Rice Breeders Report Huge Productivity Gains

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. 

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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