"The technological force behind the reduction of rural poverty has been the development of high-yielding varieties now widely used in developing countries... in particular China, India, Southeast Asia and the Pacific and many parts of Latin America and the Caribbean where advances have been made in reducing rural poverty."
UNDP Human Development Report - 1997

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More Rice from Less Land: China's High-Performing Seeds

Since the Great Famine some 35 years ago, China has attained unprecedented levels of prosperity. One of the country's most important achievements has been in rice breeding and cultivation. China produced 166 million tons of rice during the 1980s, constituting nearly a third of the world's total production.

Less than 10 percent of China's land area can be cultivated. This means that the country needs to provide more than 20% of the world's population with food while using just 7 percent of the world's farmland. Careful land use and farmland protection are critical, but rapid industrialization has resulted in a dramatic reduction of arable farmland: over the last 30 years, farmland has decreased from 111.9 million hectares to 95 million hectares.

The Government now aims to increase farmlands to 122 million hectares by the year 2000. And about half of China's farmland is now under protection. Yet the question remains: How to get less land to yield more and more food for a growing population?

Supporting a tradition of innovation

To produce more food on less space, rice plants have to yield more. Moreover, they have to be able to withstand a variety of adverse conditions. China has been able to develop hardy high-yielding, weather-, disease- and pest-resistant cultivars for specific regions. At present, 33 million hectares annually are devoted to rice, and roughly half this area is planted with high-yielding hybrids.

UNDP and the IAEA have long supported China's scientists in the race for food security. Some advances were made during 1988-1991, with a project on the Use of Radiation and Isotopes in Food And Agriculture. At the Southwest Agricultural University in Sichuan Province, a modern Laboratory of Atomic Energy Applications in Agricultural Sciences became operational. The FAO/IAEA Division conducted training courses through a TC project on "Plant Breeding by Using Radiation Induced Mutations" at the Zhejiang Agricultural University (ZAU) in 1986. Following this, the IAEA, ZAU and the China National Rice Research Institute (CNRRI) embarked on a TC project on the uses of isotopes in agriculture. This collaboration set the stage for a 1995 Model Project, "Induced Mutations for Improvement of Rice", which has helped develop new rice cultivars and extending them to farmers across the country. The project has received the support of UNDP's counterpart as well as the China's Nuclear Science and Technology Committee.

Accelerating the natural process

Inducing mutations is a way of hastening the natural evolutionary process. Between November 1995 to March 1996, for example, the Chinese team examined 125 new mutant lines and selected 2 worthy of a large scale test run. Both were lines from "Zhefu" -- a cross-breed mutant of an earlier Chinese variety with a rice type developed by the IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) in the Philippines.

The project's success can be attributed in large part to the reputation and respect the CNRRI has earned. But equally critical was ZAU's President, Dr. Xia Yingwu, a dedicated scientist widely known as the father of induced rice mutations in China. Dr. Xia was instrumental in producing the country's very first mutation breeds in the early 1960s. He is the scientific imagination behind the present project and also the heart and soul of its extension to the rice farmers.

Three tonnes of Zhefu seeds were produced for field trials. "If the plants are promising", explains Dr. Xia, "we organize 'on-the-spot' meetings, and invite specialists to the field. If the response is enthusiastic, they pass the word along to the rice growers and we produce enough seeds for extension."

The makings of a Model Project

The IAEA's project was upgraded to Model Project because the performance of the rice and the extension endeavors were so impressive. In 1995, 600,000 hectares were planted in 5 provinces, a 2.5-fold increase over 1994. The increase in yield amounted to approximately 263,000 tonnes, corresponding to a value of about US$ 40 million. As of June 1997, over 1.4 million hectares of new Zhefu varieties had been planted. This constitutes 10% of the rice growing area in the 5 provinces. Currently, the Chinese team is pursuing the development of a Zhefu variety that can survive in rugged mountain areas, where malnutrition persists.

The final phase of the Model Project will introduce newer complementary approaches to enhance the mutant development process, such as the double haploid technique and DNA fingerprinting procedures. But mutation breeding still has an essential role to play. One overall advantage of induced mutation breeding for China is that the infrastructure, knowledge and experience is in place. It is an appropriate technology for many countries which are not prepared for more advanced biotechnology methods, offering an affordable way of achieving food security.

The IAEA's Future Role

The Agency will continue to provide expertise and expert services to CNRRI and the ZAU, including training in mutation techniques and related biotechnology. The Agency is also providing organizational support to accelerate the extension process in farm communities. The Agency plans to continue its support to this activity in the next few years, in order to demonstrate to its Member States and TC partners just how important this work is and what an impact it can have.

Foreword: Mohamed ElBaradei
Foreword: James G. Speth
Introduction: Building Development Partnerships
Better Feeding for Better Breeding
Ending Africa's Rinderpest Plague
Defeating the Medfly
More Rice from Less Land
Helping to Save the Black Sea