Prepared Foods September 6, 2004 enewsletter

Researchers at the University of Arizona are cross-breeding rice found in Thailand to produce new strains that would be more drought-tolerant, disease-resistant and have higher yields.

If they are successful, in five years, these super rice strains could boost crop production in Thailand and help ease hunger and malnutrition in many parts of the world, according to Her Royal Highness Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, who presided over the First International Conference on Rice for the Future.

Researchers from the Arizona Genomics Institute at the University of Arizona were on hand at the conference to discuss their research and development of new varieties of rice. They have decoded the entire genetic sequence -- or genome -- of different types of rice with hopes of making a super-rice variety. The princess said that solving problems of food scarcity was crucial for the well-being of the entire population of the planet.

“The world is still facing food scarcity and malnutrition. Therefore, it seems to be the essential challenge for all scientists from rice producing and exporting countries to emphasize their research on the development of new varieties of rice with high yields to meet the increasing demand of the world,” she said.

The Arizona Genomics Institute has discovered certain species of rice plants in Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, India, Africa, Bangladesh, Australia and Thailand that have genetic sequences that are drought- and disease-resistant and produce high yields, said Rod Wing, a professor from Department of Plant Sciences and director of the institute.

Thailand grows three such rice varieties.

“The discovery of the genome to unlock the secret of the wild-rice genome will make significant improvements in rice production,” he said.

Wing added that current rice yields were not very high. However, developing genes, discovered in certain rice species, could increase production yields by 20% to 40%.

“The program to develop the seeds is in progress, and we expect the project to be completed within the next five years,” he said. The research includes cross-breeding strains in test fields to produce a high yield and quality rice. Eventually these super-rice strains could be introduced in Thailand.

Thailand is the world's biggest rice exporter despite a yield that is lower than other countries in the region like China and Vietnam. Last year, the kingdom produced 345kg per rai compared with China's 999kg/rai, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Cooperatives. Thai exports of 7.3 million tons accounted for 27% of world rice trade.

Rice exports in the first seven months of the year reached 5.6 million tons, which puts the country on pace to export 9.6 million tons this year. Exports in the period were worth $1.51 billion, an increase of 65% compared to the same period last year, according to the Ministry of Commerce.

The target for rice exports this year is 9 million tons, valued at $2.1 billion.