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Go for hybrid rice, feed the world

April 18, 2008 17:33 IST

Faced with a huge food shortage and rising prices, the world has to tackle the situation with better planning. Concerned over the issue, a multi-year assessment of international agricultural practices released this week said cooperative action between public and private sectors throughout the developing and developed world is necessary to achieve long-term food security and sustainability.

The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development stopped short of an explicit global action plan, but highlighted several options that leaders throughout the public and private might consider in an effort to assure affordable food is produced in a sustainable manner.

The report said agricultural knowledge, science and technology alone cannot solve problems "caused by complex political and social dynamics; but it can make a major contribution to meeting development and sustainability goals...."

Examples of outlets for these advancements include combating livestock disease through vaccine development, mitigating the 30 per cent of greenhouse gas emissions the group attributed to agricultural practices and reducing dependence on fossil fuels.

"Clearly the challenge before the world is to feed the people with nutritious and affordable food produced in a way that's environmentally and socially sustainable," said IAASTD director Robert Watson in a conference call.

More than 400 scientists participated in the assessment in addition to private interests, non-governmental organizations, the World Bank, United Nations and the World Health Organization.

Of more than 100 countries engaged in the assessment, more than 60 counties endorsed the assessment process and endorsed the information contained in the report.

Watson said, however, the United States, Canada and Australia "could not fully support" the final document because of questions about how trade inequalities and modern biotechnology would be addressed.

He added that some the largest private sector companies involved in the process, including Monsanto (MON) and Syngenta (SYT), which develop genetically modified seeds, also walked away from the report due to similar concerns. "I would hope we can reengage the private sector in this debate," Watson said.

Hybrid rice, produced commercially by crossing different varieties to attain higher yields, could hold the key to resolving a looming food crisis, the International Rice Research Institute said.

The Philippines-based center said it was teaming up with biotechnology firms to bolster the development of hybrids to ease pressure on rising rice prices.

"We have before us a world in which we see rice prices increasing dramatically," IRRI chief Robert Zeigler said in a statement. "Since rice is the food of the world's poor, any increase in the price of rice has a serious impact on those poor. There is no question that we need technologies that will improve the productivity of rice and certainly hybrid rice is at or near the top of the list of technologies."

Pioneered by China, the world's top rice producer and consumer, hybrids are bred by crossing three genetically different varieties to produce a rice plant that grows faster and produces yields of up to 20 per cent higher.

The downside is that farmers need to buy new seeds to plant every year, which raises costs, because seeds saved from the previous hybrid crop have inconsistent yields.

Grain quality can sometimes be a problem, IRRI said. Traditional rice varieties by contrast are self-pollinating, so the seeds from every harvest can be used again in the next planting season.

IRRI experts say rice prices have risen close to historical levels since 2005 because population growth has outpaced the dramatic yield growth produced by scientific breakthroughs, known as the Green Revolution

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