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[COTONOU, BENIN] Africa's indigenous rice varieties are to be granted 'elite' status by scientists in the hope that they will play a central role in making farmers' crops more resilient.

Elite rice varieties are recognised to be high-yielding and include Asian rice, which has sometimes been improved with individual traits taken from lower-yielding African rice. Now scientists have shown that African varieties are resilient and high-yielding in their own right.

According to Savitri Mohapatra, spokesperson for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, scientists from the Africa Rice Center (AfricaRice), Benin, did a series of studies on the yield of African rice and the factors that determine high yield — the latest of which was conducted last year (2009).

They concluded that, contrary to common belief, the yield of African rice is not inferior to that of Asian rice under the unfavourable growth conditions that often prevail in parts of Africa.

"This is contrary to the conventional thinking of rice researchers — that African rice has low yield potential," Mohapatra said.

African rice — Oryza glaberrima — was first domesticated in West Africa more than 3,000 years ago. Now it is on the verge of extinction and most African farmers have turned to Asian rice (O. sativa).

Some 20 years ago scientists developed two rice varieties — known as New Rice for Africa (NERICA) — that combined the adaptability of African rice with the high yields of Asian rice. NERICA has since been developed into more than 80 varieties.

But, over the past five years, scientists have been improving African rice to produce varieties that are both hardy and high-yielding and can overcome lodging (where ripe grain causes plants to fall over) and shattering (where ripe grain sheds at crop maturity). These new varieties are now being evaluated in farmers' fields, such as Danyi plateau in Togo where results have been promising.

"Scientists all over the world can now make use of the full genetic potential of African cultivated rice by developing varieties better adapted to the difficult rice-growing conditions of Africa," AfricaRice researcher Semon Mande told SciDev.Net.

"The NERICA varieties were developed from just a handful of O. glaberrima parents. Yet we have at our disposal nearly 2,500 samples of O. glaberrima preserved in the gene bank," he said in a press release, adding that "most of its wealth of genetic diversity remains to be tapped".

The research is part of a wider strategy to develop a range of rice varieties adapted to the continent's varied ecology through projects with the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute and others.