Asian rice scientists work on new green revolution
LOS BANOS (November 19 2002) : Asia's landscape would be incomplete without water buffaloes dragging heavy ploughs through water-logged paddy fields.
The world's biggest continent depends on rice to feed itself, but farmers are at the mercy of the gods when it comes to crucial water supplies, and malnutrition is a fact of life for millions.
No amount of hard labour by man nor beast can combat drought, but that's where the pioneering scientists at a research centre in this tranquil town south of the Philippine capital Manila step in.
The International Rice Research Institute, surrounded by mountains and green paddy fields, is working on new varieties of genetically modified (GM) rice that will not only be more nutritious, but will also be able to grow with much less water.
"Water is getting scarce as the population is growing, but we still want to grow enough rice to feed the population, so our main task is to develop technology to grow more rice but use less water," B.A.M Bouman, a water scientist at IRRI, told Reuters.
One of the new varieties is known as "aerobic rice", because it requires much less water to survive.
Another is "dream rice", which experts hope will provide the body with vital nutrients.
The "dream rice" variety is a product of genetic technology, whose advocates liken its impact on farming to that of the Green Revolution in the latter half of the 20th Century.
In the Green Revolution, crop yields surged with the use of new varieties of food plants and modern farming methods.
Many environmental and consumer groups have opposed GM foods and many governments have imposed tight controls on imports, saying more research is needed to ensure they are safe.
DREAM RICE: The scientists at IRRI are aware of the concerns, but they are also excited about the opportunities.
The "dream rice" project is due to be presented for the first time at an Asian nutrition conference to be held in India in February 2003.
However, Swapan K. Datta, IRRI's chief plant biotechnologist, said commercialisation of the crop will take several years.
"It might take a long time as we want to make one hundred percent sure that everything is in order, everything is safe. Lots of additional studies will be needed for making sure that this material is safe for human consumption," Datta said.
Rice is the staple food for most people in Asia, or 60 percent of the world's population, providing about half their daily calories.
Datta said "dream rice" promised many nutritional benefits, especially to the malnourished poor as it contained the core vitamins of iron, betacarotene and lysine.
"Those three lines of genes would be developed and they would be crossed with each other to make one rice variety," Datta said.
"I think this 'Dream Rice' could be a very perfect diet for use by malnourished women and children and the people who need it most," Datta said.
"You don't even need to take coloured vitamin pills." Iron deficiency is the most common nutritional problem in the world. The Institute estimates that about one third of the world's population suffers from anaemia, which impairs immunity and reduces physical and mental capacity.
About 60 percent of all pregnant women in Asia and about 40 percent of school children are iron deficient.
AEROBIC RICE: Rice plants are often severely affected by lack of sufficient iron in the soil.
Another periodic problem, also being addressed by the IRRI, is lack of water.
Asia's food security depends mainly on irrigated rice fields. About 55 percent of the rice area is irrigated and this accounts for 75 percent of total production.
IRRI's Bouman said the Institute was working together with Asian farmers and researchers in China to develop a profitable and sustainable aerobic rice-production system.
Rice consumes two to three times more water than wheat or maize, he said.
"So, if you look at all the water that is being used, rice is Asia's biggest water user".
Chinese plant breeders have been working on aerobic rice for the past 15 years, with the rice grown on 200,000 hectares of farmland in northern China, Bouman said.
"We have learned from China that it is possible to grow aerobic rice, and we are working with the Chinese to see how they manage the crop," he said.
The IRRI has launched its aerobic rice programmes in the Philippines, China and India.
Several varieties tested at IRRI so far have produced yields of five tonnes of rice/hectare in research-managed trials, Bouman said.
Rice grown conventionally yields around 10 tonnes/hectare. "Breeders need to breed a new rice variety that does not need to grow in mud and in standing water," Bouman said.
"We still need to learn how to manage it. For example, we need to know how much water exactly that we need to grow aerobic rice."
Water is already scarce in several parts in Asia, some of which are major rice-growing areas, Bouman said.
"The water crisis is already very much there in China, central and west India, Pakistan and some parts in Bangladesh," he said.
The Institute aims to expand trial programmes of aerobic rice to several growing areas in Asia where water is scarce, he added.
"I think potential areas would be in Cambodia, Laos, north and west of India, Afghanistan as well as the east part of Indonesia and north-east Thailand," Bouman said.
GOLDEN RICE: Datta said that the IRRI has also developed another GM rice known as "golden rice", aimed at combating vitamin A deficiency, which can lead to total blindness.
Rice has no vitamin A and very low content of iron and lysine, the best amino acid that constitutes quality protein.
Datta said the rice with a yellow-golden tinge can already be shipped to other countries for testing.
"These materials are getting ready to be transferred to India, Bangladesh, the Philippines, China and Indonesia for them to use," he said.
Datta is convinced about the safety of the new GM foods. "So far, all GM crops released to the environment have gone through all testing and there was no report ever that any GM crop caused any damage to the environment," he said.
Source: Business Recorder