Many visitors to rural Asia have seen farmers and their families standing in flooded paddies, bent over, transplanting rice seedlings in tidy rows. It is backbreaking labor, often lasting from dawn to dusk for days.
This last spring, the International Rice Research Institute here released the plans for a simple machine that could change that familiar scene in wet rice-farming areas. It is a $200 device, operated by one man, standing erect, making single push-pulls of the handle as it slides on runners across the mud.
A worker demonstrated the machine. A mechanism rapidly lifted clumps of three or four plants from a thick mat of green seedlings and shoved them a few centimeters deep into the mud in orderly rows. He could plant about one-quarter hectare per day (1 hectare equals about 2.5 acres). It would take four men to do the same job manually.
The transplanter can be made by small metal shops using readily available materials. "I think it will take off," said Dr. D. W. Barton, director of research administration.
If it does, it may prompt a second "revolution" in the world's rice fields, emanating from this famous research institute near Manila. It would remove much of the drudgery from rice planting. It would also relieve the labor shortage in rice-farming regions at planting time and, because of its speed, help farmers plant more than one crop of rice per year in areas where water is bountiful.
This transplanter typifies the efforts of this institute to develop low-cost, simple machines to help the poor rice farmer with his tasks. For the poorer farmers, $200 is a lot of money. But the cost and use of a transplanter could be shared by a few farmers.
The first and most important "revolution" that came from the Rice Institute was the so- called "miracle rice." It has saved much of the world from mass starvation. The first of these new varieties of rice, IR8, was released in Nov. , 1966. When properly fertilized, the short, stiff-strawed rice yields two or three times the amount of native tropical varieties. These traditional varieties, when fertilized, tended to grow so tall they lodged -- fell over -- and thus their yields fell, too. IR8 and its many semidwarf successors stay erect.
When IR8 was introduced to the rice fields of Colombia in 1969-70, for example, the yields for the same acreage increased from 700,000 tons to 1.5 million tons in four or five years.
One study found that by 1975-76, these new varieties were adding some $2.6 billion per year (at $175 per metric ton) to the income of rice farmers around the world.
By now, as the new varieties spread farther with today's higher prices, the benefits could be $5-to-7 billion per year, estimated Dr. M. D. Pathak, a member of the team that developed IR8 who headed a group that developed IR20, a later variety of rice with better eating qualities and more insect resistance.
Dr. Pathak considers such a massive return on research investment excellent for an institution with a $15 million annual budget.
Twenty years ago, with Asia's population growing at 3 percent per year, there were widespread forecasts of massive starvation.
Those forecasts, noted Dr. Barton, would have come true if not for the use of agricultural research (such as IR8) in food production.
He reckons that new techniques or plants that have been developed at agricultural centers such as the Rice Institute could double world rice production when fully applied.
"I feel that production will be increased and kept above the catastrophe level for the foreseeable future."
That does not exclude relatively small famines from occurring in some rice-growing areas with poor transportation facilities or political troubles that impede the movement of food to the hungry. For one thing, world production of rice has barely kept ahead of the growth of world population.
A third of the world's population of 4.5 billion depends on rice for more than half of its food. For another 400 million or so people, rice is a strong secondary staple, providing 25 to 50 percent of their food.
The new semidwarf varieties had less impact worldwide than expected. More than three-fourths of the world's rice farmers have not adopted the new rices. Even where adopted, the increase in yields has been relatively modest. Why?
The overriding reason is that the new rices do not fit most rice-growing situations. IR8 and the companion varieties developed here and in national rice research stations are best fitted for farmers with irrigation. They are suitable for only around 25 to 30 percent of the world's rice. Most of the world's rice farmers depend on rainfall. When the rains start late, are too light, or stop for several days in midseason, yields drop sharply.
So in the area of "genetic evaluation and utilization," the Rice Institute has been trying to develop better plants for farmers with and without irrigation. They seek varieties that are drought resistant, that contain more protein, that can grow in deep water, that are tolerant to cold water, that can stand adverse soils, and that resist disease and insects.
The institute has more than 200,000 varieties in its "germ plasm bank" that can be crossed with one another in the search for improvements in some 37 characteristics.
"We are making 5,000 to 6,000 crosses each year," noted Dr. Pathak. "These produce 50,000 to 60,000 progeny. Out of these, we are lucky to get 200 lines called 'elite breeding lines' that are then tested around the world."
For instance, the institute has developed a drought-resistant variety that can stand about three weeks of dry weather. Most droughts last three to four weeks. The plant has a deep root system that will more likely find water. It has a thin coating of wax on its leaves that prevents moisture loss. Its leaves also curl up, further reducing water loss.
Another new rice will produce four or five tons per hectare in soils of high salinity that before yielded only half a ton.
It is estimated that some 100 million hectares in the world might be suitable for rice growing but for a lack of nutrients or because of high toxicity. So tougher varieties could add greatly to world food production.
In some rice-growing areas of Thailand, Bangladesh, and elsewhere, the water may reach a depth of 15 feet or more during the wet season. The rice plants growing in such areas include a gene that prompts the stalk to grow taller as the dry land starts to flood with the arrival of the monsoon. As the days shorten, the plant flowers and bears seed.
This rice also has a "kneeing ability." As the water recedes, the stalk bends over but the head continues to bob up above the water.
Rice Institute scientists, in cooperation with others in Thailand, are trying to develop deepwater rice with higher yields. The institute has "the world's largest dark room," by which these "photoperiod sensitive" plants can be fooled into believing autumn has come and thus flower and seed. In this way, three generations can be grown in a year, rather than just one generation.
Another effort has been to develop varieties with high yields that mature more quickly. This permits the farmer to grow three or four crops a year where the weather and water supply are suitable. IR50, for instance, matures 20 to 25 days earlier than IR8. Some varieties now mature in about 100 to 102 days, which means about 90 days in the field after seedlings have been grown. The institute's gene bank has varieties that mature in 70 days.
"There is steady progress," Dr. Pathak said."We are reaching just about four crops a year now. There is the possibility of two more crops per year, but we haven't got there yet."
The 44 senior scientists and their staff at the institute here and 26 more in other countries have numerous other projects. They are trying to improve the efficiency of fertilizers and insecticides by various application techniques -- such as by placing fertilizer in mud balls near the roots. They are experimenting with various mixes of other crops along with rice. They are attempting to use a blue-green algae as a means of "biological nitrogen fixation ," substituting it for increasingly expensive chemical fertilizers. The algae has a symbiotic relationship with the azolla fern which grows in paddy water. But there are "problems" to be solved.
Such research, Dr. Barton expects, will maintain a gap between new, successful technology for boosting yields and lowering costs, and its application on the world's rice farms. "If no such gap exists, I will get worried," he cautioned.