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IAEA Nuclear Technology Improves Rice Varieties to Benefit Poor Farmers - 2003-12-25

The International Atomic Energy Agency is using nuclear technology to produce improved rice varieties designed to benefit poor farmers around the world. The project is part of a United Nations initiative, which has led to 2004 being declared the International Year of Rice.

The United Nations says rice is the staple food for more than half the world's population, and almost a billion households in Africa, Asia and the Americas depend on rice production as their main source of income.

But U.N. agencies warn of what they call a pending crisis in rice production. As a result, the United Nations has launched a campaign for 2004 under the slogan Rice is Life.

As part of the effort, the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, better known for its hunt for nuclear weapons around the world, is using nuclear technology to develop high-quality rice varieties.

IAEA scientist, Mba Chikelu, says his laboratory uses gamma rays, similar to those used in hospital X-rays, to treat rice.

"You could irradiate the rice seeds, or rice that is in tissue culture, and regenerate them into whole organisms, into whole plants, and plant them out, and begin to look at them, and see if there are any of those offsprings that carry traits that are of agronomic importance," said Mr. Chikelu.

Mr. Chikelu says, in this way, rice varieties can be changed permanently.

The IAEA has already successfully applied this technique in Vietnam, where rice is the most important crop. Farmers in the Mekong Delta are now producing high quality rice for export.

The IAEA is also sponsoring courses to train scientists in Vietnam's Mekong Delta, and has established laboratories there to promote rice quality.

The United Nations is now looking to extend the work to the entire Asia region, including China, and may expand it to other parts of the world, as well.