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Rice Breeders Report Huge Productivity Gains


A farmer works in a rice field in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 2, 2018.

The science behind the grain that feeds half the world may have taken a big leap forward.

Scientists are reporting the biggest improvements in rice productivity in decades.

If the results hold up in further tests, it could greatly increase supplies of a critical food staple at a time when the global population is growing rapidlyResearchers found a version of a gene that increased the number of branches in the flowering part of the plant.

The team used conventional breeding to introduce this gene version into five rice varieties. The new strains produced from 28 to 85 percent more rice than their parents.

That’s a huge increase, says University of Arkansas rice breeder Xueyan Sha.

“If we can achieve, say, 6 percent, we can probably consider it a great achievement,” Sha said.

Sha was not part of the new study, published in the journal Scientific Reports.

A farmer plows a paddy field to plant rice seedlings in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 2, 2018. Myanmar celebrates Peasants' Day annually on March 2 to show the country's appreciation to its laborers.
A farmer plows a paddy field to plant rice seedlings in Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 2, 2018. Myanmar celebrates Peasants' Day annually on March 2 to show the country's appreciation to its laborers.

He cautions that it’s a small-scale, controlled experiment, and it’s not clear how the results will hold up in farmers’ fields.

Rice yields have not improved much since the big gains of the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s, aimed at boosting grain production.

Experts say big increases in food production will be necessary to feed the additional 2 billion or so people expected on the planet by 2050.

Not all rice varieties tested by the scientists produced the same hefty gains. That’s another reason for caution, notes rice geneticist Shannon Pinson with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“There’s something exciting here,” Pinson said. “I don’t think it’s as exciting as Green Revolution caliber.”

New varieties will be available to farmers in two to four years.

This story was written by VOA’s Steve Baragona.

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    Steve Baragona

    Steve Baragona is an award-winning multimedia journalist covering science, environment and health.

    He spent eight years in molecular biology and infectious disease research before deciding that writing about science was more fun than doing it. He graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with a master’s degree in journalism in 2002.

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