Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Q&A with Dr. Glenn Gregorio: The Magic of Salt-Tolerant Rice

January 07, 2014

In a new series for Impatient Optimist you’ll hear from different voices at the foundation about various “sustainable” approaches to agriculture we believe can benefit farmers and the environment. Yesterday, Josh Lozman explained what we mean by “sustainability” and why helping farmers to grow more food sustainably is so critical. In future posts, Laura Birx will discuss the links between gender, nutrition, and sustainability; and David Bergvinson will tell us about a project to store hundreds of thousands of seed samples in “gene banks.” Stay tuned for more in the week ahead.

Meet Dr. Glenn Gregorio, a senior scientist and plant breeder at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.

He is helping to develop a new variety of rice that can withstand exposure to salt water. Why?

Climate change is threatening the livelihoods of poor farmers, who are disproportionately affected by droughts, salt and fresh water floods, and other “stresses.” But new varieties of “stress-tolerant rice” are helping them withstand these climate-related threats. 

At IRRI, researchers like Dr. Gregorio are putting 'Stress-tolerant Rice for Africa and South Asia' (STRASA Rice) through stringent tests with heat, humidity, and salt, hoping they can provide even greater benefits to farmers to help them adapt and become more resilient in the face of climate change.

I followed Dr. Gregorio to the greenhouse where he works and asked him a few questions. 

Why are you developing salt tolerant rice?

Rice production areas are becoming smaller and smaller because of urbanization. At the same time, these areas are being affected by sea water intrusion since most are found in deltas. With climate change, sea water levels have risen, and during high tide, sea water tends to go up rivers and irrigate these rice production areas.

The areas that are most affected by salinity are India and Bangladesh, but Burma and parts of Africa are also affected. 

Why does this problem affect the poorest disproportionately?

Most of the salt, drought and flood-affected areas are the marginal areas, where the poorest of the poorest live. These areas tend to be highly populated and on the coast, where people can do other work like fishing. In many cases, the rice land has been developed and they have been pushed out into these non-productive areas.  

What got you interested in this work?

I was attracted to join IRRI when I was young because of my interest in scientific investigation, but also because of IRRI’s mission to help the poorest of the poorest.

I sometimes visit Bangladesh, and seeing the farmers plant this rice that came from your hand, you feel like you are someone that is really doing a magical thing for these people.  It’s a really big bonus as a scientist – not only publishing the paper, but people are eating this, and these are the poor farmers, and they are happy with their varieties.

What's the biggest challenge you've faced so far in your work with this rice?

The biggest challenge is in these depressed and marginal areas, every village, every location has different problems. Sometimes you have salinity; sometimes you have salinity and drought; sometimes you have an area with salinity and acidity; some salinity with phosphorous deficiency -- all of these combinations of stresses. That's why we are combining all traits into one to make a perfect variety fitting all locations. And the good thing is we have new technologies now that can fast-track the development of different varieties.

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