Forty-five miles from Georgetown at Burma, Mahaicony, the 610-acre Rice Research Station does its work without the attention customarily attracted by other institutions, which, arguably, are of decidedly less importance to the economy. Five hundred and sixteen acres of the property on which the facility sits are dedicated to seed production and a further seventy acres are used for field experiments. The remaining twelve acres house offices, laboratories, other research buildings and residential premises.
The complex mix of responsibilities that comprise the work of the Rice Research Station include plant breeding, agronomy, weed management, entomology, pathology and farm management and seed production. Taken together, these scientific pursuits amount to keeping Guyana’s rice industry alive and ensuring its competitiveness. Put differently, its principal task is to develop what are best described as superior varieties of rice with considerable tolerance to pests; to transform them into commercial best sellers and to maintain stocks of genetically pure seed of all commercial varieties of rice.
Burma currently holds several commercial varieties of rice including Rustic, a long-grain variety released in 1977, Diwani, another long-grain variety released for commercial production in 1982, F7-10, released in 1998, BR-240, released in 1996 and BR-444, a long grain from Colombia released here for commercial production in 1998. F-710, G98-22-4, G98-24-1, G98-30-3, G98-196 and G98-135 are the remaining species that have been developed and made available to farmers for production.
The process of developing the various varieties or what might perhaps be called ‘the science of rice’ extends into a complex range of sciences not least of which are those concerned with soil fertility and plant nutrition. In this regard, the primary objective of the Rice Research Station is to ascertain the fertilizer requirements of the various varieties in order to realise optimum grain yield.
Of late there has been an air of expectation at Burma and in the rice sector as a whole following the announcement last year about the country’s first aromatic rice last year. The air of anticipation is understandable. Aromatic varieties provide distinct scents. The varieties, notably the famous Basmati, have been in considerable global demand over the past two decades.
Chief Scientist at the Rice Research Station Dr Mahendra Persaud understands the significance of the recent achievement. Expanding its international rice market is high on the list of Guyana’s agricultural priorities. The days of the preferential European rice market are long gone and the need to continually develop new varieties of rice is influenced by the fact that 60 per cent of local production is destined for overseas markets. Dr Persaud says that the production of varieties that will compete on the international market is a constant preoccupation of the Rice Research Station.
Dr Persaud explains that varietal development can be “a long, meticulous and tedious process” that can take as many as six years. “Sometimes you arrive at a point where you simply need to start again.” The process begins with a determination of what the market demands, though Dr Persaud says that market requirements are not always consistent with farmers’ demands. Farmers, he says, have a preference for high-yielding varieties that are resistant to pests and can sustain the vagaries that might result in delayed reaping. Those varieties are not always what the market demands.
Sometimes circumstances demand change; like the period that followed Guyana’s loss of its European market and which required change from the extra long grain produced for that market. In recent years there have been more challenges associated with flooding and the destruction of crops by salt water, a circumstance that challenges the scientists at Burma to continually consolidate the durability of the varieties that they produce.
The desirability of expanding rice cultivation into the hinterland areas of Guyana constitutes one of the current scientific challenges of the Rice Research Station. Dr Persaud explains that since the species that have been developed are specific to soil and climatic conditions, any move to cultivate rice in the hinterland will have to be preceded by the development of new varieties that are likely to do well in upland conditions and with less water. “It is challenges like these that have sometimes led to the development of new species of rice,” Dr Persaud says.
Once the requirements for a new variety of rice are determined a worldwide search is conducted for the acquisition of germplasm or parent material. Over the years, Guyana has imported parent material from various sources including Colombia and the renowned Philippines Rice Research Institute. In recent years, the local rice research institute has developed its own nursery which now houses thousands of parent plant species. Dr Persaud explains that once the germplasm or parent material with the desired trait is identified it will be imported into the country and bred for seed purposes. Planting of the parent material is usually followed by the creation of what is known as a new genotype or genetic combination. The seeds from the first germination are planted during the following growing season. It is a mix of complex genetic experiments, which ‘squeeze’ the best traits from different strains into a new creation.
Once the complex scientific processes that create new varieties are exhausted the critical testing phase kicks in. Testing is itself a complex process that embraces yield, milling and cooking. These observational trials are conducted at Burma. The sturdiest ‘lines’ are selected for larger trials at sub-stations in several regions then on-farm trials in the cases of those ‘lines’ that appear to be growing satisfactorily, which can be replicated for up to three or four seasons at sub-stations in several regions. Dr Persaud points out that the standard global procedures for trials allows for testing in approximately ten farmers’ fields. Here in Guyana there is never a shortage of farmers who are prepared to support the testing phase of new strains of rice. Accordingly, it is not uncommon for up to 25 farmers to be involved in testing of a particular variety, though he says that availability of seeds sometimes places restrictions on the number of farmers who can be involved in the testing.
Setting aside the scientific significance of on-farm testing, Dr Persaud says the procedure allows for farmers to observe for themselves the development of the various strains of rice; a circumstance which helps them make choices. Information gleaned from trials is documented in reports which are submitted to the Guyana Rice Development Board.
The contribution of the Rice Research Station to the development of the rice industry in Guyana has been immeasurable. Dr Persaud explains that prior to the development of a facility to explore ‘the science of rice’ local rice production was dependent on varietal introductions by international consultants recruited by the Government of Guyana. Dr Persaud’s current role as Plant Breeder and Chief Scientist coincides with his completion of his doctorate from the Indira Gandhi Open University in India. Since assuming responsibility for the facility Dr Persaud has overseen the development of several new strains of rice.