In July this year, GRAIN visited the Penang research station of the Malaysian Agriculture and Research Development Institute (MARDI). We wanted to check-in with Malaysia's rice breeders about the status of hybrid rice in the country.
One of MARDI's few remaining rice breeders, Mr. Guok Hup Ping, took GRAIN to see a field trial where he was growing a hybrid variety called Siraj alongside several MARDI inbred varieties. During the previous season, he had conducted trials of these same varieties with one section exposed to panicle blast and another not exposed. The hybrid variety was devastated by panicle blast and even when not exposed its yield was still considerably below that of the MARDI check variety. The best performer by far was a new inbred variety that Guok had developed which was still in the testing stage.
Guok wasn't surprised to see the hybrids not performing so well. Earlier work on hybrid rice in the country had never delivered a success. But the potential market for hybrid rice seeds is huge, and new companies are always willing to try. RB Biotech, the company behind the Siraj variety, is one of the latest. It first tried to bring in Chinese varieties of hybrid rice through a project with the son of the Sultan of Perlis State, but that project eventually broke down because Yuan Longping High-Tech Agriculture, the Chinese company supplying the varieties, was asking for too much for royalties. So RB Biotech moved to Pahang State and began working with IRRI and other Chinese material, in partnership with a Taiwanese scientist/entrepreneur named Chen Long Chen. Now they are once again in Perlis testing this variety they've dubbed Siraj.
The other company pushing hybrid rice along in Malaysia is the palm oil conglomerate Sime Darby. It has its own breeding programme and is already in the midst of implementing a contract-farming hybrid rice scheme in the northern state of Kedah. Sime Darby is collaborating with Yuan Longping High-tech Agriculture in the development of its hybrid rice seeds.
At the MARDI centre, GRAIN also met with senior rice breeder, Dr. Othman bin Omar. He talked about how Malaysia's public plant breeding has been drastically cut back over the years and how they were having difficulty finding any new breeders to replace the older ones, as the universities were only training for biotech these days. Overall he's worried about the public sector losing ground to the private sector who he says is only interested in hybrids. He says that in Malaysia companies do very little breeding work, mostly just testing varieties of the parent company and occasionally doing a little added breeding work to varieties they bring in. For him, the driving force for hybrid rice in Malaysia is the private sector and Chinese companies are particularly active in promoting it. He's concerned that MARDI is having to sacrifice resources for other research in order to work on hybrid rice for a few companies.
Dr. Othman also called hybrid rice a "luxurious crop" that was "much weaker" as compared to inbreds. As he sees it, the big problem is that it doesn't perform well under direct seeding, and you need to reduce the seed rate drastically. This can be done with high-tech machinery, not available to most farmers. But he says that the companies involved are "plantation people" and they probably are approaching hybrid rice under a plantation model. This indeed seems to be the case with Sime Darby's project in Kedah.
A Sime Darby display about their rice project in Kedah, Kuala Lumpur, July 2008
Both MARDI breeders felt that IRRI's Hybrid Rice Consortium would only worsen the context for public rice breeding in the region. They said the NARS were disadvantaged by the Consortium because priority is given to the private sector who can pay. Guok said he's already noticed that IRRI is now giving less seed when they ask for material for breeding and that they are more strict about sharing hybrid lines.
But who needs this hybrid breeding material anyways? If Guok's field tests are anything to go by, Malaysia would do much better to put its resources into his promising work on inbred lines.
Note: GRAIN also learned that MARDI has been testing a herbicide tolerant Clearfield rice for BASF, based on one of their main MARDI lines. Clearfield rice is not genetically engineered, it is developed through mutagenesis, but many of the implications are the same when it comes to herbicide use and patenting.