Jan 14, 2009

World - To feed more poor, Philippines scientists to alter rice

MANILA (AFP) – A team of scientists in the Philippines has launched an ambitious project to alter the way rice grows and greatly increase yields of the crop, a daily staple for almost half the world's people.

With prices soaring and population increasing, experts say increasing the yield -- the amount of rice that can be produced from a fixed amount of land -- will be crucial to feeding the planet's poor in the years to come.

"This is a long-term, complex project that will take a decade or more to complete," said John Sheehy, the scientist leading the work at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

"The result of this strategic research has the potential to benefit billions of poor people," he said.

Sheehy said up to 50 percent more rice could be produced, while using less water and fertiliser, by altering the way the plant turns sunlight into the energy it needs to grow.

Rice uses a relatively inefficient form of photosynthesis, the process of turning light into the "fuel" for growth, known as C3.

Sheehy's team hopes to turn rice into a plant that uses the C4 variety of photosynthesis, like that of maize and sorghum, which is 50 percent more efficient.

That would mean more rice grown with fewer resources -- which would help to ease the soaring price of the crop, selling last year for more than 1,000 dollars per tonne.

"The benefits of such an improvement in the face of increasing world population, increasing food prices, and decreasing natural resources would be immense," Sheehy said.

The IRRI was instrumental in developing the modern variety of high-yield rice in Asia in the 1960s, credited with keeping countless numbers alive and providing the foundation for the region's economic transformation.

Now it says yields will have to be increased again in the face of rising prices, less available water and land, and the growing number of mouths to feed around the world.

It plans to use "modern molecular tools" to develop a more efficient and higher-yielding form of rice.

The institute said the project involves molecular biologists, geneticists, physiologists, biochemists and mathematicians, and that it has received an 11 million dollar grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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