On 29 November 2016, farmers, scientists, research and funding partners and members of the diplomatic community gathered at the IRRI headquarters to celebrate the 50th year of IR8’s world debut. Thousands of kilometers away, in a swanky Delhi hotel, the celebrations included a 80 year old Indian farmer called Nekkanti Subba Rao, who was one of the first to discover the variety’s extraordinary properties of this miracle rice variety. Back then this 29-year-old, Mr Subba Rao- the jovial farmer or Mr IR8 as he became affectionately known – had inadvertently kick-started one of the greatest revolutions the world has ever seen. The Indian Agriculture Minister, Shri Sudarshan Bhagat, opened the event, describing the introduction of IR8 as “a great moment in India’s history”. And it is true that, if any plant has earned the right to a fancy half-century knees-up, it is IR8. The Indian Agriculture Minister, Shri Sudarshan Bhagat, opened the event, describing the introduction of IR8 as “a great moment in India’s history”. And it is true that, if any plant has earned the right to a fancy half-century knees-up, it is IR8.
Mr. Rao is over 80 now and chuckles with delight as he recalls sowing his first field of IR8 on his small farm in the south-east Indian state of Andhra Pradesh in 1967. Back then you could only expect a maximum of one and a half tonnes per hectare, he tells me, looking perfectly at home perched on a gilt chair in the hotel’s Mughal-styled entertaining rooms. “Yield was 10 tonnes per hectare”, he told the BBC World Service Business Daily programme, recalling that first monster harvest. The seed from the 1,000 hectares of IR8 planted in his village the following year was sent across India, ensuring the entire country experienced its first harvest of what became known as the “miracle” rice. “It was a time of great change, in all states in India farmers are very happy,” he laughs. It is thought that IR8 saved many millions of lives and transformed the lives of hundreds of millions of people.
Back in the 1950s it was obvious that Asia, home to half the world’s population, faced an impending food crisis. Rice accounts for 80% of the calories consumed in the region and you only needed to plot population growth against rice production to see that, within a few years, there would not be enough to go around. Something needed to be done and in 1960 two American charities, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, joined forces to found the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. They reckoned promising developments in the science of plant breeding might just be the trick that would avert the impending disaster. The new team began patiently cross-breeding the 10,000 different varieties they had collected.
This is usually a laborious process, Dr Gurdev Singh Khush tells me. He is an agronomist and geneticist who joined the team that developed IR8 in 1967. “Normally we get 1 or 2% yield increase every year,” he says. IR8 was different. It married a tall high-yielding strain from Indonesia (PETA) with a sturdy dwarf variety from China (DGWG) with astounding results. “There was never any instance in the history of the world where rice yields doubled in one step,” says Dr Khush, clearly still amazed by what his team achieved. In fact, according to some studies, IR8 yields in optimal conditions could be as much as 10 times that of traditional varieties.