Bangladesh Triples Rice Production with Help of Nuclear Science

03.03.2017

New varieties of rice made using nuclear techniques have helped Bangladesh increase its rice production three-fold in the last few decades. This in turn has enabled the country to stay one step ahead of its rapid population growth. Today there is a secure and steady supply of rice in Bangladesh, and the country is shifting from being an importer to an exporter of rice.

“I have more rice for my family, and I now earn almost double with the rice and mustard seed I grow compared to before,” said Suruj Ali, a farmer from Gerapacha village just north of Mymensingh near the border of Bangladesh and India, who grows a new type of rice plant called Binadhan-7. “I also save money because I don’t have to spray as much for insects.”

Binadhan-7 is one of several rice varieties developed by the scientists at the Bangladesh Institute for Nuclear Agriculture (BINA), with the support of the IAEA and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). It was developed through a process using radiation called plant mutation breeding (see Plant mutation breeding), and has since become a popular rice variety in the northern part of the country where it has helped farmers and workers stabilize their income and find year-long employment.

Globally more than 3 000 plant varieties have been developed and released using plant mutation breeding techniques. These mutant varieties will continue to play a key role in meeting global food demands as the world's population rapidly grows and environmental conditions become more challenging. They can also help in averting famine, a major global problem recently highlighted by United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

“Many scientists around the world turn to plant mutation breeding because it allows them to harness a natural process toward more quickly homing in on and cultivating desirable characteristics in plants,” said Ljupcho Jankuloski, Acting Head of the Plant Breeding and Genetics Section of the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture. “This method saves time and money for researchers, while resulting in the kinds of plants farmers need to cost-effectively keep food on the table and money in their pockets. For many farmers, these plant varieties are a game changer.”

Helping farmers in northern Bangladesh

What sets Binadhan-7 apart from local rice varieties is its shorter growing time and ability to produce more rice. Local varieties used in the north produce around 2 tonnes of husked rice per hectare and take about 150 days to mature for harvest. Binadhan-7 produces around 3.5 to 4.5 tonnes per hectare and takes around 115 days to be ready for harvest.

“Before Binadhan-7, I used to only be able to grow two crops and would have several months each year without anything, but with Binadhan-7, I can now grow three crops and earn money all year long,” Ali said. He, along with his family of five, lives off 3 acres of land where he grows rice and mustard seed.  “I’ve used that extra money to build two new extensions for my house. I hope I can earn enough to send my kids abroad someday.”

Since its first release in 2007, Binadhan-7 has helped to improve the livelihoods of more than 20% of the people living in the northern region, according to BINA.

No meal is complete without rice

New rice varieties like Binadhan-7 help to address the demand for this staple food in Bangladesh. Many of these varieties have been developed to produce more rice when compared to local varieties, which means more food to eat and sell.

“For most Bangladeshi people, a meal is not a meal if it does not include rice. With a projected population of 195 million by 2030, this puts immense pressure on rice production,” said Mohammad Moinuddin Abdullah, Secretary of the country’s Ministry of Agriculture.

More than 36 million tonnes of rice are produced and consumed in Bangladesh each year, making it the fourth largest rice producer and consumer in the world. The country now regularly exports rice in the region.

“We have to adapt all technologies to increase production to ensure food and nutritional security,” Moinuddin Abdullah said. “That’s why we are very keen to have agriculture research through which we get new plant varieties.”

A cornucopia of new crops

Thirteen new rice varieties have been developed by BINA using plant mutation breeding since the 1970s. These are among the more than 40 new crop plant varieties developed in the country using this technique. Others include lentils, chickpeas, peanuts, mustard seed, sesame seed, soybean, jute, tomato and wheat.

“Irradiating seeds has proven to be a ready to use and flexible way to develop better crops. It’s a non-hazardous and low-cost technology that has helped us to grow more food,” said Moinuddin Abdullah.

These new varieties help Bangladeshi farmers deal with enduring problems such as water shortages, drought, salty soil and soil degradation, which make it difficult for crops to survive and can turn soil into unusable farmland. The situation is only worsening as climate change brings more extreme weather.

“As plant mutation breeding has proven to be full of potential and a very efficient tool for plant improvement, BINA is well-positioned to develop plant varieties that can help ensure food security amidst the global changing climate,” said Mohammad Shamsher Ali, Director General of BINA.

THE SCIENCE

Plant mutation breeding

Plant mutation breeding is the process of exposing plant seeds, cuttings or a shredded plant leaf to radiation, such as gamma rays, and then planting the seed or cultivating the irradiated material in a sterile rooting medium, which generates a plantlet. The individual plants are then multiplied and examined for their traits. Molecular marker-assisted breeding, often referred to as marker-assisted selection, is used to accelerate the selection of plants with desired traits, carried by genes of interest.

Plant mutation breeding does not involve gene modification, but rather uses a plant’s own genetic resources and mimics the natural process of spontaneous mutation, the motor of evolution. By using radiation, scientists can significantly shorten the time it takes to breed new and improved plant varieties.
 

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