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Theme 2: Accelerating the Development, Delivery, and Adoption of
 Improved Rice Varieties


Rationale and objective 

From identifying desirable rice traits to the widespread adoption of varieties incorporating them is a long and exacting process spanning up to 15 years. The need for a large and comprehensive truly global program to develop new varieties for rice production environments and bring new seeds to farmers faster is becoming more compelling and it will require the engagement of a wide range of public- and private-sector organizations and networks. New approaches, such as marker-assisted breeding, can shorten varietal development cycles by 3–5 years and allow breeders to design new varieties and improve existing rice varieties and hybrids more precisely. These new approaches must be implemented through well-designed, product-oriented, interdisciplinary, and interconnected breeding programs in the world’s major rice regions. For example, great opportunities exist now to further develop and spread new rice varieties from inter- and intraspecific crosses, particularly to meet local needs in Africa. A quantum increase in yield can be made in rainfed systems by creating new varieties that tolerate abiotic stresses, such as drought, iron toxicity, submergence, salinity, and heat. 
Demand is increasing from consumers for better quality rice varieties. Also, rice must become resilient to climate change. For this, we must gather better information on the spatial and temporal variability of the target production environments; preferences of farmers, processors, and consumers; new cultivation practices used by farmers; and the impact of climate change, and use it to guide rice breeding programs in a precise manner. Hence, theme 2 focuses on the transformation of global rice breeding programs toward better targeted, more precise, and more efficient development of new varieties and hybrids that meet future demand in a world of changing farming systems and climate.

Research approach

Interdisciplinary breeding teams, integrated across mainly public-sector partners—sharing critical facilities and learning from each other—will identify and define ideal rice phenotypes (ideotypes) for different production environments, adapted to future cropping systems, as well as key biophysical and socioeconomic constraints, and market demand. They will also enable better south-south transfer of germplasm, making innovations from leading NARES also available to other countries, and better linkages with the private sector. The tools for parental selection and better understanding of the genetics of agronomic traits should lead to more efficient breeding programs that make optimum use of the available resources.
Joint basic research will be carried out by program partners on varietal improvement and advanced breeding methodologies. Capacity for marker-assisted breeding will be significantly strengthened in breeding programs of developing countries. Germplasm evaluation across Africa, Asia, and Latin America will be accelerated, with a modernized International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER) as an engine for germplasm exchange and variety testing in different environments. 

R&D product lines and outputs

2.1 Breeding informatics, high-throughput marker applications, and multi-environment testing
2.2 Improved donors and genes/QTLs conferring valuable traits
2.3 Rice varieties tolerant of abiotic stresses
2.4 Improved rice varieties for intensive production systems
2.5 Hybrid rice for the public and private sector 
2.6 Healthier rice varieties
These products will be provided in a timely manner to breeding programs (see below) for testing and eventual use by farmers. Thus, the outcome of theme 2 is an indispensable step toward poverty reduction by improving rice productivity and hence farmers’ income. 

Innovative contributions

Plant breeding methods are changing rapidly, mainly through the application of molecular markers in precision breeding. Key innovations in theme 2 include
more precise targeting of rice breeding to key environments and grain quality requirements for major market segments;
  • development and use of high-throughput marker applications in rice breeding programs;
  • wider use of interspecific crosses;
  • breeder-friendly decision tools for the public and private sector;
  • sources of improved pest resistance;
  • new, global research networks (e.g., Rice Blast Research Network) as a key strategy for achieving stable disease resistance in rice; 
  • a new generation of “climate-change-resilient,” stress-tolerant rice varieties with combined adaptive traits;
  • renewed efforts to break the yield barrier in rice through a fine-tuned ideotype breeding approach, combined with advanced multi-environment testing;
  • first breeding programs for direct-seeding and conservation agriculture;
  • a new generation of hybrids with higher yield, better quality, and higher seed yield; and
  • recurrent selection for physiological traits that confer higher yields, and attention to yield evaluation earlier in the breeding process. 


This theme involves many partnerships among CGIAR centers, Cirad, IRD, CIAT-FLAR, JIRCAS, the Generation Challenge Program (GCP), NARES, advanced research institutes, the private sector, farmer organizations, and specialized NGOs to provide the research power needed to accelerate the development of new germplasm, and obtain critical feedback from all users in the rice value chain. One such network will be the Africa Rice Breeding Task Force (Box 9), which started in 2010. 

Box 9. Africa Rice Breeding Task Force

NERICA is now a household name in Africa—a name that stands for good rice. NERICA is synonymous with the work that earned AfricaRice the King Baudouin award in 2000, Dr. Monty Jones the prestigious World Food Prize in 2004, and Dr Moussa Sié the Fukui International Koshihikari Rice Prize from Japan in 2006. More than 200 rice varieties developed by AfricaRice and partners have been released over the last 20 years in sub-Saharan Africa.

Through grants by the government of Japan, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and other donors, AfricaRice will team up with IRRI, NARES, and other partners from inside and outside Africa to develop the next generation of rice varieties in Africa. Through a task force mode of operation, efficient and effective product development pipelines focusing on clearly defined target populations of environments (TPEs) will be established. National and international rice breeders will work in interdisciplinary breeding teams, dividing responsibilities for testing of fixed lines and segregating populations according to technical capabilities and the presence of hotspots for certain stresses in their respective countries. This Africa Rice Breeding Task Force will also clearly have a capacity-building role for young aspirant breeders.

The INGER-Africa network will be responsible for multiplication and distribution of new seed for in-country hotspot testing, participatory varietal testing trials, central data acquisition, and genotype-environment analyses. 

        The CGIAR centers involved (IRRI, AfricaRice, CIAT) will focus on developing global and regional public goods, whereas the local breeding networks involving dozens of partners in Asia, Africa, and Latin America will focus on specific target production environments, including drought-prone, flood-prone, and salt-affected  areas in South and Southeast Asia; high-yielding irrigated areas; as well as temperate rice-growing areas that are the target of the Temperate Rice Research Consortium (TRRC). New public-private partnerships will enable more rapid development of hybrid rice, which is rapidly becoming a prominent feature of Asian rice farming and becoming increasingly important in Latin America. Some existing models that will be expanded are the Hybrid Rice Development Consortium (HRDC) and FLAR.
        Advanced research institutes and universities in developed and developing countries are key partners in the generation of relevant science and technologies. Linkages between ARIs and CGIAR centers and institutions in less developed countries will leverage resources and skills to speed up the development and dissemination of pertinent germplasm solutions by linking research priorities to needs and likely adoption. Through applications of cutting-edge science findings such as the discovery of traits and genes associated with biotic/abiotic stress tolerances and other valuable agronomic traits, interventions that more closely match farmers’ requirements can be developed at an accelerated pace. National and regional adaptive research will involve a range of partners from the public and private sector, national agricultural research and extension systems, international NGOs (e.g., BRAC, World Vision, CARE, WHO), national NGOs (e.g., NEFORD, Shushilan, RDRS), farmers’ organizations, and other civil society groups, principally for evaluation, dissemination, and out-scaling. This theme will integrate these efforts with technologies being developed through other themes of GRiSP to ensure maximum benefits. 
       Theme 2 will also build on the progress of the challenge programs (Climate Change, Water, and Food; the Generation Challenge Program; HarvestPlus) and work closely with relevant CRPs in TA 3 (wheat, maize, dryland cereals) to develop and deploy rice varieties that are suitable for major farming systems such as rice-wheat, rice-maize, and rice-legumes. Linkages with CRP 7 will ensure the development of germplasm and technologies that can cope with the adversities of climate change through the development of stress-tolerant varieties and varieties that permit further adjustments in farming systems as adaptation strategies. Varieties will also be designed to suit new production systems designed to mitigate the impacts of climate through a reduction in GHG emissions. Through these linkages, theme 2 will ensure the development of suitable germplasm that provides solutions to current food and environmental challenges and boosts and sustains system productivity to keep up with the increasing need for more food from diminishing resources. 

Impact pathways

    Products from this theme will be delivered at an accelerated pace through the establishment of a molecular rice breeding platform and integration with conventional breeding, for defining efficient breeding strategies, building on a global rice germplasm information system and well-designed networks for multilocation testing of varieties. Users of the molecular rice breeding platform, the germplasm information system, and the networks will be breeders in GRiSP, NARES, and the private sector. This work will be facilitated by involving the genomics and integrated breeding (GIB) services of the GCP. Final users of the climate-change-resilient, high-yielding varieties will be rice farmers in Africa, Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean.
Theme 2 outputs will be linked with management practices from theme 3 to ensure that the performance of the new varieties is optimized in the appropriate growing conditions. Seed production and dissemination strategies from theme 6 will ensure efficient and widespread adoption. Linkage with nationally and internationally funded development projects will also assist with the uptake of improved varieties by farmers (theme 6). 
    In Asia, established consortia and major regional initiatives, such as CURE for the unfavorable rice environments of Asia, IRRC for the favorable environments in Asia, and CSISA for intensive rice-based cropping systems in South Asia, will link improved germplasm with appropriate management practices and cropping systems (theme 3). The HRDC will channel the products of IRRI’s hybrid rice research to commercial seed producers in Asia. 
The Africa Rice Breeding Task Force will strongly stimulate the uptake of new varieties in and beyond AfricaRice’s 24 member states. New varieties will be combined with new and improved management practices (addressed in theme 3) to further close yield gaps in farmers’ fields, which is especially relevant in Africa. In Latin America and the Caribbean, FLAR will be the key mechanism for implementing theme 2 research in conjunction with improvements in cropping systems management and delivery (theme 6).