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Feature: A new strain of grain to feed the world

By Minerva BC Newman

Cebu, Philippines (6 September) -- Scientists around the globe are continuously seeking for a new strain of rice grain that can grow in dry lands, as rice production reaches its flat-lines due to overproduction that exhausted the soil; water shortages and climate change and the ballooning population that subsist on rice.

In Patrick Barta's article "Feeding billions, a grain at a time" on the July 28 issue of The Wall street Journal Online, he wrote that scientists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a laboratory with 1000 staff are scrambling to overcome these problems. Some researchers are experimenting with seed varieties that can withstand droughts or floods.

Others are growing rice in dry soil, rather than in flooded paddies while other researchers include strategies that try to alter the photosynthetic performance of rice plants and experimenting hybrid varieties that can boost yields by as much as 20 percent.

Barta's article reads that scientists from the IRRI developed the IR8 that brought the green revolution to India in the 1960s where local farmers at the Punjab region were producing the IR8 variety that spurred an agricultural boom that transformed loves and nations worldwide.

Today, IRRI scientists and researchers are testing another strain of grain that can grow in dry dirt. These are already tested in the Philippines and in India's Punjab region with the IRRI's other recent advances in rice technology.

They continue to raise rice plants in climate-controlled chambers from more than 80,000 rice seed varieties that they have collected since the discovery of IR-8 in the 1960, Barta wrote.

In the same article, the writer said that the declining yields in rice production are caused by the massive conversions of agricultural lands into constructions of factories, residential blocks, creating and paving roads and highways, especially in China, India and Indonesia which are considered rice-producing countries. Climate change with its increasing frequency of extreme droughts and floods is also another major factor for declining rice yields, the article reads.

The solution, experts say is to "find ways to cultivate rice in less-than-ideal land and in marginal places, such as in mining industries and in more remote locations," Barta wrote. A Sudanese scientist, Abdelbagi Ismail is now at IRRI working on developing flood-tolerant rice strains which is still on the experimental stage but already, similar varieties are currently being distributed in India and other countries to test their success in real-world settings.

According to Barta's article, other private companies, wealthy countries are also developing some rice researches but most of the world relies heavily on IRRI to lead the way. "When IRRI develops new seeds it makes them available for free to anyone who requests them," the article reads.

IRRI officials admitted that they might have approaches in the past that might have harmed the environment, but they believed that higher rice yields also helped save lives. Barta went on that in the end the IRRI is now "more focused on environmentally sustainable technologies such as methods that use less and less water."

In similar developments, scientists at the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) await the approval of the commercial release by 2011 of the 'Golden Rice,' a genetically improved rice variety fortified with vitamin A, iron and zinc.

According to an article by Jonathan Mayuga of the August 27 issue of the Business Mirror, the 'Golden Rice' was genetically induced with micro-nutrientsóbetacarotene, the precursor of Vitamin A, iron and zinc and it is expected to be the ultimate solution to malnutrition and micro-nutrient deficiency that are being experienced by at least two billion people worldwide.

The Food and Nutrition research Institute (FNRI) reported that there are about 2-billion people that are iron deficient, half of them are pregnant women in Asia while another 2-billion people suffer from zinc deficiency, and it was estimated that about 250-million children lacked vitamin A.

Mayuga wrote that the 'Golden Rice' Network unites experts from various research institutes in the Philippines, Vietnam, Germany, India, Bangladesh, China and Indonesia with Gerard Barry coordinating the Network.

Todate, the 'Golden Rice' is at its fingerprinting and testing stage. The researchers are gathering data on the availability, safety and environmental risks of the rice variety. The tests will be completed by 2010 and the Golden Rice Network hopes that national government agencies, particularly the national Bio-safety Committee of the Philippines (NBCP) will approve its commercial release by 2011. (PIA-Cebu) [top]

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