Rice is the major staple food for 17 countries in Asia-Pacific, nine countries in North and South America and eight in Africa. Supplying 20 percent of the world’s dietary energy need, it constitutes 40-80 percent of the calories in the average daily intake of food of people in humid and sub-humid Asia (FAO, 2004; Hossain, 1999). More than 90 percent of rice is produced and consumed in Asia. Ironically, it was this tropical rice continent that remained chronically food deficit for long. Interestingly, it was the first to witness and adopt two landmark achievements in the history of rice breeding - the semidwarf plant type varieties that breached the centuries long yield barrier in the sixties and the hybrid technology that raised further the ceiling to genetic yield in the late seventies. Successively and together the two high yield technologies increased the global rice production by about one a half times (from 264 in 1965-67 to 642 million tonnes of unmilled rice in 2005-07) and productivity by two times (from 2.10 to 4.12 t/ha) during the last 40 years. The spectacular advance enabled many major rice growing countries including China and India attain and sustain self-sufficiency in rice and food since early eighties. Nearly four-fifths of the production advance has been due to vertical growth made possible through gradual replacement of traditional low yielding varieties by modern varieties of progressively higher and stable yields tailored for and extensively adopted in irrigated and mainly irrigated production environments (David and Otsuka, 1994; Pingali et al., 1997). They may be broadly grouped into first, second and third generation modern varieties evolved in keeping with the changing needs and priorities. The breeding priority of the 60s and 70s had been largely to evolve high yielding varieties of Taichung (Native)1 and IR8 plant type but of varied growth duration suiting different seasons/cropping systems and grain quality suiting diverse consumer preferences. Vulnerability to new pathogens and insect pests that appeared in increasingly devastative forms and caused recurrent and heavy yield losses necessitated change in breeding emphasis for insulating varieties with desired level of resistance to them resulting in the second generation modern varieties. Simultaneously, varietal improvement for relatively favourable rainfed ecologies and problem soils was initiated in countries, where they account for very large area. Sadly, the ongoing effort is yet to provide appropriate varietal solution to such handicapped ecologies. The third phase of rice breeding had been for breaching the potential yield of the semidwarf varieties through exploitation of hybrid vigour. Unlike in China, where hybrid rice technology was conceived and made a commercial reality since late 70s, outside China, the potential of the technology was not realized until mid 90s, when interest on heterosis breeding was revived in a few countries including India, Vietnam, Indonesia, The Philippines, Bangladesh, the USA and Egypt.
In the process of progressive varietal improvement, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) since its establishment in 1960, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the International Rice Commission under it since early fifties, the UNDP, the USDA, the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation have played a seminal role. The outcome enabled many countries in the region and elsewhere to produce enough and meet their growing rice needs till recently. Since mid 80s the production-productivity growth however, started slowing down and by the current decade it declined to levels far less than that of population widening thereby the demand-supply gap in many countries in Asia. Achievement of the actual demand of 550 million tonnes of milled rice by 2025 would not be possible at the current level of production growth. To realize such a high target, the regionwise growth rate has to be 1.46, 1.29 and 0.58% respectively in South Asia, Southeast Asia and East Asia (Hossain 1998). The task is going to be quite challenging for countries like The Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Vietnam, Myanmar and Indonesia, which have to grow between 40 and 65 percent by 2025. Keeping the not so encouraging current demand-supply scenario and the fact that high and stable production growth of this ‘strategic commodity’ on a sustainable basis is vital for Asia to remain food secure (Hossain and Fischer, 1995) an attempt has been made in the present exercise, to review what has been achieved of the breeding research during the last four decades and discuss critically the socio-economic impact of it, the challenges ahead, research and development opportunities and strategies to meet them and remain self-sufficient and food secure.