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13 September, 2018 - 21:12 By Kate Sweeney

Cranfield University leads £1m soil research project to solve African rice problem

Cranfield University is leading a £1m research project to overcome a soil health problem affecting rice production in sub-Saharan Africa.

Rice is a major staple food across sub-Saharan Africa and demand for it is increasing rapidly with urbanisation and changes in consumer preferences. Domestic production accounts for only 60 per cent of the rice consumed which means there is a heavy reliance on imports - the import of rice into sub-Saharan Africa accounts for a third of the global rice trade. 

There is therefore mounting pressure to greatly increase sub-Saharan rice production.

Partners in the three-year study include AfricaRice, the University of Antananarivo and the Japan International Research Center for Agricultural Sciences. Funding for the project comes from the Global Challenges Research Fund via BBSRC, part of UK Research and Innovation.

Guy Kirk, Professor of Soil Systems at Cranfield University and project lead said: “There is widespread recognition of the need to increase sub-Saharan rice production to meet projected increases in demand for rice. Less than 10 per cent of the total inland valley area in sub-Saharan Africa could be sufficient to meet the demand for rice in Africa if we can overcome iron toxicity. 

“But currently, increased production with low-yielding varieties and poor management is destroying large swathes of natural ecosystems in inward valleys. With realistic improvements in varieties and management, we can greatly reduce the amount of land needed and therefore safeguard the vital biodiversity of the African inward valleys.”

One of the main barriers to increasing production is the soil disorder known as iron toxicity. This is a particular problem in flooded paddy soils, and particularly the highly weathered and nutrient-depleted soils that typify sub-Saharan Africa. 

In affected areas, rice yields are reduced by up to 90 per cent. 

Traditional, indigenous African rice varieties can tolerate the toxicity, but are low yielding. That means large areas of land are needed to meet the demand for more rice, and this is driving unsustainable development of new lands, typically in fragile wetlands in inland valleys to the cost of biodiversity and other vital ecosystem services.

The Cranfield-led study will examine the traits that allow indigenous African rice varieties to tolerate the toxicity, with the aim of incorporating these traits into more high-yielding varieties through plant breeding. It will also seek to map areas where new rice varieties and crop management to tackle iron toxicity will be most beneficial.

The project will use a combination of soil chemistry, plant physiology and molecular genetics, in partnership with plant breeders and agronomists based in West Africa and Madagascar.

Announcing the funding for the project as part of its Sustainable Agriculture for Sub-Saharan Africa programme, Professor Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation, said: “Stresses such as drought, and the restriction of vital resources including nutrients and water are among the challenges affecting the development of sustainable agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“By bringing together UK researchers with partners in the region, these projects will play an important role in addressing these challenges and unlocking the potential of sustainable agriculture to transform food production and improve lives.”

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government. Funded by the UK Government, BBSRC invested £498 million in world-class bioscience in 2017-18. BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public.


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