The Future of the Rice Seed Industry

Over the next decade the global rice seed industry will face unprecedented change.
Up until recently, rice seed trade was not very attractive for major seed companies because most rice farmers were content and able to save and replant their own seed from year to year. This left little room for commercial rice seed production.
The advent of hybrid rice has started to turn these companies around. Unlike inbred rice, hybrid rice requires farmers to purchase new seed every year. The benefit to farmers is that the average potential yield increase of hybrid rice is 15-20 percent.
China is the world’s biggest rice producer and has led the world in adopting hybrid rice varieties. More than 50 percent of China’s rice production comes from hybrid rice, and hybrid rice is largely responsible for the nation’s high rice yields, which are 50 percent higher than world averages.
To support the development of improved hybrid rice varieties, and ensure they are widely available to rice farmers, the International Rice Research Institute has established the Hybrid Rice Development Consortium.
Any public or private sector agency or business, or non-government organization involved in hybrid rice development or hybrid rice seed production can become a member of the HRDC. Members get premium access to the latest breeding material for hybrid rice, helping advance their commercial development. There is an exciting array of improved hybrid rice varieties in development that farmers will soon have access to through these partnerships.
However, it’s not just hybrid rice that is changing the rice seed industry. New breeding technologies are advancing varietal development faster than ever before, driving demand amongst farmers to access the best and latest varieties. The development of both inbred and hybrid rice relies on the natural genetic diversity of rice as a source of desirable traits.
IRRI’s International Rice Genebank contains more than 112,000 different types of rice—the world’s biggest collection of rice genetic diversity. Modern tools now allow geneticists to systematically sift through such large collections in search of valuable traits. Other tools allow breeders to move these traits into new varieties—inbred or hybrid—at a pace previously unimagined.
Submergence tolerant rice is an inbred rice developed using “marker-assisted breeding,” which helps breeders identify the presence of a desirable gene and associated trait so they can select for just that trait in developing a new variety. IRRI’s recently released submergence tolerant rice is being adopted at unprecedented rates in India where rice producers, including local commercial seed companies, are selling more seed than grain to keep up with demand.
Commercial demand for high-quality seed from inbred varieties is also expected to rise as rice production shifts to larger parcels of land as a result of continued urbanization and decreasing availability of farm labor. This will see mechanization increasing, different strategies for inputs (such as water and nutrients), and an overall shift towards more commercial production, which will in turn see higher demand for high-quality seed, including inbreds.
This new, more commercial phase of the global rice seed industry offers a great opportunity for rice farmers to increase their production through improved access to higher quality seed for high-yielding and locally-adapted rice varieties. For the rice industry, this means a more exciting future than ever before.

Robert Zeigler, director general, International Rice Research Institute