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Adaptation of rice cultivation in the Mekong gulf

As the tenth largest river in the world, the Mekong is a key player in Southeast Asia's agriculture. Faced with the climate change that threatens its agricultural production, Biotec, a research center under the Thai Ministry of Science and Education, has set up the "Strenghtening rice breeding programs" project. This project aims to develop new rice varieties, based on 250 initial varieties, which would present characteristics that would allow a stronger resistance to climate change (water stress, heat, etc.) in the Mekong region.

Figure 1: Map of the Mekong Region [1]


The Mekong is the most important river in South East Asia, 4800 km long covering an area of 809,000 km2 spread over 6 countries. It is the most important river in South East Asia and provides a livelihood for more than 60 million people who depend both on its water supply and on the agriculture it enables to develop. The Mekong region is the world's main rice-growing area and an important fishing area where more than 2 million tons of fish are caught every year.


However, in recent years, the region's food security has been under real threat from climate change, whose full range of impacts can be seen at work here: rising temperatures, irregular rainy seasons, rising sea levels, increased drought, flooding and water shortages are the daily lot of the region's inhabitants. Indeed, predictions [2] predict an increase of about 0.8°C by 2030 in the basin coupled with a 200mm increase in annual rainfall. These changes coupled with more frequent extreme climate events increase vulnerability to floods and droughts that affect the lives of the inhabitants and reduce agricultural productivity. These impacts are all the more important as they are amplified by human action, especially because of infrastructures planned in an unsustainable manner, but also because of deforestation which accentuates coastal erosion. [3]

Figure 2: Picture of the impact of climate change in the Mekong region [4].


Creation of new rice varieties by the Biotec research centre.


To cope with these changes, which are increasingly impacting agriculture in the region, the BIOTEC (National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology) research institute, part of the National Science and Technology Development Agency (NSTDA), has set up a program to adapt rice cultivation in the Mekong region in order to combat the hazards that can disrupt its production. This project focuses on the Mekong region of Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam.


When the project began in 2002, they initially focused on the tolerance of rice to "Flush" floods (lasting about two weeks) by limiting its water stress. To do this, they based themselves on 250 initial rice varieties and used molecular markers to look for specific promoters of the various resistance traits in order to target the genes of interest that met their expectations. They then developed rice varieties resistant to pests, flood zones, soil salinization and drought. Although these resistances could be interpreted as adaptation to climate change, they were not aware of it at the time. Indeed, it was only in April 2010, following a very strong heat wave that prevented any rice yield despite irrigation (temperature reaching up to 42°C) that the institute began to focus on heat resistance taking into account the intensifying climate change and then partnering with CIRAD.

Figure 3: Picture of the meeting with Jona Liza at the Biotec research centre


These new varieties are controlled by the government's rice department, which enters them in their register, which ultimately resembles a patent. Farmers testing these new varieties are volunteers and selected from communities proposed by the government. Some conflicts were observed at the beginning of the project because farmers initially did not want to change their practices and varieties of yesteryear. However, when they realized the benefits of these varieties, which allowed them to yield better in extreme situations, they were much more proactive in using these varieties while still insisting on the need to preserve the taste, shape and texture of the rice.


The chronology of the project was divided into 5 phases:

  1. A material development phase, i.e. the multiplication of the genetic material of the 250 initial varieties.

  2. A Screening phase: genetic mapping through partial sequencing of the varieties.

  3. Study of the phenotype and development of resistance to pests, flood zones, soil salinization and drought. Beginning of field trials.

  4. Verification of the survival of the plans under natural conditions.

  5. Work with CIRAD to add heat tolerance.


As seen previously, phase 5 is the first one that is really inscribed in a willingness to adapt to climate change (the others also allow it but were not made in this willingness). This phase is also characterized by the beginning of the cooperation with the CIRAD of Montpellier which provides technical and non-financial support through the contribution of the tolerance markers. The team is thus composed of 2 people from Biotec (as opposed to 3 for phases 1 to 4), one person from CIRAD and one researcher based in Laos.


Funding comes mainly from the NSTDA but also from foundations such as the Rockefeller Foundation and the Global Carbon Project (GCP) hosted by the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) for phases 1 to 4. The lack of foundation support for Phase 5 is reflected in the budget, which has increased from 6.5 million baht ('192,650) for Phase 3 to 5 million baht ('148,200) for Phase 5.


By observing the data concerning the evolution of climate change, the Biotec research centre has hypothesized that phase 6 would focus on the intensification of droughts in the region.


Conclusion


This project is part of an overall desire to improve the quality of life of the inhabitants of the Mekong region. Indeed, the development of new varieties that are resistant to the region's climatic hazards, based on 250 initial varieties, will ensure a yield for the farmers who use these technologies by preserving the taste, texture and shape of the rice. Although this project initially concerned only the improvement of rice production, it later turned its attention to adaptation to climate change when it joined forces with CIRAD in Montpellier, which provided technical data.


Opinion


This technique for ensuring yields seems to be a good alternative in the face of climate change, which increases the impact of climatic hazards.


1](https://reseauinternational.net/guerres-hybrides-6-comment-contenir-la-chine-iv/carte-du-mekong/)

[2] http://www.mrcmekong.org/mekong-basin/climate/

[3] https://www.wwf.ch/fr/ou-travaillons-nous/le-mekong-artere-vitale-de-lasie-du-sud-est

[4]https://asialyst.com/fr/2016/05/02/vietnam-le-delta-du-mekong-face-au-changement-climatique/



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