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[BEIJING] The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has announced a grant to aid the production of stress-tolerant rice varieties.

The US$19.9 million grant for the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) will be used to develop suitable rice varieties to help poor farmers in Africa and Asia mitigate the effects of climate change.

Announced last month (25 January), the three-year funding is part of a US$306 million package of agricultural development grants announced by the foundation at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland.

The money will be used to develop and distribute rice varieties that can withstand drought, floods and salty water to 400,000 farmers in Asia and Africa who rely on rain fed agriculture so are vulnerable to such effects.

The project ultimately aims to reach 18 million households and help farmers achieve a 50 per cent yield increase in the next 10 years.

Duncan Macintosh, IRRI spokesperson, told SciDev.Net that the harsh conditions caused by climate change threaten global rice production — rice prices in Asia have more than doubled in the past 2–3 years.

The rice-science community, in particular IRRI, have recently taken steps towards developing stress-tolerant crop varieties by precision breeding — the movement of specific genes from one variety to another. However, research and application in this field face difficulties.

"There are two main challenges. The first is adapting [varieties] to many local environments and conditions. It will take many varieties to cover all the conditions. The second challenge is the dissemination to farmers," says Macintosh.

According to Macintosh, IRRI will disseminate the new rice varieties through its traditional partners, the ministries of agriculture in each country, as well as new partners such as nongovernmental organisations and their networks, and private sector partners.

Wang Feng, a leading scientist at the Fujian Academy of Agricultural Sciences, says the project will greatly help poor farmers in Africa and Asia.

"But providing rice varieties alone is far from enough. Improvements in irrigation conditions and mechanisation, and providing technology training courses for farmers to improve rice planting in local areas are indispensable," Wang told SciDev.Net.