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IR8: The miracle rice which saved millions of lives

Dec 9, 2016

Last week I received a very unusual invitation indeed. It was to a 50th birthday party in a swanky Delhi hotel, but the party was for a plant: a strain of rice known only by its initials, IR8.
A celebration for an angry rice variety; who could refuse?
The Indian Agriculture Minister, Shri Sudarshan Bhagat, opened the event, describing the introduction of IR8 as “a great moment in India’s history”.
And it is true that, if any plant has earned the right to a fancy half-century knees-up, it is IR8.
A 29-year-old Indian farmer called Nekkanti Subba Rao was one of the first to discover the variety’s extraordinary properties.
He is over 80 now and chuckles with delight as he recalls sowing his first field of IR8 on his small farm in the south-east Indian state of Andhra Pradesh in 1967.
Back then you could only expect a maximum of one and a half tonnes per hectare, he tells me, looking perfectly at home perched on a gilt chair in the hotel’s Mughal-styled entertaining rooms.
“Yield was 10 tonnes per hectare”, he told the BBC World Service Business Daily programme, recalling that first monster harvest.
The seed from the 1,000 hectares of IR8 planted in his village the following year was sent across India, ensuring the entire country experienced its first harvest of what became known as the “miracle” rice.
“It was a time of great change, in all states in India farmers are very happy,” he laughs.