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by Prime Sarmiento (Xinhua)
25-November-2009 Manila Times
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MANILA: Unlocking the genetic diversity of rice is one of the key factors that can help increase production and stabilize the supply of one of the world’s most important food crops.

About 700 of the world’s foremost rice scientists gathered here recently to participate in the sixth International Rice Genetics Symposium organized by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to share and discuss latest research on sequencing the genomes of various types of rice including wild rice, heirloom and modern varieties.

But more than a venue to share new information, participants in the weeklong conference also aimed to provide solutions to some problems affecting rice cultivation.

“The solution to the future problem of rice agriculture partly involves genetics,” David Makill, IRRI’s program leader and plant breeder, said in an interview with Xinhua.

Makill said that by having more genetic information, plant breeders can develop more rice varieties that can withstand drought and floods, are more resistant to pests, and have higher yields despite limited water supply and land.

“The research done by scientists can provide the basic information needed to address these problems,” he said.

Robert Zeigler, director general of the IRRI, noted that genetic research led to the development of high yielding varieties which helped in stabilizing food prices, lower hunger incidence and kept natural ecosystems from being converted into farmlands.

Thailand’s experience

Thailand, the world’s biggest rice exporter and a major rice- consuming nation, can attest to the benefits of such research.

In her keynote speech delivered during the symposium, Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn of Thailand said genetic research helped scientists and farmers in developing and cultivating high yielding varieties and rice crops which are pest resistant and can survive massive flooding. This improved farmers’ incomes and secured Thailand’s place in the global rice market.

Rice is a staple in most of Asia. The world’s biggest continent has a per capita rice consumption of 85
kilograms and also accounts for about 90 percent of the over 600 million tons of paddy rice produced worldwide. Other parts of Africa and south Americas are also heavy rice consumers and major rice producers.

Such is the importance of rice in most countries that last year ‘s global rice shortage fueled food riots and heated inflation levels in several economies. The 2008 crisis also showed that increasing population and urbanization reduced farmlands and slashed rice production problems that will persist in the next few years.

Climate-change threat

Climate change—which is now causing erratic weather patterns also threatens rice production.
This is why scientists say, it’s important to develop new rice varieties by using the information acquired from studying genetic diversity.

“All rice types need to be sequenced to capture the entire genetic diversity of rice. Rapidly progressing technologies have made this a realistic goal—achievable within a few years,” Zeigler said in a speech delivered during the symposium.

“These genes and their associated traits can then be bred into new rice varieties better able to cope with difficult growing conditions and with the capacity for higher yields,” he added.

“Participating in this symposium will help us in developing rice varieties of the future,” said Frisco Malabanan, chief of the Philippine agriculture department’s rice productivity program. For Malabanan, the thrust is for the Philippines, the world’s largest rice importer, to become self sufficient and developing (and planting) high-yielding varieties may be the means to achieve this end.

Thai Princess Maha Chakri agrees. In her speech delivered during the symposium, she encouraged the participants to “take care of rice genetic diversity around the world to secure the existence of rice on earth.”

“Because of the available diverse genetic sources, scientists and breeders continue to develop and improve new varieties leading towards variations and quality excellence,” she said.

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