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July 07, 2011

Bangladesh trials African rice to boost food yield

by Shafiq Alam
A high-yield strain of rice developed for Africa's drylands is being trialled in Bangladesh...

Rice has been grown in Bangladesh's Ganges delta for thousands of years and the country was once home to 4,000 varieties of the grain, but it is unable to produce enough for its own needs, even without one of its frequent natural disasters.

Bangladeshi officials say Nerica -- the New Rice for Africa, developed around a decade ago by an institute in Ivory Coast -- could boost Bangladesh's food security...

The country initially trialled Nerica, which is drought-resistant and fast-growing, in 2009 and after better-than-expected field results last year a nationwide trial has been rolled out involving 1,500 farmers, officials said.

The state-run Bangladesh Agricultural Development Corp (BADC) imported seeds from Uganda and has distributed them to farmers across the country to test their performance in different conditions, its director M. Nuruzzaman said
"We have high hopes Nerica rice will boost our food security in difficult conditions," he said. "It has amazing qualities that most Bangladeshi high-yielding varieties don't have."

Nerica, originally intended to raise rice output in African countries, can be harvested in 90 to 100 days, requires limited water -- it was designed for Africa's drylands -- and is very high-yielding, he said. In contrast, many rice strains now popular with Bangladesh's tens of millions of farmers require a large amount of water, forcing farmers, particularly those in the drought-hit north, to invest in irrigation systems and leading to sharp falls in groundwater levels.

Moreover, the highest-yielding rice varieties currently used in Bangladesh take between 140 and 160 days to harvest, according to the BADC, which provides some 70 percent of the rice and cereal seeds used by local farmers. Nerica's shorter harvest period was what first prompted BADC to turn to the rice strain in hopes that it could solve a key dilemma in Bangladesh: how to make up for crop losses in the event of major natural disasters.

The South Asian country is home to 150 million people, one-third of them living below the poverty level, and needs around 35 million tonnes of rice a year. But its maximum production capacity is only 32.25 million tonnes, according to 2009-2010 official figures. The shortfall is imported from its Asian neighbours, but when floods, cyclones and other extreme weather hit, domestic rice production falls sharply, leaving the country vulnerable to food shortages.

"The idea is to use Nerica as a replacement crop in case the country is hit by mid-season or late-season floods or other disasters," said Anwar Faruque, director general of seeds at the Agriculture Ministry.
"Presently, we don't have a variety to make up the loss. But Nerica can fill the void because of its short harvest period," he said. "It also only needs a little water, so it can be grown in districts (in the north) where we see persistent dry conditions," he said.

Bangladesh is one of the world's countries most vulnerable to climate change, experts say, and is regularly hit by cyclones, floods and other natural disasters.

The BADC's Nuruzzaman said that if the trial lived up to expectations the authorities would make the new strain available on the open market as early next year.

Some local experts have questioned the Nerica trials, however, saying they are being rushed ahead without the involvement of the country's main rice research agency, the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI). The state-run BRRI is credited with inventing high-yield varieties which have tripled Bangladesh's rice production in four decades.

BRRI chairman Abdul Mannan said that Nerica "looks promising" in Bangladeshi conditions and could help boost food security, but warned it was "too early" to give a verdict. "It is a good attempt by the government. But we need to conduct stability tests across the year and across all weather and environmental conditions to see how good it really is," he said.


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