AFRICA: Local rice is nice
Rice production is growing in Africa
Addis Ababa, 21 May 2010 (IRIN) - "Local is best" for Africa, said a leading rice research centre as it announced on 21 May that it would focus on improving an indigenous species more than 3,500 years old to feed the continent's rice consumers.
The Oryza glaberrima rice species, found only in Africa, was better suited to the continent's hostile growing conditions than the Asian species, Oryza sativa, the only other species to adapt to Africa, said AfricaRice, a Benin-based intergovernmental research organization, also known as Africa Rice Centre.
"The growing conditions will become even more harsh as the impact of climate change unfolds, and the Oryza glaberrima is highly adaptable," said Koichi Futakuchi, an eco-physiologist at AfricaRice, one of two researchers developing the African species.
The decision to focus on Oryza glaberrima is quite significant, as AfricaRice has devoted the last decade to developing a new variety of rice called NERICA - an acronym for New Rice for Africa - from cross-breeding the African and Asian types.
"Our research shows that ... the African rice species is able to compete better with weeds, infertile soils, even with toxic levels of iron," said Futakuchi.
|Our research shows that ... the African rice species is able to compete better with weeds, infertile soils, even with toxic levels of iron
NERICA has had a fair amount of success - more than 80 NERICA varieties that could thrive in rain-fed conditions have been developed and adopted by farmers in about 20 African countries. The best NERICA varieties combine the stress tolerance of O. glaberrima with the high yield potential of O. sativa.
"African rice was initially ignored by mainstream research," said Futakuchi. "Later, when scientists realized that it had valuable characteristics, they began using it as a source for desirable traits to improve the higher-yielding Asian rice."
Although varieties of the African rice are still grown in small pockets on the continent, the species was abandoned by most African farmers, who preferred to grow varieties of Asian rice brought in by traders about 450 years ago, bringing the African species to the brink of extinction.
"But now, for the first time, we're reversing the gene flow, extracting desirable traits from the Asian rice and transferring them into the African rice," Futakuchi said.
Tewolde Egziabher, head of Ethiopia's Environment Protection Authority and a global campaigner for protecting biodiversity, welcomed the initiative on the occasion of the International Day for Biological Diversity, saying: "It makes sense to start with work on the local [species], which are already adapted to local conditions." The introduction of foreign species was only justified if work on local species had been exhausted, without result.
In a paper by AfricaRice, Futakuchi's collaborator, Yoboué N'Guessan, cited two reasons for devoting attention to the African species: "I liked the taste so much that I didn't wait for the sauce! The second was, during trips I took to collect various rice varieties from farmers' fields in 1982, farmers told me, 'glaberrima is farmers' rice, sativa is for office workers'."
The African species still has problematic traits that reduce yields: the plants tend to fall over when the grain is ripe – known as lodging - and also suffer from shattering, or shedding ripe grain.
In 2009 AfricaRice began work on its entire O. glaberrima collection of 2,500 samples, which are being screened for major diseases and environmental stresses such as acidity, iron toxicity, cold, and salinity.
"I think it will take at least five years to have a line [of the rice variety] ready," said Futakuchi. There is a tremendous need to boost production, as Africa currently imports 40 percent of its rice needs - at an estimated US$3.6 billion in 2008 - leaving most of the main rice-consuming countries with big import bills.
Rice production in sub-Saharan Africa increased by between 16 and 18 percent in 2008, and a further 4.5 percent in 2009, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). During the food crisis in 2007/08, rice production rose by 44 percent across the Sahel, and by a huge 241 percent in Burkina Faso.
The NERICA varieties led a boom in West African countries like Nigeria, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Mali and Togo, but AfricaRice noted that in the five years from 2002 to 2007, Uganda and Ethiopia also reduced their rice imports.