Sky-high paddies . . .

No, this is not about inebriated Irishmen.

It’s a celebration of the ingenuity of human agricultural innovation in northern Luzon in the Philippines where, over the course of several centuries, local indigenous communities tamed the steep valleys to grow paddy rice in irrigated fields high in the mountains (about 1500 m above sea level) and, employing a sophisticated hydrology, to supply water to the terraces and drain them before harvest: the rice terraces of the Philippines Cordilleras, which received UNESCO World Heritage designation in 1995.


Rice terraces in Banaue, Ifugao Province

In March 2009, Steph and me, along with my staff in the Program Planning & Communications (DPPC) office at IRRI—Corinta, Zeny, Yeyet, Vel, and Eric—made a five day, 1000 km trip (see map) north to Ifugao and Mountain Provinces to see these world famous terraces. There is a cluster of five sets of terraces designated under UNESCO, all in Ifugao Province.


L to R: Corinta, Zeny, Rolly (IRRI driver), Vel, Yeyet, Eric, and me – enjoying a San Miguel sundowner near Sagada, Mountain Province.

A long road trip north
We knew it would be a day-long journey from Los Baños to Banaue. Although the first part of the journey to the Science City of Muñoz in Nueva Ecija Province took in divided highways, there were two main ‘obstacles’ in our path. First we had to cross the length of Manila from the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX) to the north one (NLEX), a part of the journey fraught with delays and congestion if you hit the traffic at the wrong time. I guess we didn’t fair to badly. Then, once off the main highways, there’s the ever-present frustration of following jeepneys and tricycles that potter along at their own speeds, oblivious to other road users, and which stop continually to pick up and drop off passengers. So even a short journey on a single carriageway road can take forever (or so it seems).

In Muñoz, we visited and had lunch at the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) which is the country’s leading research organization on rice, and IRRI’s principal partner for all-things-rice in the Philippines.

After a courtesy visit with the PhilRice Executive Director, we toured several laboratories, and the rice genebank that collaborates closely with the International Rice Genebank at IRRI. In fact, IRRI holds a duplicate sample of much of the PhilRice collection.

The majesty of Batad
From PhilRice it was a long climb of several hours into the mountains, and we arrived to our hotel in Banaue just as the sun was setting. It was an early start the next morning, because we visited the impressive rice terraces at Batad, more than an hour from Banaue by jeepney, and then another couple of hours downhill on foot to reach one of the villages from where there is an impressive vista over the amphitheater of terraces stretched across the hillside.


The rice terraces at Batad.

In 2006, Biggs Javellana, one of IRRI’s photographers at that time, flew over over Ifugao and took a superb collection of aerial photographs.


The rice terraces at Batad from the air. The photograph above was taken from the cluster of houses at center top in this photo.

In 2008, one of the main articles in Rice Today featured Biggs’ photos, and other older ones taken by eminent anthropologist Harold Conklin, Crosby Professor Emeritus of Anthropology at Yale University, who had studied the Ifugao for many decades. Just click on the Rice Today cover below to read the article. You can also browse the original photos (and others) here.

Ifugao from the air (RT7)_Page_01

I wasn’t too concerned about the hike to the Batad terraces from the parking area, although it was a long way down.

I was more concerned about the climb back up. But having gone all that distance I wasn’t going to miss out, and with encouragement from Steph and everyone else (and a few helpful shoulders to lean on occasionally) I made it down and up again. And it was certainly worth the effort.

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On the north side of Banaue, on our way to Sagada, Mountain Province on the third day of our trip, we stopped to look back down the valley, and admire the beauty of sky reflected in the flooded rice terraces, recently planted with young seedlings. There really is a majesty in rice agriculture under these circumstances.

Along the route to Sagada there are other rice terraces, at Bay-Yo Barangay near Bontoc in Mountain Province, and just south of Bontoc itself. Sagada is surrounded by quite extensive terraces.

There’s lot to see in Sagada, including weaving for which the town is famous. And the indigenous ‘hanging burials’ with coffins left on the sides of limestone cliffs, or piled up in the many caves that dot the landscape.

The return journey to Los Baños took 17 hours, including comfort stops on the way, lunch in Baguio and dinner near Manila. I think we were all relieved to be back home, but very contented that we had made the trip. It took Steph and me 18 years almost before we actually made the effort.


The heritage of rice agriculture in the Philippine Cordilleras
But what is also special about the rice terraces of Ifugao (and the other sites) is that they are still farmed in the same way, and the communities still practice many of the same rice ceremonies and rituals they have for generations. But rather than me try to explain what this is all about, I will leave it to Aurora (wife of my good friend and former IRRI colleague Gene Hettel) who hails from Banaue and is a proud member of the Ifugao community, to explain in her own words in this video (made by Gene).

Heirloom rice varieties
The farmers also plant traditional rice varieties that they have also cherished for generations. With the pressures of modern agricultural technologies and new varieties, there is always a danger that these varieties will be lost, notwithstanding that they are safely conserved in the PhilRice and IRRI genebanks (and duplicated in the Svalbard Global Seed Vault). If the farmers stop growing them these rice varieties will disappear from everyday agriculture. They have to make a living, and although most varieties are grown for home use, there has recently been an effort to bring them to a wider rice-consuming public. With the Philippine Department of Agriculture, IRRI has initiated an heirloom rice project that aims ‘to enhance the productivity and enrich the legacy of heirloom or traditional rice through empowered communities in unfavorable rice-based ecosystems.’ Details of the project can be found here.


Opportunities delayed: INGER @ 40

I don’t expect that the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER) will be familiar to many readers of this blog. Nor will the International Rice Testing Program (IRTP), the forerunner of INGER from 1975 to 1989.

INGER demonstration plots - the variation between varieties is striking

INGER demonstration plots – the diversity among these rice varieties is striking.

INGER is undoubtedly a rice germplasm exchange and testing network success story. You only have to look at the statistics on varieties tested, the number of testing sites, the collaboration between scientists, etc. to see the scope of what IRTP-INGER has achieved over its lifetime. More importantly, however, is the significant number of rice varieties that have been selected from INGER trials and released in one country even though they were bred in another. It’s also interesting to note how many varieties from Sri Lanka have been adopted in other countries through INGER.

rt-logoMany examples are highlighted in a recent article, INGER@40—and the crossroads, that just appeared in IRRI’s flagship magazine riceTODAY. Not only can the value of rice germplasm exchange be quantified in terms of millions (probably billions) of dollars of increased productivity of rice agriculture, but also think about how new varieties have benefited rice farmers and those who eat rice every day (or several times a day).

When IRTP-INGER was founded in 1975, it was fortunate to receive substantial funding each year from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP). That funding lasted for 20 years, but was both IRTP-INGER’s boon and its bane.

By the mid-1990s when UNDP support came to an end, it was always going to be difficult to find a donor to step in and provide long-term funding at the same level. And believe me, it was a struggle to persuade donors to emulate UNDP. Because the INGER model presented to donors was the one that UNDP has decided to discontinue funding, it was analogous to trying to sell a second-hand car rather than a brand new model with all the extras. We needed some bridging funds, and I was heavily involved in persuading a couple of IRRI’s donors, from Germany and Switzerland, to stump up USD1.5 million following review of a project proposal and a presentation to donors in Washington, DC in October 1994. However, the long-term funding situation was not resolved. Earlier that year I had made a review of INGER in Africa for the Directors General of IRRI and Africa Rice (WARDA as it then was), Drs Klaus Lampe and Eugene Terry, and made my first visit to Africa Rice headquarters in Bouaké, Ivory Coast. In the phot below, I planted a tree at the Bouaké site. I wonder if it’s still there. The other person in the photo is economist Dr Peter Matlon, who was DDG-Research in 1994, and later became Chair of the Board of Trustees.

In my opinion, INGER could—and should—have been more. According to the riceTODAY article, INGER is today, 40 years after it was founded, at ‘the crossroads’. But it was already at a crossroads almost 25 years ago when it became clear that UNDP support would end. Opportunities were not seized then, I contend, to bring about radical and efficient changes to the management and operations of this important rice germplasm network, but without losing any of the benefits of the previous 20 years. I also believed it should be possible to add even more scientific value.

Did we miss an opportunity?
But first, a little background, as it’s relevant to what subsequently took place—or rather didn’t.

In 1990 IRRI Management made the decision to reorganize the institute’s rice germplasm conservation and exchange activities. The Genetic Resources Center (GRC) was established bringing together INGER, the International Rice Germplasm Center (IRGC, the genebank), and the Seed Health Unit (SHU) into a single organizational unit, but with these three retaining their identities and functions. Recruitment for a founding head of GRC began in September 1990, and I was appointed from 1 July 1991. By then a decision had already been made (wisely in my opinion) to keep the SHU as an separate unit, given its important role of ‘policing’ the health of incoming rice germplasm and that being exported to other rice programs around the globe, under the auspices of the Plant Quarantine Service of the Philippines. We quickly lost the name International Rice Germplasm Center (how was it possible to have a center within a center?), and on my appointment GRC comprised the International Rice Genebank and INGER. While I was given overall responsibility for all GRC facilities and staff, the head of INGER (then Dr DV Seshu) ran the network on a daily basis, as I did the International Rice Genebank.

And it was through my role in GRC that I became involved in discussions about the future of INGER. I had joined IRRI from The University of Birmingham, where I had been a member of the Plant Genetics Group. Birmingham had a fine reputation for quantitative genetics, and my colleagues there had a lot of experience in running germplasm evaluation trials. Actually they had been trialing populations of tobacco for decades to understand the nature of quantitative variation in their experimental lines. With my colleagues Brian Ford-Lloyd and Martin Parry I’d also spearheaded discussions (controversial at the time) about climate change and how genetic resources could contribute towards adaptation. I had proposed a system of germplasm testing in Europe.

So with this dual focus, I felt that with a re-jigging of the INGER trials it would be possible to increase the data value of a smaller number of precision trials without losing the valuable germplasm testing and selection opportunities for breeders. There’s considerable evidence to demonstrate that it’s not necessary to run hundreds of trials to achieve a thorough evaluation and analysis of genotypes and their performance in different environments. Two trials are better than one, of course, four better than two. And twenty better than ten. More than twenty and the ‘Law of Diminishing Returns’ apparently kicks in, so my Birmingham quantitative genetics colleagues advised me.

A new approach to germplasm testing
In a nutshell, my proposal was to identify key sites across a range of rice-growing environments, characterize them thoroughly, keep careful weather data at each site, and trial germplasm there using different experimental designs as appropriate in order to develop a critical analysis of germplasm performance across environments, or genotype x environment interaction. With quality data being collated for analysis by IRRI—and rapidly—it would then be possible to predict and propose a smaller set of varieties to be tested more widely by breeders round the globe at their own sites. They would no longer be ‘required’ to test a large number of germplasm lines, most of which would not be suitable for their conditions in any case. Nor would INGER be ‘burdened’ with the costly distribution of a large amount of seeds in multiple trials annually.

During my travels many breeders had told me, off the record so-to-speak, that they found the large trials a burden. And as early as 1992 I’d had discussions with a post-doctoral fellow at IRRI (I can’t remember his name) how we might use geographical information systems (GIS), or perhaps I should say proto-GIS, to enhance and rationalize germplasm testing across multiple sites.

Just imagine what we could achieve today in terms of germplasm testing. There are now sophisticated GIS applications, satellite imagery, as well as all the molecular approaches to characterize germplasm lines even before they’ve been tested in the field. As early as 1995 we had shown that molecular markers could be used to predict the performance of germplasm. Think what might be possible today with the application of various ‘omics’ technologies*.

Let’s not delay
I don’t think that I’ve done particular justice to the ideas I raised almost a quarter of a century ago. Nor am I suggesting that they are necessarily the only or appropriate ones. But different ideas did—and still do—need to be put on the table. Unfortunately, at that time institutional politics, vested interests and, I have to say, some unimaginative leadership of the network for at least a decade or so after Dr Seshu retired, did not permit consideration in any meaningful way, let alone introduction, of a new strategy and approach for INGER.

In that sense I feel it was an opportunity (or opportunities) delayed. By now we could have had almost 25 years of solid and reliable data for G x E analyses that would stand up to critical scientific scrutiny. I just hope that when the time comes for further discussions about the future of INGER, as indicated in the riceTODAY article, that the new opportunities are not squandered. The network and its benefits are too important.

But the network has to be fit for purpose. It has to demonstrate its relevance and adopt new approaches. Only then can it contribute more effectively to the ‘Big Data’ approach highlighted in a recent Thomson Reuters web publication.

* My former IRRI colleague Ken McNally wrote an excellent chapter for our Genetic Resources and Climate Change book in 2014. My friend Rodomiro Ortiz has just published a book on plant breeding and ‘omics’.