International Rice Research Institute
Los Baños, Laguna, Philippines
An article entitled “World’s Poor Pay Price as Crop Research Is Cut” on May 8, 2009 in the New York Times used the brown planthopper problem that is devastating rice in many areas this year to describe the dilemma rice research funding is facing. Authored by Keith Bradsher and Andrew Martin the article began with “The brown plant hopper, an insect no bigger than a gnat, is multiplying by the billions and chewing through rice paddies in East Asia, threatening the diets of many poor people”. See http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/18/business/worldbusiness/18focus.html
The BPH, nicknamed the “Green Revolution” pest, was viewed to be a major threat to rice production in Asia in the 1970s and 1980s. Through IPM program, where varieties tolerant to BPH were introduced and farmers were taught to apply insecticide as the last resort by mass media and field schools, the BPH has been contained for many years. Of late this problem together with 2 other planthopper species, the white backed planthopper (WBPH) and the small brown planthopper (sBPH) are causing huge damages and losses in Asian rice production. Farmers in southern Yunnan province of China for the first time experienced direct damages at the seedling stages caused by the WBPH immigrants. In August this year, outbreaks of the BPH occurred in 15 provinces in Central Thailand promoting the government to conduct a nationwide campaign to educate farmers. Spots of hopperburn have been reported in many countries, like Malaysia, Indonesia, Bangladesh and the Philippines.
Many of the outbreaks have occurred in areas with high insecticide use. The planthoppers are described ecologically as r strategists, which have life strategies well adapted to exponential growth when the natural biological control services in the areas when invaders arrive are reduced by insecticide sprays, especially in early crop seasons.
Partnering with the Asia Development Bank (ADB), IRRI is exploring the use of ecological engineering methods to re establish essential ecosystem services through increasing local biodiversity in rice production systems. Pioneered by Professor Geoff Gurr of Charles Sturt University (CSU), a collaborator in the ADB-IRRI Rice Planthopper Project (link to download project brochure), the ecological engineering approach will initially introduce or increase the population of nectar producing beneficial flowers in habitats surrounding rice fields. These plants provide the important food and refuge resources for arthropod predators and parasitoids that are essential in providing ecosystem services such as invasion resistance and pest regulation. Four pilot sites have now been established to research on this approach; Lingui in Guangxi province, Jin Hua in Zhejiang province, Cai Be in Tien Giang, Vietnam and Chainat in Thailand.
This new approach has the potential to build resilience in rice ecosystems that can resist pest invasions and the capacity to regulate them. When practiced in a large scale the ecological engineering methods are also useful in developing sustainable rice production systems that can adapt to climate change. The research cut and the emphases in biotechnology in the last 15 years have left basic ecological research in a poor state, which limited expertise in ecology, taxonomy and field research. For ecological engineering methods to work, these have to be practiced over a large landscape. Recent cuts in agricultural investments not only affected research but extension as well. In many countries there is now acute shortage in agricultural technicians with sufficient field skills and knowledge to advice farmers.