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Renee Velve, farmers' rights campaigner
Will all farmers really have access to the technology?
 real 28k

Thursday, 30 March, 2000, 08:58 GMT 09:58 UK
GM super rice unveiled
vietnamese rice farmers
More yield for less work and investment is the hope
A genetically-engineered strain of rice which could boost yields by up to 35% has been developed by US scientists.

The new crop was unveiled in the Philippines at an international conference on rice technology. Rice is part of the staple diet of a third of the world's people, and the researchers believe their new product could play a major role in combating hunger.

The plant was produced by scientists at Washington State University and by agricultural researchers in Japan. It has been tested in China, Korea and Chile.
Rice facts
Staple food for nearly half the world's population
World annual crop approx 500m tonnes
Rice culture emerged in India 5,000 years ago
Milled (white) rice much lower in nutrients
The lead scientist on the project, Professor Maurice Ku, explained how the rice was modified at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Banos town, just south of Manila.

He said genetic material from maize was inserted into the rice plant including the gene for pyruvate orthophospate dikinase. This raised the efficiency of photosynthesis - the process plants use to make their life-giving sugars.

Light and sugar

"What we did is we took maize photosynthesis genes and introduced them into the rice plant. That increased photosynthesis capacity and grain yield," he told reporters.

Field experiments saw yields jump by up to 35%. However, Professor Ku cautioned that the results were "still very preliminary".

"To perfect it, we need to do much more tests not only in the field but also more transformation with additional traits to further improve it," he said. He also emphasised that the experiments used a rice plant developed in Japan for the tests.

"This cultivar may not be suitable for other areas. In order to transfer this trait, we need to do traditional breeding to introduce the genes to the elite commercial varieties. So it will be a few years down the road before we release it to farmers - probably three to five years."

IRRI experts say rapid population growth has caught up with advances in cereal yields made over the past 34 years. They say farmers must consistently produce an extra 6.7 million tonnes of unmilled rice every year using less land and less water just to maintain current nutrition levels.

Conventional breeding

The new rice technology may help farmers achieve these targets.

"Thirty-five percent jump in yield is a lot," said Paul Christou, a rice expert at the John Innes Centre, UK. "So far, through conventional breeding programmes, I believe people are looking at small incremental increases, probably in the range of a few percent.

"I think the potential is immense, because we are talking about a crop that is recognised to be a food security crop.

"Rice stockpiles in developing countries have been going down at an alarming rate, and if one considers that almost half the world's population depends on rice almost exclusively for all their nutritional calories, then you understand why this could potentially be a very significant opportunity."

However, critics argue that while high yield rice may benefits farmers on good soil, it does nothing to help the poorest farmers working in the worst conditions.

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See also:

13 Jan 00 | Sci/Tech
Yellow rice gives dietary boost
18 Jul 99 | Sci/Tech
GM wheat 'could aid Third World'
01 Jun 99 | South Asia
Row over hybrid crops
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