After five years of work, plant scientists from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines said yesterday that they had developed a new type of rice that would increase harvests by 20 percent to 25 percent.
After the new variety becomes commercially available, probably in five years, it will eventually yield enough to feed 500 million more people than current rice yields, said Dr. Ken S. Fischer, the institute's director of research.
The world's population, now estimated at 5.5 billion, is expected to reach 8.3 billion by 2025, according to the World Bank.
The announcement of the development of a new high-yielding rice plant was made at an international agricultural research meeting at the World Bank in Washington.
Lester R. Brown, president of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute and an authority on world grain production, said that in the next 35 years the demand for rice in Asia will double as the population soars. During the same period, though, the amount of land devoted to growing rice is likely to shrink considerably, he said.
Several U.S. plant breeders were more cautious.
"There may be a little bit of hype associated with this," said Dr. Kent McKenzie, a plant breeder with the Rice Experiment Station, a farmer-supported research center in Biggs, Calif. "It's a huge yield increase, but there are all kinds of ways to get those statistics. I would be a little guarded in my evaluation of that increase."
The new variety was developed by a team headed by Gurdev S. Khush, a plant breeder who has helped produce more than 300 varieties of rice during his 27-year career at the International Rice Research Institute, the world's leading rice breeding center in Los Banos, about 45 miles southeast of Manila. Mr. Khush joined computer technology with classical plant breeding and designed an entirely new kind of rice plant, Dr. Fischer said.
The increased yield is the result of being able to put more of the new plants on the same amount of land.
Dr. Fischer said it would probably take five more years for Mr. Khush's team to breed into the new variety other valuable commercial traits such as natural defenses against diseases and insects. Sometime around the turn of the century, the "super rice" will be ready for introduction to farmers in Asia, where rice is the most important food crop.
The rice research center's work is unlikely to affect the U.S. harvest very much, said J. Neil Rutger, a rice geneticist with the Department of Agriculture's research station in Stuttgart, Ark. dTC The United States will harvest 8.7 million metric tons of rice this year. Most of it is intended for export or aimed at U.S. consumers who prefer fluffier varieties than those grown in Asia.