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Golden rice for farmers by 2011-IRRI

This genetically modified rice may help save millions of children threatened with blindness or premature death due to Vitamin A deficiency.

business Updated: Jan 30, 2008 13:36 IST
Nao Nakanishi

Genetically modified (GMO) Golden Rice may be available to farmers as early as 2011, possibly helping to save millions of children threatened with blindness or premature death due to Vitamin A deficiency.

Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), told Reuters it expected to release the GMO rice, enriched with Vitamin A, by 2011. It was conducting its first field trials in the Philippines this year.

It would be 10 years since the invention in 2001 of Golden Rice, which scientists have said may prove that the controversial biotechnology can help feed the poor and needy if applied with care and caution.

There is as yet no GMO rice grown commercially. Widely produced transgenic products, such as GMO soy, corn or cotton, are mostly pest- or herbicide-resistant. They are beneficial to farmers, but not necessarily to consumers.

Golden Rice, which includes three new genes, including two from daffodil, is yellowish and contains beta-carotene, a substance that human bodies convert to Vitamin A.

Its research has been seen as a model for cooperation between public and private sectors in pursuit of human welfare.

Its inventors are claiming no property rights for the rice. Neither are the companies that own the technology involved.

Zeigler was talking early this week after IRRI received a grant of $20 million for three years, equivalent to 17 per cent of its budget, from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

High grain prices, climate change

The executive said the funding came at a vital time when soaring food prices and climate change threatened the gains made through the Green Revolution over the past several decades.

"The concern that we have ... is that these gains in productivity, food security, cheap rice, cheap food are in jeopardy," Zeigler said. "We have to address this."

IRRI says the fund will help it reach 18 million households, especially in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, with better rice varieties and raise yields by 50 per cent in the next 10 years.

IRRI calculated the world needed to increase the annual rice output by nearly 70 per cent to 880 million tonnes by 2025 from 520 million tonnes currently to meet projected global demand.

"We are focusing on more difficult rice growing areas that do not have irrigation," Zeigler said. "Drought tolerance and flood tolerance is the key for very impoverished areas."

This year, IRRI plans to hand out to more farmers in Bangladesh and India a flood resistant non-GMO rice, for which scientists made a breakthrough in 2006.

"We have now moved that gene into commercial varieties, the varieties that can be are grown by farmers," he said. "We tested them in Bangladesh this year. It went extremely well."

Together with China, IRRI is also working on dry land rice, known as aerobic rice, that can grow on dry soil like wheat.

"Water for agriculture is becoming more and more scarce as water is diverted for urban use and industrial use," he said.

"We are working very hard to develop rice that can be grown almost like a wheat crop or corn plant. However, that again is a very difficult and challenging scientific problem."

(Editing by Ben Tan)