The current insufficient rice production affects the well-being of over 20 million smallholder farmers who depend on rice as a staple. Sub Saharan African (SSA) countries which Nigeria belongs are spending more than US$ 5 billion annually on rice imports. The rice production deficit along with the subsequent large outflow of foreign exchange on import presents a great development challenge to governments and development agencies in SSA. Let me quickly state that government has tried in banning the importation of rice to Nigeria and has devised means to tackle self sufficiency via local production, but those means may be slow in my view looking at the rate of urbanization, land shrink via natural events such as climate change, population increase and food preference. One other major constraint facing rice production is insurgency as almost 50 per cent of our rice production ecology is lowland and these lowlands are actually not within the living areas of local farmers. Farmers tend to walk miles into the lowland areas to crop and grow rice and those places are now not the safest places to be.
Soil nitrogen deficiency on the other hand has been cited as a major constraint to rice production, especially upland rice production. Nitrogen deficiency is mostly acute in the highly weathered upland areas of rice production where an average yield of 1.5 tonnes per hectare, which is about 25 per cent of their yield potential is hardly achieved. Also, nitrogen is difficult to retain when applied in upland areas due to the nature of nitrogen being very mobile coupled with the nature of upland soils being very porous. Having been in the field for over 12 years interacting with rice growers, one of the major concerns that affects rice production in nitrogen deficient soils is the inability of farmers to buy fertilizers to address this constraint, and when they buy, they can hardly afford the required rate for optimal yield. Improving the nitrogen use efficiency (NUE) of rice is one means of overcoming these limitations.
Though biotechnology means have been deployed to handle some of these issues, it should not be understood as a substitute for traditional tools of crop improvement. It is important also to state that there are traits that conventional or traditional means of crop improvement cannot be addressed without the deployment of other tools such as biotechnology and nitrogen use efficiency in rice is one of them.
The integrating of biotechnological tools and techniques into conventional breeding programs has substantially enhanced the efficiency of agricultural research and development (R&D) which is what the NEWEST RICE project has done. Indeed, agricultural biotechnology has enlarged and increased the abilities of science to overcome genetic and environmental constraints which impose serious limitations on the capacities of crops and animals to yield their optimum outputs.
The NUE 12 rice genotype has been under evaluation since 2016 with so many confined field trials and regulatory trials to ascertain its food and feed safety and trait efficacy trials have been ongoing in the National Cereals Research Institute (NCRI) Badeggi in Niger state and this rice event (genotype) has consistently shown to have more yield over the untransformed NERICA 4 parent to the tune of 25 per cent. This rice genotype was developed using biotechnology means
With the introduction of NUE rice, abandoned croplands will be reclaimed reducing land shortages. Also, an additional 1.3 million tonnes of upland rice will be produced in Africa each year, reducing the current deficit by 10 per cent. Through the project, available technologies will be used further by scientists and there will be availability of improved farmer-preferred rice varieties which could even be lowland rice and will certainly boost production. There will be improved crop yields, resulting in enhanced household food security and production of marketable crop surplus and food self-sufficiency in rice which will redirect limited foreign exchange used to import rice.
It is, however, my view that this rice genotype be given all the necessary support by government. The African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF) has done well in initiating and funding the most part of this project. I see a situation where when this material is eventually released, our resourceful poor farmers would with 1 or at most 2 bags of Nitrogen fertilizer produce rice in one hectare of upland area with yield advantage of 25 per cent unlike the usual 4 to 6 bags already used and with less yield.
You cannot quantify the economic gains this will bring to the GDP of this country and importantly the smile it will bring on farmers’ faces when they go back to their upland farms that have been abandoned for many years now.
Dr Muhammad Bashir is the principal investigator, NEWEST Rice Project, National Cereals Research Institute, Badeggi, Niger State. He can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org.