Science - March 11, 2004

Fresco draws attention to rice

Public sector research on rice must continue, and Wageningen UR has a role to play, argued Professor Louise Fresco this week in Wageningen. The United Nations has dubbed 2004 the international year of rice.

Assistant director-general of the FAO, Fresco gave a lecture to students in Hotel de Wereld on the most important food crop in the world. She showed her amazement when the students could not immediately answer the questions she posed on the basic facts and figures concerning this staple food. For instance, over six hundred million tons of rice are grown each year, and four-fifths of this does not even reach the world market, being consumed locally. To grow one kilo of rice requires between two and four thousand litres of water. Fresco impressed upon her audience how important it was to know the proportions: each day a person needs four litres of drinking water, forty litres for washing while four thousand litres are used to grow the food eaten daily by one person.

Plant Research International has carried out research on rice cultivation systems which use up to four times less water than traditional systems. Biotechnology research on rice is also promising, continued Fresco, as much has already been done, the results are public knowledge and the rice genome is relatively short. Innovations such as golden rice with in-built vitamin A are just a start. She emphasised, however, that research must concentrate on applications that can be used by small-scale farmers, by far the largest group of rice growers. Fresco concluded her lecture with a plea to Wageningen UR to make a serious contribution to international rice research.

Joris Tielens