New rice varieties needed as climate change threatens

By Mwangi Mumero

Researchers at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) are, together with their partners in East Africa, developing a rice variety that is tolerant to both saline soils and floods.

Through a $2 million project funded by Danish Government through the Danish International Development Agency (Danida), seeds for over 300 rice varieties have been gathered and are ready for flooding and salinity tolerance screening in Tanzania.

“Even with disruptions from the coronavirus, the project is going to develop a robust rice cultivar in the next five years through the use of biotechnological tools,” noted Max Herzog, a post-doctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen, one of the partner institutions in the project.

Research work will be carried out at Sokoine University, the premier agricultural institution of higher learning in Tanzania.

Rice feeds 3.5 billion people globally, and provides up to 20 per cent of the world’s daily calorie consumption. Climate change is threatening the global annual rice harvest of nearly 800 million tons.

Researchers note that rising sea and ocean levels due to climate change are likely to affect low-lying rice producing regions in Africa and Asia as flooding and salinity move to agricultural productive lands.

Development of salinity and flooding-tolerant rice varieties is, therefore, critical for future food rice production as the population continues increasing.

Change in soil salinity brought about by rising salt content is likely to negatively impact on rice production, necessitating the need to develop varieties that can withstand these emerging conditions.

Changing climate and its adverse effects have also spurred researchers at the IRRI and their partners in Kenya and other rice producing regions to develop varieties that are resistant to bacterial leaf blight, one of the most devastating diseases in large parts of Africa and Asia.

The project also hopes to tame the disease, which has significant impact on small-scale producers in low and middle-income countries by delivering resistant varieties to smallholder farmers in Africa and Asia.

The team has already successfully generated bacterial-blight-resistant rice lines and created a diagnostic toolbox that enables a rapid disease diagnosis of the newly occurring pathogenic bacterial strains.

With the development of these futurist rice varieties, smallholder farmers will be able to withstand shocks in production, even as the weather remain unpredictable and unreliable.

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