An international team of scientists is attempting to develop a new rice strain that will use less water and fertilizer but could boost yields by up to 50 percent to meet growing demand, a research institute said yesterday.
The ambitious laboratory project involving molecular biologists, geneticists, physiologists and biochemists from research organizations across the globe could take a decade or more to complete, said the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).
About half of the world's population consumes rice as a staple and increasing its productivity is crucial to achieving long-term food security, the institute said. Nearly a billion people worldwide live in hunger.
The IRRI says yields will have to be increased 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 project aims to improve the efficiency of a rice plant's photosynthesis, the process by which plants use solar energy to capture carbon dioxide and convert it into carbohydrates.
Some species, including rice, have a mode of photosynthesis known as C3 in which the capture of carbon dioxide is relatively inefficient. Other plants, such as maize and sorghum, have evolved a much more efficient form of photosynthesis known as C4.
Jacqueline Dionora, an associate scientist at the institute who is involved in the project, said the researchers "would like to learn how to switch on the C4 genes that could be possibly present in rice". She said they are not looking at genetic modification.
She said yields could be increased by 50 percent or more by re-engineering rice to have a more efficient photosynthesis mode.
But University of Western Australia crop scientist Stephen Powles said the researchers would face numerous hurdles and he predicted producing a variety that would increase yields by 50 percent was "unlikely".
"It is a formidable technical challenge to turn a C3 plant into a C4 plant," Powles said. "There are many genes involved and a number of those genes are unknown. There are structural changes with the plants that will be difficult to change."
The institute has been helping farmers for decades to develop more resilient rice varieties that can withstand flooding and drought and increase yields. The institute helped develop a variety of flood-tolerant rice in 2006.
"The benefits of such an improvement in the face of increasing world population, increasing food prices and decreasing natural resources would be immense," said project leader John Sheehy.
The project was funded by a $11 million three-year grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, regular contributors to the institute.
The institute has forecast earlier that the price of benchmark Thai 100 percent Grade B rice could jump again this year after hitting record highs in 2008 because of an economic slowdown and lack of credit facilities for farmers who have to pay for seeds and fertilizer.