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News 16 Sep
Bangladesh says new flood-resistant rice offers hope to farmers
by Shafiq Alam
A new strain of rice may be able to resist floods that destroy vast tracts of paddy fields in Bangladesh each year, offering hope to millions of poor farmers, researchers say.
The farmers lose their rice crops when fields are submerged by annual floods triggered when rivers, fed by heavy monsoon rains and melting Himalayan glaciers, burst their banks.
The rice type, called Swarna Submergence 1, developed by the Manila-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), proved to be flood resistant in trials this year in northern Bangladesh, researchers said.
Normal rice varieties cannot survive being submerged by flood water for more than three days, resulting in huge losses for farmers.
But "last month when the flood water receded from two farms in which Swarna Sub-1 was planted, we saw the rice paddy stand up again, 10 days after it was completely submerged by water," said senior researcher Abdul Mazid. "It was simply amazing. It means the variety has proved flood-resistant. It could be a huge step towards helping millions of rice farmers who are made paupers by floods," said Mazid of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI).
Low-lying Bangladesh, criss-crossed by 230 rivers, experiences flooding every year. Experts say the floods are one of the main reasons why 40 percent of the country's 140 million population live in dire poverty.
Rice production accounts for 14 per cent of Bangladesh's gross domestic product. Some two-thirds of Bangladesh's 144 million population directly or indirectly derive their living from rice farming.
"If the flood water stays two to three days, it is a blessing. It nourishes the soils. But if it stays longer, it destroys the crops," said IRRI liaison scientist Hamid Mia.
This year alone rice worth 290 million dollars was damaged in one the worst floods in nearly a decade in July, according to preliminary estimates. The government said the losses would climb following a second spell of flooding in early September that has submerged more than a third of the country.
Swarna Sub-1 was invented in 2004 after IRRI researchers implanted a submergence-resistant gene in a massively popular high-yielding Indian rice variety through conventional breeding.
"The idea was to give the farmers a variety that can survive flood water for 10 to 17 days while at the same time ensuring them a more than average yield," said Mia.
With support from Swiss charity Inter Corp, BRRI distributed seeds and seedlings of the submergence-resistant rice variety to 114 farmers across nine districts in the country.
"The field tests have so far yielded very good results. The farmers are excited and want more seeds and seedlings," said Mazid. "Next year, we will quadruple the number of testing farms. And hopefully, by 2009-2010, we can start commercial production of the flood-resistant rice," he added.
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