WASHINGTON — A NEW strain of ``super rice'' announced this week by leading scientists may eventually aid the fight against hunger in some of the most hard-pressed places on earth.
Agronomists at a research institution in the Philippines have developed the new breed of rice, which can produce 25 percent higher yields than strains currently in use. If widely planted, it could produce enough rice to feed an additional 450 million people, mostly in Asia where population growth rates are the highest in the world and where 90 percent of the world's rice is grown and consumed.
If this yield increase comes to pass, it could profoundly affect two trends that have cast a shadow over the world's food future: production of rice, like other staple crops, has leveled off in recent years while population growth worldwide has increased by record annual increments.
``This is a big breakthrough because it has changed the yield frontier,'' says Kenneth Fischer, director of research at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) located in the outskirts of Manila, Philippines. ``It gives us one of the building blocks of a brighter food future.''
Because of population growth and the encroachment of urban centers, there is little new land available for expanding rice production. That means that higher yields have to be coaxed from existing land.
The ``super rice'' strain makes higher yields possible by increasing the ``grain-to-straw ratio'' of the rice plant from 50 to 60 percent. The ``grain'' is the part of the plant that bears the rice; the ``straw'' is the stem.
While perfected in the laboratory, the super rice will not be available to farmers for a half decade or more.
Between now and then, agronomists will crossbreed the new rice with existing varieties to build in resistance to disease and pests.
The ``super rice'' strain could play a major role in Asia, where rice is the main staple. But it will not benefit Africa - another region strapped for food - because most African rice is grown on rain-fed land rather than the irrigated land the ``super rice'' strain is adapted to.
The new strain requires less fertilizer, which is becoming harder for many poor countries to afford. It also requires less water.
The new rice comes just as the green revolution - the package of advanced hybrids, pesticides, and fertilizers that produced quantum increases in grain production starting in the 1960s - has fizzled out and before the promise of bio-engineered crop strains has been fully explored.
Researchers at the IRRI, one of 17 research centers run by the Washington-based Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), say further advances, based on conventional hybridization, can be made based on the new rice strain announced this week.
The global demand for rice is expected to increase by 70 percent over the next 30 years. It will be driven mainly by the expected growth in world population from 5.5 billion today to 8.3 billion by 2025.
Agronomists predict that the world will have to grow twice as much food by the middle of the next century to keep up with population growth.
``We don't have the technology yet to make that happen,'' says Klaus Lampe, the director-general of IRRI. ``The new generation of rices, however, is a very important building block to achieve that goal.''