A New Rice Raises Hope in Mozambique

Mozambique has become the latest chapter in progress toward what hopefully will be a worldwide revolution in rice production, with the development of a new, locally grown strain developed through the efforts of an international consortium supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The rice strain, known as Makassane, was chosen for its long grain, texture and disease resistance, according to the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute. Makassane is the first rice variety bred by IRRI that has been designed specifically for Mozambique consumers and farmers to ensure it suits local market needs and production conditions. IRRI is providing government agencies and farmers foundation seed to use in bulking up the seed so that more can be produced and distributed to farmers.

Surapong Sarkuring, IRRI's coordinator for rice breeding in East and Southern Africa, called the development of the strain "just the beginning. We have recently identified many promising potential new rice varieties that combine superior grain quality with high yield and resistance to major diseases, and are suitable for growing in Mozambique."

IRRI and other international food research organizations have been in a race to push up global food production before a crisis envelops the world poor. This week, agriculture ministers from the G20 countries are meeting in Paris to discuss food price volatility and its impact on the poor. Investing in agriculture and rural development, focusing on smallholders, is a must.

"Three years after the 2008 food crisis, expanding biofuels production, rising oil prices, US dollar depreciation, extreme weather, and export restrictions have once again led to high and volatile food prices," according to the International Food Policy Research Institute. The situation "threatens the wellbeing of the world's poorest consumers, who spend up to 70 percent of their income on food," the Washington, DC-based IFPRI said.

The NGO called for long-term investment to increase productivity, sustainability and resiliency of agriculture. In a previous study of 32 African nations, the IFPRI found that although investment in agricultural R&D had rebounded in some countries, in at least 13 spending had actually declined. Where funding did increase, the study found, "much of the money went to boost low salaries and rehabilitate infrastructure and equipment after years of neglect."

IRRI and other rice research programs in the Global Rice Science Project (GRiSP) received US$18 million from the Gates Foundation to help fund rice research and production in seven countries in Africa and another seven in Asia, to train local people from public and private centers on the use of breeding and seed production technology and now are working to put it into the hands of farmers.

The hope, Surapong said, is to make Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony that was wracked by a long-running civil war and was one of the world's poorest countries, self-sufficient in rice production. Subsistence agriculture continues to employ the vast majority of the country's work force. Smallholder agricultural production and productivity growth remain weak although in the late 1980s the government embarked on macroeconomic reforms that have resulted in dramatic economic progress.

"Mozambique has a vast area of land suitable for rice production," Surapong added. "If better varieties like Makassane can be more widely adopted, Mozambique could become both self sufficient in rice and a rice exporter because the grain quality of Makassane and the other rice varieties we are developing meet international quality standards."

The Makassane rice project is an offshoot of a painstaking crossbreeding program involving hundreds of strains of rice, called back-crossbreeding. The newly created strains are repeatedly crossbred back to their parent varieties to produce hardy new strains that are resistant to disease and bugs, need no fertilizer and raise yields dramatically. Rice scientists from IRRI earlier told Asia Sentinel that the process can raise African yields from one metric ton per acre to six and seven tons.

Mozambique, according to the IRRI, already has very strong yields. The government agricultural research institute for Mozambique, IIAM (Instituto de Investigação Agrária de Moçambique), played a key role in helping test the new Makassane strain across six sites across the island.

Although Makassane produces about the same yields as Limpopo, the current most popular variety, its grain quality is significantly better. It is resistant to bacterial leaf blight and blast, two major diseases that cause serious grain losses in Limpopo rice. Its milling recovery rate is about 13 percent higher than for Limpopo. Makassane is also tall enough to survive flooding but not too tall to fall over easily and has many grain-producing heads.

Chinese scientists headed by molecular scientist Li Zhi-Kang have spent 13 years on a back-crossbreeding project that with IRRI's help has produced what has become known as Green Super Rice, which has dramatically raised yields with strains developed specifically to meet local climate needs in Africa and Asia. In February, Dr Li led a delegation of 15 international plant scientists to Africa to set out to train local research institutions to push the new strains out to local farmers. Li told Asia Sentinel that Green Super Rice can increase yields in Africa by six-fold.

"Our goal is to work together with African science people to transfer the technology," Li said. "In the second phase we will work together to develop a new type of rice there." In just one project along the Niger River in Mali the trials use 112 different Green Super Rice hybrids and another 33 inbred varieties.

Following the approval of Makassane for release by the Mozambique Variety Release Committee earlier this month, The government agricultural research institute for Mozambique, IIAM (Instituto de Investigação Agrária de Moçambique), played a key role in helping test Makassane across six field sites from the north to the south of Mozambique over the last three years. Makassane is best suited to the irrigated areas of southern Mozambique, where soils are fertile, but testing is ongoing in other regions.