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New Initiative to Boost Crop Yield in South Asia

A new international initiative to increase grain crop yields could help raise incomes for six million farmers in South Asia and combat hunger in one of the poorest regions of the world.

The $30 million plan led by the International Rice Research Institute targets farmers in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal - countries that help feed close to a quarter of the world's population.

In the next 10 years, the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia aims to raise grain yields by at least five million tons annually.

That is expected to add at least $350 to the annual incomes of each of six million poor rural households in the region.

Achim Dobermann is the deputy director general for research at IRRI, which is based in the Philippines.

"In recent years the annual [yield] growth rate has fallen behind and stayed consistently below the population growth rate and that has raised concerns about food security," said Dobermann. "And so this project is all about having a comprehensive approach for developing new technology - better seeds but also better management practices - that can hopefully revitalize yield growth."

The initiative comes as Asia slowly recovers from the shock of record high grain prices last year. The price of rice - the region's staple food - more than doubled in parts of the region.

In recent months, prices have fallen but scientists warn that with less land for grain farming, weather disturbances and rising production costs, the world could still face a food crisis.

The South Asia initiative is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development. Among other things, it will work to develop improved grain varieties and educate a new generation of agricultural scientists.

The project is also aimed at reducing hunger and malnutrition in South Asia, where 40 percent of the world's poorest people live.