December 17, 2018 ( Mohamad Osman and Hadzim Khalid, New Straits Times Online )
MALAYSIA’s ability to produce superior clones or varieties for our food crops is the key factor that attracted many participants to the Fourth International Plant Breeding Conference held recently.
One question was raised: “Breeding rice for better eating quality for consumers: Are we there yet?”
Choices of rice varieties grown by farmers, and choices by consumers differ significantly. People have different preferences for the rice they consume.
In the world market as well as in Malaysia, much emphasis is placed on grain length and whiteness as criteria of grade and quality. However, rice quality is far more complex since it is determined by many parameters such as variety, grain, milling, cooking and eating properties.
As a matter of government policy, farmers’ welfare is paramount, so breeding for grain yield as well as maintenance breeding (e.g. pest and disease resistance) remain the prime objectives.
Our rice farmers have always been inundated by the paradox that rice quality traits have negative correlations with grain yield, and consequently, they would spend less effort — or defer them — to incorporate quality traits for fear of not being able to improve grain yields.
Nonetheless, it is also very important to ensure that consumers can have better rice quality.
Rice in retail outlets are a mix of local and imported. Over 200,000 metric tonnes of specialty or quality rice — namely Basmathi and Jasmine — are imported annually. They are predominantly marketed by types or varieties. They possess additional cooking and eating quality attributes, namely fragrance (aroma) and high grain elongation.
Local rice prices are controlled for the benefit of the populace, around RM2.50 per kg, while prices of imported quality rice are floated, and range two to five times more than those of local rice.
In 1984, the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (Mardi) made a breakthrough when rice farmers discovered a grain elongation characteristic in Mahsuri Mutan, which gives a trait akin to that of Basmathi, i.e. the rice grain will elongate up to twice its length when cooked. The discovery triggered the beginning of a breeding programme for quality rice.
By 2005, Mardi had made significant achievements, and released its quality rice varieties Q34, MRQ50 and MRQ74, which have both aroma and grain elongation characteristic. Their successful development is a strong testimony that grain yields and quality traits can be bred together.
In early 1970s, Japan secured total self-sufficiency in rice. However, farmers suffered when the rice price fell sharply due to surplus. To overcome this dilemma, farmers were given the option to revert to the variety, Koshihikari, and were allowed to sell the rice to consumers who were willing to buy at the prices farmers were selling via the Voluntary Price System.
Developed in 1956, Koshihikari possesses excellent eating quality, but was beset with problems of lodging and blast. Subsequently, farmers improved the grain yields and overcame the drawbacks. Koshihikari triggered the wide cultivation of quality rice, and it remains popular after over 60 years.
Perhaps, we can learn important lessons from the Japanese experience. Herein lies the important role of our rice farmers to play the balancing act.