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Bangladesh tests new rice strains

16 December 09 07:58 GMT
By Mark Dummett
BBC News, Dhaka

Researchers in Bangladesh are in the final stage of testing three new rice varieties which they say will be able to survive the country's annual floods.

In most years more than 20% of Bangladesh goes under water, and millions of tonnes of rice are lost.

Whereas normal rice varieties can die after two or three days' submersion in water, tests show that the new ones can survive for longer than two weeks.

Researchers say the new varieties could improve the country's annual harvest.

Scientists at the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), on the outskirts of Dhaka, say they hope that the government will approve the new varieties shortly and that farmers will be able to start growing them before the next monsoon.

"More than two million hectares are affected by flash floods, so if we get even one to two tonnes more yield per hectare then Bangladesh will be much closer to becoming a permanently self-sufficient country with respect to food production," Khandakar Iftekharudaula, the chief researcher, said.

Essential crop

He believes that the new varieties could help Bangladesh deal with the impact of global warming, as scientists fear that the floods are likely to get worse.

Rice is a crop which is absolutely essential to the country's survival.

"Rice is life for the Bangladeshi people. It provides 70% of food calories and 70-80% of the farmers of the country are living off rice cultivation," Mr Iftekharudaula said.

One of the varieties, Swarna-Sub1, has already been introduced successfully in India, while the other two have been developed by the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute itself, using a commonly-grown local rice variety.

The scientists do not use genetic modification, but through cross-breeding techniques are able to introduce a flood-resistant gene to different rice varieties.

It is a collaborative project involving scientists from many different countries, working together through the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Work has also been done of developing rice which can grow in salty water, which will help farmers in coastal areas, where rising sea levels threaten to inundate farm land.

According to new research data made available in September this year, up to 20 million people in low-lying Bangladesh are at risk from rising sea levels in the coming decades.

Scientists predicted that salty water could reach far inland, making it hard to cultivate staple foods like rice.

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