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New drought tolerant hybrid rice introduced | PNG National Agricultural Research Institute

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New drought tolerant hybrid rice introduced

By Toshiro Shigaki (June 26, 2012)

WESTERN pacific countries are directly affected by a climatic condition termed El Niño that develops every few years in the South Pacific waters. For many of us, the drought in 1997-1998 caused by one of the most severe El Niño events is still fresh in our memories. While it is not possible to prevent El Niño to occur, it is possible to minimize the effects of El Niño with careful preparations. NARI is working toward this goal by a number of approaches from the promotion of public awareness to the development and introduction of drought tolerant lines of important crops.

Last year, NARI imported a hybrid rice called NERICA (New Rice for Africa) from Africa Rice Center in Benin, West Africa, after searching for potentially useful rice germplasm for drought tolerance. Rice is increasingly becoming popular in PNG and it can be stored for a longer period than other staple crops such as sweet potato and taro. Therefore, if NERICA can be adopted in PNG, it is expected to enhance its food security significantly in times of El Niño induced droughts.

NERICA may appear like ordinary rice, but it is a high-tech crop made possible through a tissue culture technique called embryo rescue. NERICA was developed by crossing two cultivated rice species; Asian rice (Oryza sativa), with high yield potential and superb taste; and African rice (Oryza glaberrima) with early maturity and drought tolerance. The two species produce a fragile embryo when crossed, but it does not survive in nature.

However, Africa Rice Center scientists transferred the developing embryo to a protected glassware environment with all the nutrients supplied in the media within. In this artificial environment, the hybrid grows to a mature rice plant, and when transplanted to the field, it produces viable seeds.

NERICA varieties are not genetically modified organisms. Therefore, public resistance to this newly introduced variety is expected to be minimal. Non-local rice varieties have been already introduced into PNG before, and the same level of precautions will be followed to minimize the escape and contamination of the natural flora.

Although NERICA rice was developed by the African institute for African farmers, it may adapt to PNG conditions during dry spells. Some varieties of NERICA rice mature within three months (30-50 days earlier than traditional rice varieties). Therefore, when an El Niño event is forecasted at least three months in advance, it is possible to plant NERICA rice seeds in preparation for the expected dry period. Along with other drought tolerant and early maturing crops that are already available to the local growers, this additional option is likely increase the food security of the smallholder farmers in PNG.

The introduced NERICA lines consist of both upland and paddy rice varieties. The upland varieties will be tested for adaptability to PNG drought conditions. The paddy NERICA varieties will be evaluated for wet conditions that are normally common in many regions of PNG.

NERICA was imported primarily for the evaluation for drought tolerance, but it has other benefits as well. Such benefits include high protein content, resistance to various pests and diseases, and weed tolerance. Therefore, if consumer acceptance is good, some of the NERICA lines can be adopted for non-emergency purposes.

Another important aspect of the NERICA introduction to PNG is that it provides genetic raw materials for rice breeding. One of the parent species of NERICA, African rice is genetically very different from Asian rice that is currently grown and consumed in PNG. Future breeding programs can incorporate NERICA as a genetic resource for disease tolerance and other benefits.

NERICA was developed in Africa under African agro-climatic conditions. Therefore, there is no guarantee for its successful adoption in PNG. NARI will go through rigorous evaluation steps for NERICA to select the best lines from 78 lines (18 upland and 60 lowland) on hand. There are small scale cultivations of NERICA rice in some countries outside of Africa, such as Japan. It has received a good feedback from both the growers and consumers, although its commercial potential is yet to be known. It is an indication that NERICA can be grown in non-African soils and accepted by the public.

NERICA rice is one of the many varieties of crops under research by NARI as part of its drought preparedness activities. After the evaluation process, NARI would be making available NERICA seeds to interested farmers.

For more information, contact the author on telephone 475 1033 or email to toshiro.shigaki@nari.org.pg.

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