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New super rice plant may feed millions, research group claims

Published Oct. 8, 2005

Scientists from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines are claiming to have developed a new type of rice that would increase harvests 20 to 25 percent.

After the new variety is commercially available, probably in five years, it will eventually yield enough to feed 500-million more people than current rice yields, Dr. Ken S. Fischer, the institute's director of research, said Sunday.

The world's population, now estimated at 5.5-billion, is expected to reach 8.3-billion by 2025, according to the World Bank.

An American rice breeder cautioned that the results were preliminary and that it would be years before the new plant would be introduced widely and accepted by farmers.

The plant also must be further developed for resistance to pests and disease and to meet local growing conditions and tastes, the institute said.

The announcement of the development of a new high-yielding rice plant, the result of five years' work, was made at an international agricultural research meeting at the World Bank in Washington, D.C.

Lester R. Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington said that in the next 35 years the demand for rice in Asia would double as the population soared. During the same period, though, the amount of land devoted to growing rice is likely to shrink considerably, he said.

From 1990 to 1994, he said, the area cultivated for rice in China decreased 2 percent as paddies were drained for new factories and other buildings.

"The thing to keep in mind is that as acreage declined 2 percent, yields only increased 2 percent," said Brown, who also is the senior author of Full House: Reassessing the Earth's Population Carrying Capacity. "So you have a wash in China. Production has been unchanged for the last four years. That is why any advance in yields of 20 to 25 percent is so exciting."

But several American plant breeders were more cautious.

"There may be a little bit of hype associated with this," said Kent McKenzie with the Rice Experiment Station, a farmer-supported research center, in Biggs, Calif. "It's a huge yield increase, but there are all kinds of ways to get those statistics."

Scientists were able to increase the number of grains per panicle _ or seed cluster _ from the current 100 to about 200 or 250. The plants have fewer tillers, or stems, from 25 to about eight. Unlike other rice plants, each tiller has a panicle, making the short, sturdy plant more efficient.