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May 17, 2008

Burkinabe rice growers increasingly turn to NERICA

Stricken by rising food prices, rice growers in Burkina Faso are pinning their hopes on state subsidies to grow a new rice which can resist harsh climate, drought and disease.

In a country of 13 million people where the staple food has been in short supply or too pricey, Nerica -- short for "new rice of Africa" -- an extra-nutritional hybrid of Asian and African grains, offers a chance to grow more rice, faster.

"With just a bit of political commitment, Nerica could improve food security in Burkina Faso," said Ernest Yoda, leader of a rice growers' group. "We can get through it. We can feed our country with rice."

Developed by African researchers funded by Japan, Nerica is resistant to insects and diseases and adapts well to poor soil and dry conditions.

Since 2006 nearly 2,000 rice growers in the eastern Bagre plains have been growing Nerica on a 1,600-hectare (3,900-acre) stretch of land along the Nakambe riverbank, perched near a hydro-electric dam. Across the plain, up to 30,000 hectares (roughly 74,000 acres) of land could be irrigated.

"We've got everything else: the people, the energy and the will," said Zacharie Segda, a spokesman for the INERA agricultural research institute. "If all the conditions are met, we can be self-sufficient in rice."

The landlocked, drought-prone West African state is one of the world's poorest countries and in recent months has seen violent protests and strikes sparked by the global food price crisis, including a three-day general strike that shut down many sectors this week.

Government support is needed to improve food security there, Yoda said. He calculates that growers need 1.5 million euros (around 2.3 million dollars) in state subsidies. "The government should subsidise the buying of fertiliser because we have difficulty getting it," said Yoda, adding that fertilisers could triple current rice yields of four tonnes per hectare.

Burkina Faso is among many African countries that have born the brunt of soaring prices of food, including rice, as demand from nations such as India, Brazil and China has surged. Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets in several Burkinabe towns this week to protest the rising cost of living in the three-day general strike, calling for price controls and a regular supply of basic foods.

Rising use of biofuels, trade restrictions, increased demand from Asia to serve changing diets, poor harvests and increasing transport costs have all been blamed for the price rise.

Until recently, Burkina Faso produced only 30 percent of the rice it consumed. Every year, it has had to import 300,000 tonnes of the staple, which cost 61 million euros (around 94 million dollars) in 2007.

Global food prices have nearly doubled in three years, according to the World Bank, sparking riots and protests in several countries and restrictions on food exports.

"The high cost of living is forcing the authorities to review their agricultural production strategy," said a Burkina Faso agriculture ministry official who asked not to be named.

"The situation is going to drive the authorities to make solutions to help farmers."


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