As the world's second leading food crop, behind wheat, rice assumes a key role in counterbalancing global population growth. Rice production must increase by 1.7 percent a year during the next three decades to ``buy ourselves another 20 to 30 years to find a more permanent solution,'' Robert Huke says. His book, ``Rice: Then and Now,'' will be released later this year by the International Rice Research Institute. Dr. Huke, a professor at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., has done extensive research on Asian agriculture.

He says that during the past 25 years, rice production more than tripled with the development of a dwarfing gene that led to shorter, sturdier plants able to support a bigger grain mass.

``The first big leap in breeding advances was relatively easy to achieve,'' Huke says. ``The next advance will be more difficult.'' Still, he is confident that ``another 60 percent increase in yields'' is possible.

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