Science in Society Archive

Rice Wars

Rice, the staple food crop for more than half the world’s population, among them the poorest, is the current target of genetic modification, an activity that has greatly intensified after the rice genome was announced two years ago (see "Rice is life" series, SiS 15, Summer 2002). Since then, all major biotech giants are investing in rice research.

At the same time, a low-input cultivation system that really benefits small farmers worldwide has been spreading, but is dismissed by the scientific establishment as "unscientific". This is one among several recent innovations that increase yields and ward off disease without costly and harmful inputs, all enthusiastically and widely adopted by farmers.

A war is building up between the corporate establishment and the peoples of the world for the possession of rice. The food security of billions is at stake, as is their right to grow the varieties of rice they have created and continue to create, and in the manner they choose.

New Rice for Africa

A new rice variety developed by plant breeders is boosting rice yields for farmers all over Africa. Dr. Mae-Wan Ho reports

African rice species proliferate like weeds, but are low yielding. Asian rice species, brought to Africa 450 years ago, are high yielding, but cannot compete with weeds. Scientists at West Africa Rice Development Association (WARDA) succeeded in crossing the two to produce "new rice for Africa", or "Nerica", that combines the ruggedness of local African rice species with the high productivity of the Asian rice.

This has happened at a time when demand for rice is growing faster in West Africa than anywhere else in the world. Rice imports have increased eight-fold over the past three decades to more than 3 million tonnes a year, at a cost of almost US$1 billion.

The African species lodges, or falls over, when grain heads fill. It also shatters easily, wasting more precious grain. The higher-yielding Asian species has largely replaced its African cousin. But, West African farmers in rainfed (dryland) areas can’t grow the semi-dwarf rice varieties from Asia, because they don’t compete well with weeds, nor do they tolerate drought and local pests. And African farmers are too poor to buy herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers.

Dr. Monty Jones, WARDA rice breeder, initiated a biotechnology programme in 1991, making use of the 1 500 African rice varieties kept in gene banks, which have faced extinction as farmers abandoned them for higher-yielding Asian varieties. A number of international agricultural research institutions were partners with WARDA in the creating Nerica, plus farmers and national agricultural research programmes in 17 African countries.

The creation of "Nerica" involved crossing the African with Asian species, and ‘rescuing’ the inter-specific hybrid embryos in tissue culture. These hybrid embryos would otherwise have died if left on the plants.

The panicles of Nerica hold up to 400 grains compared to the 75-100 grains of its African parents, and can potentially double the production of rice. Nerica also matures 30-50 days earlier than traditional varieties, allowing farmers to grow extra crops of vegetables or legumes. They are taller and grow better on the fertile, acid soils that comprise 70% of the upland rice area in the region. In addition, it has 2% more protein than either the Asian or African parents. This is an instance of ‘hybrid vigour’ or heterosis.

Nerica is not just one variety; it is a family of more than 3 000 lines. Savitri Mohapatra, Communication and Information Office of the Africa Rice Center, said in reply to my enquiry, "Hundreds of Nerica lines have been developed and they are true-breeding." In other words, farmers can save and replant seeds, without having to purchase seeds every year. Poor farmers are therefore getting the benefit of hybrid rice without having to pay for it every year.

Participatory research is the key to the Nerica success story. Farmers grew several varieties and provided valuable feedback to the scientists. The scientists were able to learn about the traits most valued by farmers and incorporate those into the breeding programme. More than 1 300 farmers took part in the 1998 project to start growing the new rice varieties in Guinea. This was followed by a 1999 project to increase seed supply at national level and a farmer awareness campaign.

In Guinea, farmers increased yield by 50% without fertilizer and by more than 200% with fertilizer.

Building on the success in Guinea, WARDA and its partners joined forces to scale up dissemination of Nerica throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. This culminated in the launch of The African Rice Initiative (ARI) in March 2002.

According to ARI’s projections, by the end of the 5-year project (Phase 1), some 200 000 ha will be under Nerica cultivation with a production of nearly 750 000 tonnes per year, achieving rice import savings worth nearly US$90 million per year.

Nericas are spreading fast in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2002, Nerica 1, 2, 3 and 4 were the top varieties selected by farmers in trials in Benin, Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, The Gambia, Ghana, Mali, Sierra Leone and Togo.

Within West Central Africa, Côte d’Ivoire released the first two Nerica varieties in 2000, and Nigeria released one in 2003. Farmers in The Gambia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone are growing several Nerica varieties. In Benin, Gabon, Mali and Togo, several Nerica varieties are under extension. Uganda has released a Nerica variety as "Naric-3". Ethiopia, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania are evaluating several Nerica varieties.

"In trials, we’re getting yields as high as 2.5 tonnes per hectare at low inputs – and 5 tonnes or more with just minimum increase in fertilizer use," says Dr. Monty Jones, who is to receive the 2004 World Food Prize jointly with Chinese Rice Breeder, Dr. Yuan Longping, Director-General of the China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Centre in Changsha, Hunan.

"Barring unforeseen difficulties," says Hans Binswanger, Sector Director of Rural Development and the Environment of the World Bank, "we anticipate a rapid growth of rice production, leading to self-sufficiency within three or four years. We expect improved incomes and nutrition for the rural population and more affordable domestic rice for the urban population."

Article first published 28/07/04


  1. "NERICA- New rice transforming agriculture for West Africa" Guy Manners, WARDA, Ivory Coast, 2001
  2. "Nerica on the move" WARDA
  3. The Africa Rice Center

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