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African rice finds home in PNG
5:40 pm GMT+12, 06/06/2013, Papua New Guinea

An Opinion in The National,
Drought is an unpredictable event and Papua New Guinea has had its own share of experiencing this in the past.  
The most severe drought recorded in its history was the El Nino-related “mega” in 1997.  
Following the drought of that year, NARI began devising strategies aimed at preparing local communities to cope with the likely effects of recurring drought situations.  
NARI is concerned by the impacts such events will have on food security and overall livelihoods of communities.
In this regard, there is a lot to learn from very dry regions in the world, particularly Africa. Africa has its own rice, that has adapted to dry and harsh conditions.   
The African rice, Oryza glaberrima, is a different species from the common species of rice cultivated elsewhere in the world. Oryza sativa is also referred to as the Asian rice.  
Sticky Japanese sushi rice, and fluffy and fragrant Indian basmati rice, although very different in appearance, texture, and taste, are mere variations of Asian rice.   
African rice is highly adapted to dry climate and tolerant to pests and diseases, unlike its Asian cousin.  However, Asian rice has its own advantages, including high yield.   
There is a technology in science to combine the two traits.  It is called breeding. Breeding can be done by pollinating a female flower of one variety with pollens from another variety. The seeds produced by this procedure have characters from both the parents.   
Seeds that have desirable traits can be selected for multiplication. But it was thought to be impossible to cross the African rice and the Asian rice, because they are not different varieties, but different species.   
Scientists therefore had to resort to an advanced tissue culture technique called embryo rescue.   
Conceptually, it is not very different from the process typically performed at a fertility clinic for humans.   
NERICA (which stands for New Rice for Africa) was developed this way to solve the food security problem in African drylands. It has been successfully adopted by many West African farmers and is now grown in other parts of Africa as well.
In 2011, NARI imported 78 NERICA varieties from the Africa Rice Centre to test their suitability for agroclimatic conditions in PNG.   
The preliminary trials were conducted at the NARI Mamose regional centre, Bubia, Morobe Province.   
Unfortunately, the conditions in Bubia were not optimal for NERICA.   
Bubia is a very wet place and NERICA did not do well there.   NERICA was developed for dry soils.
A decision was made, therefore, to move the trials to dryer locations. Three sites were selected, Gembazung Trukai Farm near Lae’s Nadzab Airport, Aiyura in Eastern Highlands Province, and Laloki in Central Province.
In Gembanzung and Laloki, some of the NERICA varieties are growing very well. These promising lines will be further tested for adaptability in various locations.   
It has been noted that most NERICA varieties are maturing earlier than conventional rice varieties, an important trait in times of drought.
NARI’s ultimate goal for this project is to develop locally -adapted rice varieties using the genetic materials from NERICA.   
NERICA lines can be crossed with conventional rice lines by trained scientists.   
The training opportunity and funding were obtained from the United Nations University for this purpose in 2012.   
A number of NARI personnel were trained in traditional breeding and screening for desirable characters, as well as more advanced technologies such as mutation breeding and anther culture.
Crossing between selected NERICA varieties and locally-favoured rice varieties is currently being conducted in the two stations.
NERICA can be considered a success story of rice breeding, transferring the drought tolerance of African rice to popular Asian rice.   
Another success story appeared this year on the development of a super salt-tolerant rice line at International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.   
It took advantage of the salt tolerance of a wild rice species, Oryza coarctata found in Bangladesh and an IRRI scientist transferred the property to Oryza sativa.   
When their breeding programme is finished, the new rice variety can be planted in saline-affected lands all over the world.
We should take note that PNG is a centre of origin of rice and a number of wild rice species have yet to be characterised and discovered.   
Innovative thinking would easily make PNG a centre of research and development for novel rice varieties.... PACNEWS


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