|| LOS BAÑOS, Laguna
- In an effort to keep up with population growth, scientists in the Philippines
are developing a new strain of rice they believe will produce dramatically
bigger and quicker harvests.
The new variety can outperform the most prolific current strains by up to 25 percent, said Gurdev Khush, chief rice breeder at the International Rice Research Institute.
Rice is a staple food for much of the worlds population and provides about 60 percent of Asians diet. Unless output improves, population growth will outstrip supplies and cause a sharp increase in poverty, malnutrition and social unrest in the next 25 years, institute scientists say.
The problem will be worsened by the decreasing amount of land and water available for agriculture because of real estate development, said Robert Havener, director of the institute, an independent non-profit center financed by government and private donors.
Recent events in Indonesia, perhaps, are an example of where economic chaos and food scarcity brought political instability, and can bring down governments and cause civil strife, he said.
Boriboon Somrith, senior rice expert at the Department of Agriculture in Thailand, said scientists in his country have not yet duplicated the Philippine centers results but are hopeful about it prospects.
The plant type is a welcome development, but it needs to improve some more in grain quality and aroma to be acceptable to Thailanders, he said.
In the past, some experts have criticized the rice varieties developed by the institute because they needed more fertilizer and pesticides, which hurt the environment and are sometimes too expensive for poor peasants.
The institutes leaders say they learned the importance of a genuine partnership with farmers, who should be consulted to determine their needs instead of being dictated to by crop researchers.
They say the institute is studying new rice-growing methods that are safer and cheaper for farmers. It also is examining ways to reduce insecticide and fertilizer use - for example, by using rice-friendly insects, crop diversity and plants that can help reduce rices fertilizer intake.
Development of the new rice strain began in 1988 with the study of about 2,000 varieties of rice out of the more than 90,000 kept in the Philippines based institutes seed bank, Khush said.
Researchers made about 2,500 crosses to produce more than 50,000 breeding lines from which to develop the new rice.
The new strain produces more grains and is ready for harvest in 100 days, 30 days sooner than present high-yielding varieties and 40-80 days earlier than traditional rice.
The plant also has wider leaves and sturdier roots, making it more resilient in tropical weather and more resilient to disease. All of its stems are productive, with more clusters of rice than normal plants.
It is estimated that by 2020 we will have to produce 50 percent more rice than what we are producing now, Khush said. Thats why this new plant type is important.
The new strain also has been bred to have immunity to blight and other diseases and be resistant to a host of insect pests.
Farmers will be able to start planting the new strain on their fields in two years, the institute says.
In the 1960s, the institute pioneered the development of new rice plants capable of higher yields. The new strains helped overcome food shortages caused by Asias burgeoning population and shrinking farmland.
The achievement was labeled the Green Revolution because advocates said it helped alleviate poverty and reduce hunger, thereby removing the seeds of violent social change.
But through the years, rising population caught up with production, which has remained generally at 1980 levels.
The institute is also working on other new rice varieties that can survive adverse conditions like drought, flooding and high salinity and are less dependent on fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides.
Work has also started on a possible perennial rice plant that would eliminate the need for arduous annual planting.
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