Thursday, March 11, 2010

Time to get serious about rice

Hi guys, it's been a real long time since my last posting. There is so much happening in the world today that relates to rice and, seeing as it is the staple food in Malaysia, it's time to get serious about what's cooking in your rice pot. I think maybe there is hope for scitech blogs in this country after all. I have decided not to clutter the blog with too much unrelated stuff and focus more on anything biotechnology, especially issues affecting Malaysia. I don't claim to be an expert and, as a highly opinionated observer, I will try to gather as much credible information for discussion. I hope that works for you and please do leave your comments.

Rice became a big issue around the globe recently and I had blogged about this here and here. However, I wanted to focus on rice hybrids and whats going on in the biotech world. While biotech rice strains have been developed, the genetically engineered vitamin A fortified Golden Rice have met with resistence, Malaysian scientists have also researched disease resistent transgenic rice strains here but not sure whether this is in commercial production. Recent news shows that there is search for a Super-Rice as reported here as the University of Washington pursues the “super hybrids.”
to hasten the pace of modern rice genetics, which since the 1960s has delivered a series of new strains, starting with higher-yielding semidwarf varieties, a breakthrough that was hailed as the Green Revolution.
While researchers use computational tools to study of 30,000 to 60,000 protein structures and the selection of rice strains to breed, Malaysia is looking into planting the Hubei hybrid rice variant from China. Tested by the Malaysian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (MARDI) since 2006, officials are optimistic that this hybrid variant can generate up to 7.7 metric tonnes of rice per hectare compared to the home-grown M232 variant, which can generate an average of 5.8 metric tonnes per hectare. In matters of supply and distribution of rice in Malaysia, BERNAS is the agency responsible while recent short supplies have resulted in a policy of barter trading, rice for palm oil, and plans for opening more land for paddy fields in Sabah and Sarawak. I won't go into the politics of it but rice is serious business and it's good to know what goes on your dinner table. The Hybrid Rice Blog was set up to track the global push towards hybrid rice and Malaysia's hybrid plans here and here. The blog explains:

Hybrids are produced by crossing two inbred- genetically fixed - varieties of a particular crop. Hybrids are special because they express what is called "heterosis" or hybrid vigor. The idea is that if you cross two parents which are genetically distant from each other, the offspring will be "superior", particularly in terms of yield. However, the so-called heterosis effect disappears after the first (F1) generation, so it is pointless for farmers to save seeds produced from a hybrid crop. This makes it very profitable to go into the seed business, since farmers need to purchase new F1 seeds every season to get the heterosis effect (high yield) each time. Rice is a mainly self-pollinated crop.(i) Each rice plant produces its own pollen which gets into an ovary and through fertilisation produces seed - what we eat as the rice grain. Rice has been a poor candidate for commercial hybridisation because you would have to find a way to sterilize some of the plants and then force them to cross with fertile plants.

Whatever said and done, genetically modified, hybrid or even wild rice still needs to be planted in paddy fields. Depending on the type of rice, paddy planting requires large tracts of land, good irrigation systems, abundant rainfall and back breaking labour unless highly mechanised farming techniques are involved. Rice is a member of the grass family. With food supplies dwindling, the spectre of hunger and starvation a possible reality in many parts of the world, in Asia people will literally have to resort to eating grass!!


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