Why the Gates Foundation is flooding a new rice variety with funding

Swarna-Sub1, a flood-tolerant rice variety, helps ease the burden of women farmers in Bangladesh. Photo by: IRRI / CC BY-NC-SA

When Bill and Melinda Gates traveled to Bihar, India, one of the most flood-prone regions in the country, they saw how a new form of rice that can survive underwater is helping farmers adapt to the consequences of climate change.

While normal rice wears itself out in floods, eventually dying and leaving a brown field of stubs, this “scuba rice” as it is often called goes dormant in floods, waiting out the high water before stretching its green stems toward the sky.

The submergence tolerant rice is emerging as one of the more powerful examples of the two major pillars that form the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s strategy for agricultural research and development: more productivity and less risk. When combined, they can enhance farmers’ resilience to shocks like floods. The investment the co-chairs have made in ensuring that this technology gets into smallholders’ hands in Asia and Africa says a lot about the approach the foundation takes to innovation.

“The thing about innovation is it has a catalytic power that brute forcing your way through a problem does not,” said Rob Horsch, who leads the agricultural research and development team at the Gates Foundation, and was formerly the leader of international development partnerships at agrochemical company Monsanto. “And even though we have a huge amount of money available at the foundation, it is way too small for brute forcing the work.”

Agricultural development is one of the largest initiatives of the Gates Foundation, the wealthiest charitable foundation in the world, with $2 billion committed to the program to date. The foundation, which is increasingly known for its investments in crop improvements, made one of its first big investments in this area in Stress Tolerant Rice for Africa and South Asia, or STRASA.

The project began in 2007 with a goal of delivering improved varieties of rice tolerant to stresses including drought, salinity, iron toxicity, cold, and submergence to 18 million farmers on the two continents over next 10 years. After funding the first two phases of the STRASA project with $20 million each, in 2014 the foundation issued a third grant of $32.7 million through 2017.

STRASA is coordinated by the International Rice Research Institute, a nonprofit research and education center based in the Philippines, in partnership with the Africa Rice Center. Both of these are members of the CGIAR consortium, a worldwide partnership addressing agricultural research for development.

“When the Gates Foundation started focusing on poverty alleviation in the developing world, the co-chairs realized that agricultural productivity was going to be a very important part of the process of getting people out of absolute poverty,” said Gary Atlin, who works with Horsch at the Gates Foundation, and was previously a rice breeder at IRRI.

“They started to see that the CGIAR centers were key sources of technology and support for in particular getting new varieties to smallholder farmers,” Atlin added.

The Gates Foundation is looking into data suggesting that the submergence tolerance trait may help farmers in years with and without flooding.

“Because farmers know they’ve lowered their risk of farming loss, they invest more in these rice fields, so you also get a higher yield year after year,” Horsch said, emphasizing that this is preliminary data that will require further testing.

In the absence of a flood, the Sub1 trait does not add any value for the crops. But when farmers expect they might lose their rice in a flood, they may be less likely to invest time and money in their fields. When they have confidence in their crops, they may improve their practices, investing in agricultural inputs such as fertilizer.

Horsch also cited research that the harvest that results from reducing the risk during a more stressful time is more valuable to farmers unit per unit than the harvest that results from increasing the productivity during a less stressful time. He first came across this argument from Robert Paarlberg, author of “Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa.”

So while most of the areas where the foundation works suffer from not enough water, versus too much water, supporting some of the most marginalized farmers in the world who have been pushed onto this relatively small area of flat and floodable land has a huge return on investment, Horsch said.

In Asia, where most of the world’s rice is grown, submergence stress causes annual losses of $1 billion. As demand for this staple crop for more than half the global population grows, so too will the frequency of flooding. But the STRASA investment also reflects the way the Gates Foundation prioritizes smallholder farmers as part of its work in poverty alleviation.

“It’s not a criticism of it, but we’re not a mountain of food strategy,” Horsch said. “We’re a lots of small farmers productivity strategy. Now, that can also help you create a mountain of food, but by focusing on a huge number of smallholder farmers, you get more benefits than if you just, say, went into large-scale mechanized farming to grow food for people.”

When Bill Gates read Joe Studwell’s “How Asia Works,” he was struck by one of the three major reasons some Asian countries developed rapidly and others did not: creating conditions for small farmers to thrive. In a post on his blog where he asked whether the Asian miracle could happen in Africa, he said he would take steps to look at ways to redistribute land more equitably among the farming population as part of the foundation’s strategy along with better seeds, fertilizers, and farming practices.

David Mackill, the scientist who first discovered a low yielding Indian rice variety that could survive flooding for two to three weeks with little or no problem, met with Devex in Davis, California, he works as a plant science manager for the food company Mars.

When he was a rice breeder for IRRI, he discovered that a single gene called Sub1 makes rice resilient to submergence. But it occurred in a traditional rice variety that did not yield as much, nor taste as good, as more popular varieties such as Swarna.

Mackill worked with plant molecular biologists at the University of California, Davis to isolate the Sub1 gene, developed genetic markers for it, then used marker assisted selection to improve the precision of conventional breeding methods and over the course of two and a half years transfer the gene into the Swarna variety.

Mackill emphasized that scuba rice is not the result of genetic modification, as compared to the development of golden rice the Gates Foundation is supporting as a way to address vitamin A deficiency, and said that there are no varieties of genetically modified rice available for human consumption.

Swarna-Sub1 made the switch from tanks in research labs to fields in Africa and India at a much faster rate than is usually required for technological innovations to result in real-life improvements for low-income farmers.

“It’s one of the first instances, particularly from a public sector research program, of a project going all the way from this basic genetic analysis to a product that works really well for farmers in certain conditions,” Atlin said.

This is due to a range of factors, from the way Mackill improved upon an existing variety already used widely among farmers, to the way STRASA worked at the policy level to reach 5 million farmers in five years in South Asia.

“We are evolving along with this project as we are learning which approaches are more or less effective,” Abdelbagi Ismail, who coordinates the STRASA program, told Devex.

While South Asian governments have been willing partners, both conducting demonstrations and providing Swarna-Sub1 at no cost to farmers, the STRASA team is running up against barriers as it aims for the same rate of dissemination in Africa.

“Most of our issues are not science, not information, not technology, but it's resources to deliver this technology to where you want it to go.” said Umesh Singh, STRASA coordinator in South Asia. “We need an enabling environment that will allow other players to come in.”

With the support of the Gates Foundation, STRASA is also exploring how to combine these stress tolerant traits with higher yield potential in favorable years in order to drive adoption in areas where the frequency of flooding is not high.

In each agricultural development grant the Gates Foundation makes, the aim is to provide the biggest investor in agriculture, the farmer, with high leverage tools that help them get more out of the investment of time and money they put into their fields.

“That is why things like STRASA are so exciting, because they just multiply the brute force that people are going to put in anyway,” Horsch told Devex.

#WaterWindow is an online conversation to amplify the discussion on flood resilience. Devex, together with its partners the Global Resilience Partnership and Zurich Insurance Group, aims to shine a light on innovative solutions to tackle the issues faced by communities worldwide. Join us. 

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.