Starting a Food Revolution

In February, Dr Li Zhi-Kang, a senior Chinese molecular geneticist, led a delegation of 15 international plant scientists to Africa with the aim of starting nothing less than a food revolution.

The vehicle for the revolution is a groundbreaking new rice developed by Li, the chief scientist with the Institute of Crop Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences in Beijing, and hundreds of plant scientists across the world at a cost of $50 million.

Li, also a geneticist with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines, is the father of Green Super Rice, developed over 13 years through the painstaking crossbreeding of hundreds of strains of rice to fashion plants that are resistant to diseases and bugs, needs no fertilizer and raise yields dramatically.

Green Super Rice looks to be the successor to the Green Revolution of the 1960s that was led by Dr Norman Borlaug, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his efforts.

More importantly, it was developed using a new plant breeding system that Li and his fellow scientists, particularly Chinese ones, are spreading from rice to millet to wheat to barley to soybeans, even to cotton. Li says Green Super Rice can increase yields in Africa by six-fold, to as much as six metric tons per hectare. Already Chinese scientists have doubled yields of millet, a staple for millions of Africans.

“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.”

It is a big undertaking. In just one project along the Niger River in Mali the trials use 112 different Green Super Rice hybrids and another 33 inbred varieties.

Under the aegis of the Green Super Rice Program, Li and his fellow scientists visited Mali, Senegal and Mozambique to work on a seed production and distribution system that is designed to eventually feed millions of Africans a more nutritious and plentiful diet. The scientists were drawn from IRRI, the African Rice Center, Chinese universities and several African institutions.

In Africa, they are being aided by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which put up $18 million. With the aid of the Gates Foundation, the Global Rice Science Project (GRiSP) is seeking funds to expand into seven countries across Asia and seven in Africa. Some 260 people have been trained from public and private centers, including in Africa, on the use of breeding and seed production technology and now are working to put it into the hands of farmers.

But, said Dr Jauhar Ali, a plant scientist and Asia Green Super Rice Coordinator for IRRI, “We have to find some private sector funding to help us. No company is willing to establish anything in Africa.”

Chinese companies are providing some assistance. A Chinese engineering construction company working in Mali, Ali told Asia Sentinel, “wants to do some goodwill” and undertook the development of 1,000 hectares of land for rice as a goodwill project.

But more help for Li and his colleagues is urgent. The International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, DC, says spending for agricultural research and development in Africa has stagnated or fallen in most of the region.

“In a survey of 32 African nations, the study found that investment in agricultural R&D had rebounded in many of the larger countries, primarily Ghana, Nigeria, Sudan, Tanzania, and Uganda,” the IFPRI said last week in a prepared news release. “However, in 13 countries, spending actually declined. Even where funding did increase, much of the money went to boost low salaries and rehabilitate infrastructure and equipment after years of neglect.”

That unfortunately coincides with growing concern that the weight of the world’s population, estimated to reach 7 billion later this year, will simply make it impossible to feed them all.

Against this is arrayed a painstaking process of plant improvement that began in the mid-1990s in China and holds enormous promise – without genetic modification from proprietary inputs sold by for-profit giants such as Monsanto or Cargill.

"Zhang Hybrid Millet," or ZHM, which is named for its originator, Chinese scientist Zhao Zhihai, doubled production to more than 12 metric tons per hectare. It has been introduced by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization in 10 African countries including Ethiopia, Cote d'Ivoire, Nigeria, Ghana, Benin, and Senegal. According to the state-owned China Daily, it has been planted on 266,666 hectares of farmland in 11 provinces in China, increasing annual output by 100 million kilograms. As with Green Super Rice, the seeds are drought-resistant, water-economic and high yielding.

Dr Ali says the method of producing the new strains is perhaps even more important than the rice itself. “This technology has created 50 varieties of different plants,” he said. “This is very exciting. We never expected this to happen. [Other scientists] started doing it and it is spreading very rapidly.” Indeed, he says, the pace is picking up. Although Green Super Rice has taken 13 years to develop, today, mature varieties are being completed in five years or so.

Ali calls the combined approach, which for rice is centered in GRiSP, “pro-poor.”

“We do not promote private production. With the Chinese Academy of Sciences, we are promoting local companies in these countries. Benefits must go equally. We are very cautious about that,” he said.

Access to the products the partnership is producing is free. The hybridization process is continuing.

“We are trying to breed in local milieus to customize the products for them,” he says. “These materials will flow to all of these countries. We are teaching them the breeding strategies. We try to develop local resources to enable them to breed more efficiently, more precisely. Molecular genotyping will be supported in all Asian and African countries, training [of local scientists] to do the servicing of the genotyping so that these countries will be on their own feet. They will be able to produce to their own requirements. These are people who have never seen a bag of fertilizer.”

For Li and his colleagues, this has meant going back to primal, pre-Green Revolution rice to start over. In the 1960s, when Borlaug led the project to develop a short-stemmed dwarf rice that staved off a world famine, it raised yields nearly five-fold and kept billions alive.

But that rice, IR8 and its successors, required intensive fertilization and pesticides, which have polluted rivers and estuarine deltas, creating zones of oxygen-depleted waters where the rivers run into the sea. China, Li said, uses about a third of the world’s fertilizers on about 7 percent of the world’s land.

To give an indication of the complex process now underway, the original launch of the rice breeding program involved scientists from 18 countries and 36 institutions. As many as 2,000 Chinese scientists worked on the project for more than 10 years, taking hundreds of donor cultivars from dozens of countries, identifying the variations in the plants’ responses to drought, global warming and other problems. For instance, in the last four decades, climate change has driven up temperatures in the northern province of Heilongjiang by 2.5 degrees Celsius. The change has allowed rice to be grown where it was never grown before, but it has put tremendous strains on plants of all kinds.

“Backcross breeding,” as the process is known, involves crossing a hybrid with one of its own parents, or with one genetically like a parent, then screening the resulting population to find the improved strains. Ultimately they examined backcrosses from 46 parent plants and 500 donors. Then they pooled them across different traits by using molecular markers.

In one study, it took researchers six years to backcross breed three recurrent elite rice lines with 203 diverse donors to improve resistance to pests, salinity, submergence and zinc deficiency.

It is expected to take two more years to create rice that can be grown in bulk in the African nations where the project is going forward. The task is urgent. Rice consumption on the African continent is growing at 6-7 percent a year and causing a growing shortfall. The continent is importing 10 million metric tons a year, costing $4 billion a year.