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Scientists have warned that research is urgently needed to develop new rice varieties that will grow well in a world changed by global warming.

"We need to start developing rice varieties that can tolerate higher temperatures and other aspects of climate change right now," said Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), at a workshop last week.

Launching a multi-million dollar appeal for funding, Zeigler said the institute would contribute US$2 million of its own funds to kick-start its planned five-year research programme.

The Philippines-based institute will seek an extra US$18-23 million from international donors.

Worldwide, more than 600 million tonnes of rice are produced each year, supplying one-fifth of the calories we consume.

But, as participants at the IRRI workshop were told, climate change is already affecting Asia's ability to produce rice.

Rice yields across the region would need to double over the next 50 years to overcome the challenges set by climate change, they were told.

IRRI's senior climate change researcher, John Sheehy, told the workshop that in helping the world's poor to cope with climate change, "rice is especially important because most of the world's poor depend on it".

He said that poor farmers need help in several areas, including developing rice varieties that can tolerate warmer temperatures and extreme weather events, and can make use of higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to produce greater yields.

Zeigler told the workshop that developing rice varieties that can withstand changes in climate would be much faster now that the rice genome has been sequenced (see Scientists crack rice code).