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[NEW DELHI] The main research institute devoted to the world's most important crop will fundamentally change its approach in order to reduce poverty in Africa and Asia.

Robert Ziegler, director-general of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), announced the plans at the International Rice Congress in Delhi yesterday (9 October).

Instead of investing in the most intensive farming systems to boost overall production, he said the institute would focus on lifting people out of poverty by investing in "difficult rain-fed environments".

Rice farmers who depend on rain rather than irrigation are most likely to be poor, and are also more vulnerable to droughts and floods.

Ziegler unveiled a five-point strategy that will aim to alleviate poverty, improve human health and nutrition, protect the environment, improve access to information and conserve genetic resources.

"If we want to do something about poverty, it is clear that we must invest in rice," he said, pointing out that about 90 per cent of the world's rice is produced and consumed in Asia, where more than two-thirds of the world's poor live.

He said IRRI would also invest in sub-Saharan Africa, the "other major concentration of poverty".

Indian crop scientist M. S. Swaminathan says rice will be increasingly important in the coming decades because it is so versatile and can grow at many latitudes and altitudes.

"[It] can become the anchor of food security in a world confronted with the challenge of climate change," he says.

Swaminathan led India's Green Revolution, a boost in wheat production that was driven by the introduction of high-yielding varieties from Mexico in the 1960s. He said global rice production would need to rise from 600 million tonnes today to 800 million tonnes by 2025 to meet the needs of a rising human population.

This would require new high-yield and stress-resistant rice varieties, he said, adding that farmers could improve incomes and nutrition by combining rice and livestock farming with aquaculture.

But efforts to boost rice production face several challenges, such as competition for water from growing urban populations, impending climate change, diminishing funding from Asian donors and a declining number of rice researchers.

Researchers at IRRI are currently working on four major research projects to develop better varieties of rice.

These include varieties that tolerate drought; that trap nitrogen from the air and convert it into protein; and that grow bigger and faster (see Plan to boost rice photosynthesis with inserted genes).