into results through access to science, and evidence-based information using technology-supported platforms.

The Philippines becomes the first country to approve “Golden Rice” for commercial production

Filipino farmers will become the first in the world to be able to grow a variety of rice enriched with nutrients to help reduce childhood malnutrition, after receiving the green light from regulators. PhilRice developed Golden Rice in partnership with IRRI to contain additional levels of beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A.

This new variety has already received food safety approvals from regulators in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the US and is currently undergoing final regulatory review in Bangladesh.

But the Philippines is the first country to approve its commercial cultivation. This milestone puts the Philippines at the global forefront in leveraging agriculture research to address the issues of malnutrition and related health impacts in a safe and sustainable way.

Zooming in on science-based solutions

The Council for Partnership on Rice Research in Asia (CORRA) hosted an online science webinar, Rice Straw Management: Scaling GHG Emission-Reducing Technologies and Practices, that presented different options for repurposing the rice byproduct, as an alternative to the practice of rice straw burning.

Every year, over 600 million tons of rice straw are produced after rice harvesting globally. In South and Southeast Asia, the traditional practice of many rice farmers, especially poor smallholders, has been to burn the rice straw in the field in order to clear the paddy quickly for the next planting.

However, studies on rice straw burning have shown that this practice is harmful, as it produces high GHG emissions and particulates hazardous to human health. Rice straw burning also causes nutrient and biodiversity losses in the soil, which affect the long-term sustainability of rice fields.

New partnerships

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Building a database of knowledge gained and lessons learned

Closing Rice Yield Gaps in Asia with Reduced Environmental Footprint Project (CORIGAP) aims to improve food security, promote gender, equity, and reduce poverty by optimizing the productivity and sustainability of irrigated rice production systems in six Asian countries.

CORIGAP has completed two phases, spanning seven years, promoting best management practices for lowland intensive rice production in China, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka. The project has reached more than 600,000 farmers and about 118,000 farmers have adopted the best practices and increased their rice yield by 11–20% and profits by 15–25%.

CORIGAP Phase 3, which started in 2021, builds on the tremendous impact of the preceding phases. CORIGAP 3 will document and disseminate the learnings, outputs, and outcomes to different audiences to ensure that these are taken up by other projects and policymakers. It also aims to design pathways for the agroecological transition toward sustainable food systems.

By developing and disseminating knowledge products for project partners, development partners, policymakers, and donors  CORIGAP’s successful activities can be replicated in other projects and regions.

A digital library is now available on the project website to expedite the public’s access to publications and knowledge products of CORIGAP and the Irrigated Rice Research Consortium. The digital library aggregates scientific journal articles, book chapters, magazine features, news archives, and more resources, which can be located through the searchable database. All articles can be downloaded or retrieved through direct links.

Climate-smart rice-based systems to play a crucial role in agriculture in Odisha, India

A newly launched project will work with smallholder women and men farmers in three districts in Odisha to promote the diversification of rice-based systems as a way of enhancing climate and livelihood resilience. The three-year project, Climate Smart Rice-based Systems for Prosperity and Resilience in Odisha (ClimatePRO), is a collaborative effort of IRRI and the Government of Odisha.

ClimatePRO aims to intensify and diversify agricultural production in Ganjam, Mayurbhanj, and Bolangir to support smallholder farmers in building their resilience and capacity to adapt to climate change stresses affecting agricultural production. Climate-resilient and high-yielding rice varieties followed by pulses, oilseeds, and other high-value crops in conjunction with climate-smart agricultural practices will be promoted to improve incomes and contribute to the sustainable intensification of farming systems in the state. The formal and informal seed systems will be strengthened to enable crop diversification.

A major component of the project is promoting women farmer entrepreneurship. A multi-product multi-service women’s Farmer Producer Company (FPC) will be incubated in Bolangir following the successful model in Kalahandi. The FPC and selected Farmer Producer Organizations in the three districts will be supported to engage in quality seed production and marketing.

India’s premium black rice varieties get a boost in Assam

IRRI and the Government of Assam have begun production of new black rice varieties from across India under the World Bank-funded Assam Agribusiness and Rural Transformation project (APART). Under the project, IRRI will provide seeds of Manipuri, Kalamalifula, and Kalavati to selected farmers in Goalpara District for sowing.

The demonstration fields aim to link the farmers with the buyers for higher returns and make good quality seed available for future use. With the growing demand for black rice due to its high nutritional value and health benefits, APART aims to increase black rice production in the state.

Working together for faster, more efficient, and cleaner rice agriculture

SIRS continuously identifies strategic research to meet current and future needs and opportunities amongst IRRI scientists and partners and maps out plausible impact pathways leading to outcomes and impact. In 2021, among the platform’s new collaborations in key research areas are mechanization, postharvest management, rice straw management, and low carbon rice with Vietnam’s Loc Troi Group, mechanized direct seeding with APV Austria, and agritechnica, mechanization, and precision farming with DLG Germany.

Formulating food security policies for the rapidly evolving global agri-food systems

IRRI plays a major role in the development of food security policies through its excellence in rice research and global engagement. With decades of excellence in rice research, IRRI has been able to capitalize a body of evidence to support the formulation of several food security policies in the rice-based agri-food system. However, as we engage with the CGIAR unification and continue to battle the COVID-19 pandemic, several challenges presented themselves in the way we fulfill that role.

Developing food security policies requires engagement with stakeholders to discuss and receive feedback on the pieces of research evidence on which the policies are formulated. But since 2020, our country engagement strategy has been limited because of the restrictions imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic on travels. In many cases, face-to- face engagements were replaced by online meetings, which do not always allow capturing all information necessary for policy development. This was compensated by documentation and literature reviews.

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The COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted both supply and demand sides of the agri-food value chains. The challenges on the supply side include reduced availability and higher cost of labor, material inputs, and agro-advisory services; disruption in the input and output supply chains; and decreased market access and low prices for agricultural outputs. The challenges on the demand side include: reduced income and employment opportunities, decreased availability of food items, and a shift in consumption partners towards cheap and less nutritious foods, especially for the poor. In response we are directing our efforts on developing future food security policies focusing on increasing yield, promoting labor-saving technologies and digital tools in agriculture, strategies to make supply chains function more effectively, collective actions in farming, nutrition-sensitive agriculture, and creating social safety nets.

The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected the partnership among different stakeholders and the implementation of some research activities. This has had negative effects on the generation of new technologies and innovations to improve food security. From a research standpoint, some methodological challenges also exist. The IRRI Global Rice Model (IGRM) focuses on rice production, trade, and prices over the longer term (2030+). The IGRM can be used to examine major drivers such as changes in technology, income, population, and climate at the global and regional scales . We are enhancing this by aligning and linking with other global socioeconomic models like the IMPACT model of IFPRI. Model improvements could include harmonizing model data sources, as well as identifying linkages and complementarities between IGRM and IMPACT. For example, these two analytical tools can be brought together by linking IGRM to the water and land systems components that are already in the IMPACT model.

To develop relevant policies to support the agri-food system transformation, evidence should be provided through solid and rigorous models and analysis. Prior to the One CGIAR initiative, data collection for socioeconomic research and modeling has mostly focused on rice-related information. One of the challenges IRRI is working on is establishing a data collection system that goes beyond the traditional rice-based systems information, but includes other commodities and expands to new areas such as livestock, fish, poultry, etc.

The agri-food systems have been rapidly evolving around the world and different countries are at different stages of this transformation. Formulating food security policies in the regions and countries of interest will require engagement with key stakeholders of interest. As we engage with the CGIAR unification, identifying and collaborating with unfamiliar or non-traditional stakeholders may be challenging. IRRI plans to establish new public-private partnerships to support this global agri-food system transformation.

Dr. Valerien Pede

Head,

Impact Evaluation, Policy and Foresighting Unit

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