AS a young boy, Roel R. Suralta had witnessed the seeming helplessness of farmers during the months that drought would hit Camotes island off Cebu province.
“These dry months would mean a shortage not only in our corn production, but also our food,” said Suralta, an agriculture scientist who now heads the Philippine Rice Research Institute-based Crop Biotechnology Center.
Back then, he was assisting his father plant white corn, which is considered a staple of the Cebuanos.
This problem prompted him to ask permission from his father to take up Agriculture at the Visayas State University (then known as Visayas College of Agriculture, or VISCA) where he later completed his agricultural botany studies.
But it was while he was pursuing a master’s degree at the University of the Philippines in Los Baños that he got convinced that in his search for a drought-resistant variety, he must start his research on the roots.
Since he was already connected with PhilRice handling hybrid rice seed production, Suralta opted to focus on root research after being accepted for his doctorate studies at the Nagoya University in Japan, where there was a body of work on roots based drought-tolerance traits in crops.
Dr. Suralta, an expert on plant physiology and root biology, is confident that within three to four years, the government could reach a breakthrough on drought-resistant rice line with root plasticity traits anchored on the biotech research he started in 2008 with fellow scientists at CBC-PhilRice center in the Science City of Muñoz in Nueva Ecija.
The CBC is one the three attached units of the Agriculture Biotechnology Center of the Department of Agriculture, along with livestock center at the Philippine Carabao Center and the fisheries at the National Fisheries Research and Development Institute.
Created on July 7, 2005 through Administrative Order 21, these centers were the focal centers of the research and development (R&D) agenda on agricultural biotechnology in the country.
“By that time, we would have identified the [breeding] lines which is high-yielding variety and at the same time – drought tolerant,” said Suralta.
Biotech research using marker-aided selection, he said, can shorten the period to produce a drought- resistant variety. “It’s really long and tedious process using a conventional way,”
Suralta said germplasm is also an essential component of crop breeding.
“Molecular characterization and diversity analysis are important to be able to design effective breeding strategies and obtain yield advantage, particularly under biotic- and abiotic-stressed environments,” he said.
A sustainable strategy
SURALTA believes that with the continued rapid changes in population coupled with climate change, “a situation that is not optimum for rice growing may leave the next century to witness serious global rice shortage problems.”
Because of El Niño, the government estimated more than P3 billion in damage to agriculture.
El Niño is a climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean with a global impact on weather patterns. The cycle begins when warm water in the western tropical Pacific Ocean shifts eastward along the equator toward the coast of South America. Normally, this warm water pools near Indonesia and the Philippines. During El Niño, the Pacific’s warmest surface waters sit offshore of northwestern South America.
Forecasters declare an official El Niño when they see both ocean temperatures and rainfall from storms veer to the east. Experts also look for prevailing trade winds to weaken and even reverse direction during the El Niño climate phenomenon. These changes set up a feedback loop between the atmosphere and the ocean that boosts El Niño conditions.
The El Niño forecast for 2015 is expected to be one of the strongest on record, according to Mike Halpert, the deputy director of the Climate Prediction Center, part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Suralta said there is really a need for a sustainable strategy to increase rice productivity.
Apart from drought resistant, he said there is a need to breed rice varieties that can tolerate abiotic stresses such as higher temperatures, submergence and anaerobic germination, he said.
PhilRice has also reportedly begun studies to resist biotic stresses such as blast, tungro and bacterial blight.
Future rice varieties will also be needing other important traits such as functional stay-green, low phytic acid crack resistance, and good grain-quality traits.
Suralta said many important complex traits in rice are controlled except quantitative trait loci (QTL) that were derived from natural variations.
He said recent studies have succeeded in isolating and characterizing genes and QTLs involved in the mechanisms of tolerance to biotic and abiotic stresses.
Advances in molecular and biotechnological tools and techniques offer new opportunities in developing rice varieties with built-in resistance/tolerance to these stresses.
Nevertheless, he said genetic mechanisms responsible for abiotic stress tolerance remain largely unknown.”