- Rice hybrids developed locally in Egypt have blessed the country with unprecedented yields of the nation's principal staple crop. The successful seed breeding project comes as an answer to Egypt's rapidly growing population. The technology could later be used in sub-Saharan Africa.
The Cairo Agricultural Research Centre and the Rice Research and Training Centre (RRTC) stood behind the wide-ranging project of breeding new hybrid rice types, adapted to the special conditions in Egypt. The project also helped train seed breeders and production personnel as well as extension workers and farmers.
As a result of the project, Egypt's average yields were boosted by the introduction of the newly-developed hybrid varieties such as SK 2034 and SK 2046, which outperformed the best local varieties by 20-30 percent. They were selected from more than 200 hybrid varieties.
The UN's food and agriculture agency FAO coordinated the Egyptian rice breeding project, intended to help the country produce more rice with less water and less land. Both land and water resources are becoming increasingly scarce in Egypt.
"The world's highest national average rice yield in 2005 was 3.8 metric tons per acre from Egypt," the Executive Secretary of the International Rice Commission, Nguu Nguyen, told an international scientific conference on sustainable rice production in Krasnodar, Russia today. Mr Nguyen referred to the unprecedented yields achieved under the project in Egypt.
According to FAO, the new hybrids are aimed at increasing Egyptian rice output to resolve a national production gap stemming from population growth of 2.2 percent a year combined with increasingly limited land and water resources. Egypt's population is set to increase from a current 75 million to 100 million inhabitants by 2025. Three million tonnes of rice will be needed by 2010 compared with current requirements of 2.8 million tonnes.
Egypt's appetite for rice mirrors growing international demand for what is already the world's most widely-consumed food. Rice is also the fastest-increasing food crop in Africa, according to Mr Nguyen. Globally, 618 million tonnes of rice was produced in 2005 but with world population growing by more than 70 million a year, an extra 153 million tonnes will be needed by 2030.
The agricultural scientists hope that the successes achieved in Egypt may become a model to increase rice production though new hybrids also in other parts of the world, in particular sub-Saharan Africa. Creating new generations of rice varieties adapted to local conditions is however a challenging process, especially when it comes to hybrid rice seed production.
"There are, for example, a number of countries lacking technical skills and infrastructure to carry out hybrid rice seed production programmes," FAO indicates, probably having sub-Saharan Africa in mind.
In the medium term, increasing rice production in Africa could require a different approach, one based on introduction of better crop management practices, Mr Nguyen said. "The results from pilot tests in developing countries since 2000 have demonstrated that very high yield with existing varieties can be obtained with improved crop management," he noted. This included practices as setting planting dates, optimising seeding density and plant nutrition and careful water management.
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