India has kicked off an ambitious project to genetically increase the carbohydrate content of rice, thereby increasing its yield — an initiative being described by scientists as “agriculture's equivalent of the moon mission”.
This is a long-term project of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). "It's agriculture's equivalent of putting man on the moon," senior scientist and coordinator of the Rice-Wheat Consortium J.K. Ladha said on Wednesday.
Rice, by its very nature, belongs to the so-called ‘C3 photosynthesis’ category that determines its carbohydrate/ biomass content. The aim is to take this up to ‘C4’, which will increase its grain yield and make it equivalent to maize.
India has 44 million hectares under rice cultivation. According to government figures, the country produced about 96 million tonnes of rice during 2007-08. According to the UN's Food and Agricultural Organisation, rice is the staple for 65 per cent of Indians.
The ICAR on Tuesday signed a landmark agreement with the IRRI, which will support and facilitate India’s rice research for the next 3 years, boosting the country’s rice production at a time of unprecedented price volatility.
The collaboration, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, will also focus on climate-change solutions for India's rice farmers. Every degree increase in ambient night temperature can reduce rice yields by 10 per cent.
Ladha said the IRRI has helped put a new gene in the Swarna variety of rice — extensively grown in eastern India — to help make it flood-resistant. Climate change results in weather extremes, like drought and floods.The new Swarna variety is being tested in Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. “The results are promising,” Ladha said. Different rice varieties are also being screened for drought tolerance, he said.