An international team of scientists in China and the Philippines, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has developed a new Green Super Rice that is currently being introduced to farmers in Asia and Africa.
The rice strain is hugely significant, experts say - and potentially a watershed, similar to the strains that boosted grain yields across the globe in the Green Revolution of the 1960s. But Green Super Rice (GSR) takes more recent stresses on the environment into account.
The Green Revolution strains were credited with saving hundreds of millions of people from starvation. But they depended heavily on large amounts of fertiliser, pesticides and water.
Dr Li Zhikang, a Chinese molecular geneticist and a leading scientist in the GSR project, said in a phone interview from Beijing: "We achieved food sufficiency, but at a tremendous cost." China consumed huge amounts of fertiliser, soil and water quality deteriorated, and there was a growing water shortage, said Dr Li, chief scientist with the Institute of Crop Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS) in Beijing. "We realised that this trend was not going to be sustainable. We wanted sustainable food security," he said.
Research began in China some 15 years ago, and in 2007 received a shot in the arm with an US$18million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, after the Microsoft founder visited CAAS, met Dr Li and saw the project's global potential.
As many as 14 research institutions in China have been working on the GSR project, along with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. The effort involves hundreds of rice breeders as well from across the globe.
The challenge is acute. Rice production must increase by about 70 per cent over the next two decades. But too much or too little water, temperature variations, and poor soils threaten production. Low-lying rice-growing areas like the Mekong delta are under threat from rising sea levels.
Rice varieties that can cope with the stresses on the environment and soil are seen as the key to maintaining production and helping African and Asian rice farmers survive on poor land with no irrigation.
Dr Jauhar Ali, an Indian scientist at IRRI, explained that previously, scientists would work on single traits - such as resistance to drought or saline soil - separately, and for years. But under the GSR project, they worked to select desirable traits, combining them from over 250 rice varieties from all over the world simultaneously. This meant they did not have to wait for the results of one line of research before starting on another.
"It's a long story," said 60-year-old Dr Li over the phone. "And we are lucky. We have made tremendous progress, and it is working." GSR "does more with less" says the project's official website. The scientists wanted the same or better yields, but with 20-25 per cent less input, Dr Ali said. Reducing input would in turn reduce farmers' costs.
In the second phase of the GSR project, which began in December and runs until late 2015, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation again provided a US$15million (S$19.2million) infusion to help spread the benefits of the new rice strain to poor farmers in Asia and Africa. Around 500,000 farmers are expected to get the rice, whose different strains are tailored to different environmental conditions.
"The process is a continuous one," Dr Ali said. "We have several hundred rice breeders involved, and we want to train scientists in those countries, so that in future they can stand on their own feet."
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