Meet the Blockbuster ‘Rice Man’

Meet the blockbuster ‘rice man’ who fed the world No food crop in history has been planted in as much area as the varieties developed by Gurdev Singh Khush, the world’s most prolific, and perhaps greatest, rice breeder by Harish Damodaran.

He’s to rice, what the ‘Father of the Green Revolution’, Norman Borlaug, was to wheat. But Gurdev Singh Khush – no food crop in history has been planted on as much area worldwide as his blockbuster IR36 and IR64 varieties – is the unlikeliest of rice breeders.

For starters, Khush isn’t much of a rice eater: “I prefer wheat and chapati any day”. That makes him quite like the ‘Milkman of India’, Verghese Kurien, who simply disliked milk and could never drink it. More pertinent, though, is that Khush hadn’t really seen paddy fields till he arrived as a 32-year-old at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños, The Philippines. That was in end-July 1967.

As the eldest son of a farmer Kartar Singh – they were Jat Sikhs from Rurkee village in Phillaur tehsil of Punjab’s Jalandhar district – Khush, born on August 22, 1935, recalls only maize, wheat, moong (green gram) and mash (black gram) being grown on their 15-acre land. “Rice was a minor crop in Punjab then, cultivated in low-lying bet areas around rivers and only for self-consumption,” says the 87-year-old, who was recently at his alma mater Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) to attend a two-day symposium on ‘Transforming the Green Revolution Hub of India’. Its focus was on innovations in plant breeding and policies to promote crop diversification and sustainable farming in Punjab.

The record of “not seeing rice”, right through his primary education in the village to the Khalsa High School in Bundala that was about 7 km by walk, continued even at the Government Agricultural College, Ludhiana. Khush graduated from this institution (which, in 1962, became PAU) in June 1955. His good marks secured him admission to the University of California, Davis (UCD) with a half-time assistantship to pursue a Master in Science leading to a PhD.

Khush’s PhD research was on rye, a cereal closely related to wheat and barley. His thesis project involved “investigating the genetic affinities between cultivated rye and the wild species”. Not long after its completion in July 1960, he was offered a post-doctoral position by Charles M Rick, the world-renowned authority on tomato biology, as assistant geneticist at UCD’s department of vegetable crops. Khush’s work, for the next seven years, was on mapping and exploring the tomato genome – “all its 12 chromosomes”.

So, how did he end up in rice?

It was rather accidental. In August 1966, the director of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) Robert F. Chandler invited Khush to join the six-year-old institute. Chandler had earlier visited UCD and was looking for a bright young plant breeder to work at IRRI. Within a year’s time, Khush had joined IRRI, where he would spend much of his next 34.5 years: “I became a rice breeder because everybody at IRRI worked on rice!”

Working in rice paddies was different from tomatoes, where he could sit near the plants and make crosses in the field. With rice, he had to learn to “carefully remove the plants from muddy fields, put in pots and bring them to greenhouses or covered sheds to make crosses”.
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Miracle varieties
In November 1966, even before Khush’s joining, IRRI had released IR8. This “miracle rice”, a cross between a Chinese dwarf paddy Dee-geo-woo-gen and a tall vigorous Indonesian variety Peta, was developed by two IRRI breeders Henry M. Beachell and Peter Jennings. Traditional tall varieties had plants that were 150-cm-plus-high with weak stems. When fertilisers were applied, they largely grew vertically and bent over (“lodged”). Further, they produced roughly 30% grain and 70% straw, and matured in 160-180 days. Farmers could harvest only 1-3 tonnes of paddy (rice with husk) per hectare.

G.S. Khush with IR8 rice breeder Henry Beachell (left) at IRRI’s grain quality lab in 1968. (Express/sourced)
IR8, by contrast, had plants that were hardly 95 cm tall and had sturdy stems that didn’t lodge when heavily fertilised. Their grain-straw ratio was 50:50, with only 130 days to maturity. Paddy yields were 4.5-5 tonnes/hectare with minimal fertilisers and could go up to 9-10 tons with the higher application. Not for nothing that K N Ganesan, a farmer from Tiruvannamalai in Tamil Nadu, named his son Irettu (IR-ettu; ‘ettu’ is 8 in Tamil).

IR8, however, was susceptible to diseases (bacterial blight, blast fungus, tungro and grassy stunt virus) and insect pests (brown plant hoppers, gall midge and stem borer). Its grains had chalkiness (opaque areas leading to undesirable appearance and increased breakage during milling) and high amylose content (causing drying and hardening on cooking). That was where the varieties bred by Khush, particularly IR36 and IR64, made all the difference.

IR8 was a simple cross between a Chinese and Indonesian variety. IR36 descended from at least six crosses, one of which involved IR8. In all, it had genes from 14 indigenous landrace varieties of six countries (India: 4, China: 4, Philippines: 3, Indonesia: 1, Bangladesh: 1 and Japan: 1) and one wild rice species (Oryza nivara). The four Indian landraces were two each from Pattambi in Kerala (Thekkan and Eravapandy) and from Tamil Nadu (Kichili Samba and Vellaikar).

The objective behind such complex breeding was to develop rice varieties that weren’t merely high-yielding, but incorporated genes from diverse landraces and wild progenitors, conferring resistance to a broad spectrum of pests and diseases. IR36 also scored over IR8 for its even-shorter duration of 111 days, tying in with another breeding objective – to enable farmers to grow two rice crops per year. IR36 was released in May 1976 and went on to be planted in 11 million hectares (mh) annually during the 1980s. No variety – of any food crop, not just rice – had ever previously occupied so much area.

IR36 was followed by another blockbuster variety, released in May 1985. IR64 had genes from 20 landraces of eight countries, out-yielded both IR8 and IR36, and possessed multiple diseases and insect resistance. But its USP was the quality of grains: They had intermediate amylose content and gelatinization temperature, resulting in the soft texture of the cooked rice and better palatability. Rice recovery from the milled paddy, too, was higher. IR64 was, by the late-1990s, grown on more than 10 mh annually: 6 mh in Indonesia and 3 mh in India alone.
Miracle Khush varieties.

Hunger fighter
Khush joined IRRI as a breeder and also retired as one in February 2002, showing little interest in administrative positions. Under his leadership – he was formally head of IRRI’s division of plant breeding, genetics and biochemistry – a total of 328 rice breeding lines were released as 643 varieties in 75 countries. Many of these, including IR42 and IR72, were widely planted. Between 1966 and 2000, global rice production rose by 133.5% (from 257 million to 600 million tonnes) with only a 20.6% increase in area (126 to 152 mh). An estimated 60% of the world’s rice area in 2002 was planted to IRRI-bred varieties or their progenies.

It isn’t surprising, then, that the legendary agricultural scientist M.S. Swaminathan described Khush as a “leading world hunger fighter and an icon in rice research”. Rice, incidentally, is the staple food for over half the world’s population, supplying a fifth of the global per capita calorie intake. Beachell and Khush were jointly awarded the World Food Prize in 1996 for their rice breeding work, “which contributed to ensuring that growing populations in Asia and around the world would be supported by sufficient food supplies”.

Home Connection
None of Khush’s famous rice varieties were grown in Punjab, though he did supply seeds of IRRI’s breeding lines with long slender grains that consumers there preferred. One of these lines was selected and released in 1976 by PAU as PR-106, a popular variety that covered three-fourths of the state’s rice area for over three decades. IR36 and IR64 got planted mostly in eastern, central and southern India.

“IRRI varieties were developed in tropical environments and not adapted to the temperate climate of Punjab,” notes Khush. He, moreover, believes that the area under rice in Punjab should be “progressively reduced”. While water-saving DSR (direct-seeded rice) technologies and growing of shorter-duration varieties can help, that isn’t sufficient. Part of the rice area should be replaced with oilseeds and other crops. The government should “give some subsidy to encourage farmers to switch to [alternative] crops”.

Khush, who is now adjunct professor emeritus at UCD, hasn’t forgotten his roots. Before the pandemic, Khush used to come almost every year and even visit Rurkee. His younger brother Kirpal Singh Kooner still lives there. Khush’s other two brothers also use ‘Kooner’, a gotra (clan) of Jats, as their last name: “I wrote poetry in Punjabi while in school and chose to give myself a takhallus (nom de guerre). That assumed name (Khush or happy) became my last name”.
Khush was destined to be different – and happy.