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