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Malaysia's Nuclear Agency and Partners Bring Improved Rice Variety to Country’s Farmers

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Over the past few months, Malaysia’s nuclear agency, Nuclear Malaysia, has been multiplying seeds of a high-yielding rice variety developed through nuclear techniques. This production is set to boost farmers’ rice yields and food security in the country after the seeds are harvested and distributed to farmers near the end of 2020.

“The new seeds produce more rice — nine to ten tons per hectare — as compared to only six tons per hectare produced by other varieties in the same planting areas,” said Abdul Rahman Helmi bin Mat Yusof, one of the farmers already using the variety in a trial project.

Rice is a staple food in Malaysia where per capita consumption hovers at above 80 kilograms per year. It is also a source of income for about 300 000 farmers. A decrease in rice yields caused by drought or another weather phenomenon could thus have a profound effect on the country’s food security and farmers’ livelihoods.  Developing new rice varieties better suited to climate change can help mitigate the possibility of that happening.

The IAEA and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) have helped Nuclear Malaysia develop many improved crop varieties, including this rice variety, that are more tolerant to climate change. Support from the IAEA and FAO has included expertise, technical support and policy advice through a number of fellowships, training courses and workshops. It has also included field days, where farmers, seed companies and other stakeholders have been able to visit fields of the rice variety and see the results for themselves.

This particular rice variety is called NMR152, and it was developed by Nuclear Malaysia in 2018 through plant breeding techniques. This process involves irradiating the rice seeds to induce changes in the plant genetic make-up, so scientists can select lines with desired traits and eventually the best variety.

Along with a biofertilizer and plant growth promoter, this rice variety forms part of an integrated approach intended to help the country’s rice farmers cope with low soil fertility and changing weather patterns. It is able to grow in conditions with little water, making it tolerant to drought, said Abdul Rahim B. Harun, Director of the Nuclear Malaysia’s Agrotechnology and Biosciences Division. This variety is also resistant to a common plant disease affecting rice, known as blast.

To get seeds of this variety from the development stage into the hands of more farmers, they need to be multiplied and quality certified before being distributed on a large scale. But Nuclear Malaysia does not have the capacity for the large-scale production of certified seeds as it lacks a processing plant to produce them, said Harun.

In April 2019, Nuclear Malaysia teamed up with two companies for help. Working with a seed producer company, Nuclear Malaysia multiplied 300 metric tons of seeds on a special breeding plot located on the country’s east coast. This company is also helping with the certification process, while another will coat the seeds with a plant growth promoter — the first rice coating to be introduced in Malaysia — to encourage higher yields.

Now, the seeds are in the process of being disseminated to farmers for the upcoming planting season, said Ljupcho Jankuloski, plant breeder and geneticist at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. “The seeds will allow farmers to plant over 2000 hectares of rice in Peninsular Malaysia, and the rice planted with the new seeds would be able to satisfy around 170 000 Malaysians’ rice consumption for one year.”

The farmers planting the new variety this spring will reap greater rewards than just more rice — they will also see higher incomes. The variety’s high nutrient efficiency requires less fertilizer and pesticides, which saves farmers money, as is the case with Murshidul Hafid bin Ahmad, another farmer in the trial project, who reports spending 10% less on fertilizer and pesticides with the new variety. Using less fertilizer and pesticides also makes production more environmentally friendly.

Nuclear Malaysia is looking to increase seed production even more in the future, so more farmers will have access to this rice variety as time goes on.

“The successful collaboration between the IAEA, FAO and Nuclear Malaysia will continue to develop crop varieties to adapt to climate change and foster food security in Malaysia,” said Jankuloski.

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