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New, newer, NEWEST rice varieties for Africa

First-ever field trials of genetically engineered rice in Africa - USAID promotes gene technology and US-biotech-companies

by Uwe Hoering, January 2014

In the late 1990s it was NERICA, the 'New Rice for Africa', on which hopes were pinned to increase yields of smallholder farms, improve incomes and reduce hunger. NERICA was a cross of Asian and African varieties, developed by the research organisation WARDA[1], now AfricaRice[2], promising to combine higher yields, sturdiness, and adaptation to African agro-climatic conditions. According to Marco Wopereis, Deputy Director General of AfricaRice, an estimated 800.000 hectares of NERICA varieties are currently grown across Africa, independent figures are not available.[3]


Another new rice for Africa: ARICAs

Operating as part of the Japan-funded project “Developing the Next Generation of New Rice Varieties for Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia”, there is another initiative: With support from the government of Japan, AfricaRice established a continent-wide Rice Breeding Task Force in 2010, which includes breeders from 30 African countries and from AfricaRice, IRRI, the International Rice Research Institute based in the Philippines, Cirad and CIAT, all of them members of the CGIAR consortium of international agricultural research centres and partners in the Global-Rice Science Partnership (GriSP).

In April 2013 there was the fourth annual meeting of the Task Force in Uganda’s capital Kampala “to discuss progress made in evaluating elite rice lines across the African continent and to identify potential 'champions' that can make a difference to the lives of Africa's rice producers and consumers.”[4] The aim is to select from rice varieties, released or adopted over the last decades by AfricaRice and international and national partners, those varieties that are adapted to the growing environment that differs from country to country and region to region, and are likely to sell well too. For this, members of the Task Force select suitable varieties for release in a country and assign new names to particularly promising breeding lines: ARICAs, which stands for 'Advanced Rices for Africa'. According to Wopereis, ARICA varieties “can be considered as the next generation of rice varieties for Africa, after the success of the NERICAs”.


And the NEWEST rice for Africa

The NEWEST Rice Project[5] is another follow-up based on NERICA varieties. Launched in 2008, it is a cooperation of development organisations like USAID, public research institutions like the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture, CIAT, national agricultural research organisations in Africa, and private companies, and  „aims to develop and deploy farmer preferred and locally adapted genetically improved African rice varieties with enhanced agronomic traits“. These characteristics shall make it relevant for African conditions like depleted soils, water scarcity, and salinity, which reduce grain yields in Africa far below world average. The initiative strives to genetically transform some varieties of NERICA using plant transformation technologies to improve their productivity in nitrogen-deficient soils, drought prone regions and in soils with high salinity.

The African Agricultural Technology Foundation, AATF, in Kenya’s capital Nairobi coordinates project activities throughout the „entire product value chain“ - whatever this means. The AATF is one of many front line organisations promoting biotechnology in Africa, registered as a charity and designed “to facilitate and promote public/private partnerships for the access and delivery of appropriate proprietary technologies with potential to increase the productivity of resource-poor small-scale farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa”[6]. Funded by the British development agency DFID, USAID, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Howard G. Buffet Foundation, there are quite a few proponents of biotechnology and genetic engineering on AATF's Board of Trustees and its Advisory Committee. Support also comes from Feed the Future, one of the US Government’s global hunger and food security initiative.


Private-public Partnership

One of the private sector participants in the project is California-based Arcadia Biosciences, which – according to the NEWEST information sheet by AATF - donated the trait technologies for nitrogen-use efficiency, water-use efficiency and salt tolerance, which is adding up to the project's acronym NEWEST. The company is also producing transgenic plants and providing technical support. The second company is Japan Tobacco, granting a ‘royalty-free non-exclusive license’ to AATF that allows access to the Agrobacterium-mediated plant transformation technology known as PureIntro. The technology reduces development costs and time.

From the public domain, Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture, PIPRA, provided enabling technologies for plant transformation. PIPRA is a network of public and academic research institutions, trying to balance the control of intellectual property rights in plant genetic resources by private companies at least to some extent by organizing access to those resources and technologies. CIAT based in Colombia and member of the CGIAR consortium is carrying out seed production and preliminary agronomic trials, with field trials of nitrogen-use efficient rice concluded in September 2013.


Another miracle rice

After the field trials of nitrogen-use efficient (NUE) rice varieties at CIAT in Colombia, Arcadia and AATF claim that „at 50 per cent of normally applied nitrogen fertilizer, NUE rice lines out-yielded the conventional NERICA control variety by 22 per cent in the first year trial, and by 30 per cent in the second year trial“[7]. If farmers could repeat this, they would benefit economically from higher yields and lower costs for fertilizer – another promise to end poverty and hunger. And sooner or later, genetically modified rice varieties currently developed by the NEWEST rice project could be marketed as so-called ARICAs.

So far, only nitrogen-use efficient lines have been tested, while water-efficient and salt tolerant varieties and triple-stack rice varieties, which combine all three traits, are still under evaluation in California at Arcadia and in Colombia at CIAT.[8]  Since April 2013, agricultural research organisations in Uganda and in Ghana are involved in field-testing. Uganda is notorious for lax biosafety regulations and conducted already several field trials for genetically modified crops like cassava, maize, banana and potato.



Although agricultural research on African crops within the CGIAR system and national research institutions has been going on for decades, with the food crisis there is a new dynamic to intensify research, often in cooperation with private companies. Apparently, funds for CGIAR mainly coming from governments and donors have doubled since 2008 to one billion US-Dollar[9]. Upfront it is all about food security and small-scale farmers' livelihoods. But the crisis is being used to push forward genetically modified food crops as a “new tool” to eradicate widespread hunger, as for example Tracy Powell, Bureau for Food Security at USAID, in a Feed the Future Blog says.[10]

Although there are some claims to involve farmers in participatory breeding of the new varieties, development is mainly based in research organisations. Instead of an upward improvement of existing traditional food crops, innovations like NERICA are used for further development. In the past, many of the outcomes of research institutions and promising field trials never reached farmers' fields – for various reasons. One of them is the low purchasing power of small-scale farmers. Another one is their preference for time-tested traditional varieties. Even if the NEWEST rice varieties and the ARICAs will be developed without royalty payments to the propriety owners of traits or technologies, the seeds will have to be bought by the farmers. And because they don't replicate, they have to be bought every season, creating a future market for the seed companies – for the price of a generous gesture.

[1]   West African Rice Development Association

[2]   The Africa Rice Center is one of the 15 international agricultural research centers that are members of the CGIAR Consortium. It is also an intergovernmental association of African member countries.

[3]   Marco Wopereis, Welcoming the 'ARICAs': the next generation of rice varieties for Africa. Blog posted on: on May 30, 2013. The website of AfricaRice says that in 2006 around 200.000 hectares were covered by NERICAs.

[4]   Marco Wopereis:

[5]   AATF, The Nitrogen-Use Efficient, Water-Use Efficient and Salt-Tolerant Rice Project Partnership.


[7]   Arcadia press release, September 20, 2013.

[8]   Interestingly, Arcadia itself talks only about NUE and salt tolerant rice varieties to be available by 2016, but not of water-use efficient varieties, so it remains unclear where these will be developed. See Arcadia press release, September 20, 2013.


[10] Feed the Future Blog, April 23, 2013.