Asian rice scientists
work on new green revolution
LOS BANOS (January 21 2004) : Asia's landscape would be
incomplete without water buffaloes dragging heavy ploughs
through water-logged paddy fields. The world's biggest
continent depends on rice to feed itself, but farmers are at
the mercy of the gods when it comes to crucial water supplies,
and malnutrition is a fact of life for millions.
amount of hard labour by man nor beast can combat drought, but
that's where the pioneering scientists at a research centre in
this tranquil town south of the Philippine capital Manila step
The International Rice Research Institute, surrounded by
mountains and green paddy fields, is working on new varieties
of genetically modified (GM) rice that will not only be more
nutritious, but will also be able to grow with much less
"Water is getting scarce as the population is growing, but we
still want to grow enough rice to feed the population, so our
main task is to develop technology to grow more rice but use
less water," B.A.M Bouman, a water scientist at IRRI, told
One of the new varieties is known as "aerobic rice", because
it requires much less water to survive. Another is "dream
rice", which experts hope will provide the body with vital
nutrients. The "dream rice" variety is a product of genetic
technology, whose advocates liken its impact on farming to
that of the Green Revolution in the latter half of the 20th
In the Green Revolution, crop yields surged with the use of
new varieties of food plants and modern farming methods. Many
environmental and consumer groups have opposed GM foods and
many governments have imposed tight controls on imports,
saying more research is needed to ensure they are safe.
DREAM RICE: The scientists at IRRI are aware of the concerns,
but they are also excited about the opportunities. The "dream
rice" project is due to be presented for the first time at an
Asian nutrition conference to be held in India in February
2003. However, Swapan K. Datta, IRRI's chief plant
biotechnologist, said commercialisation of the crop will take
"It might take a long time as we want to make one hundred
percent sure that everything is in order, everything is safe.
Lots of additional studies will be needed for making sure that
this material is safe for human consumption," Datta said. Rice
is the staple food for most people in Asia, or 60 percent of
the world's population, providing about half their daily
Datta said "dream rice" promised many nutritional benefits,
especially to the malnourished poor as it contained the core
vitamins of iron, betacarotene and lysine.
"Those three lines of genes would be developed and they would
be crossed with each other to make one rice variety," Datta
said. "I think this 'Dream Rice' could be a very perfect diet
for use by malnourished women and children and the people who
need it most," Datta said.
"You don't even need to take coloured vitamin pills." Iron
deficiency is the most common nutritional problem in the
world. The Institute estimates that about one third of the
world's population suffers from anaemia, which impairs
immunity and reduces physical and mental capacity.
About 60 percent of all pregnant women in Asia and about 40
percent of school children are iron deficient. AEROBIC RICE:
Rice plants are often severely affected by lack of sufficient
iron in the soil. Another periodic problem, also being
addressed by the IRRI, is lack of water.
Asia's food security depends mainly on irrigated rice fields.
About 55 percent of the rice area is irrigated and this
accounts for 75 percent of total production. IRRI's Bouman
said the Institute was working together with Asian farmers and
researchers in China to develop a profitable and sustainable
aerobic rice-production system.
Rice consumes two to three times more water than wheat or
maize, he said. "So, if you look at all the water that is
being used, rice is Asia's biggest water user".
Chinese plant breeders have been working on aerobic rice for
the past 15 years, with the rice grown on 200,000 hectares of
farmland in northern China, Bouman said.
"We have learned from China that it is possible to grow
aerobic rice, and we are working with the Chinese to see how
they manage the crop," he said. The IRRI has launched its
aerobic rice programmes in the Philippines, China and India.
Several varieties tested at IRRI so far have produced yields
of five tonnes of rice/hectare in research-managed trials,
Bouman said. Rice grown conventionally yields around 10 tonnes/hectare.
"Breeders need to breed a new rice variety that does not need
to grow in mud and in standing water," Bouman said.
"We still need to learn how to manage it. For example, we need
to know how much water exactly that we need to grow aerobic
rice." Water is already scarce in several parts in Asia, some
of which are major rice-growing areas, Bouman said. "The water
crisis is already very much there in China, central and west
India, Pakistan and some parts in Bangladesh," he said.
The Institute aims to expand trial programmes of aerobic rice
to several growing areas in Asia where water is scarce, he
added. "I think potential areas would be in Cambodia, Laos,
north and west of India, Afghanistan as well as the east part
of Indonesia and north-east Thailand," Bouman said.
Datta said that the IRRI has also developed another GM rice
known as "golden rice", aimed at combating vitamin A
deficiency, which can lead to total blindness. Rice has no
vitamin A and very low content of iron and lysine, the best
amino acid that constitutes quality protein.
Datta said the rice with a yellow-golden tinge can already be
shipped to other countries for testing. "These materials are
getting ready to be transferred to India, Bangladesh, the
Philippines, China and Indonesia for them to use," he said.
Datta is convinced about the safety of the new GM foods. "So
far, all GM crops released to the environment have gone
through all testing and there was no report ever that any GM
crop caused any damage to the environment," he said.
Source: The DAWN