NERICA is a new strain of rice. Whoohooo....big excitement, eh? (please note sarcasm here). Well, actually, this rice IS fairly exciting, especially to thousands suffering from hunger in war, drought, and poverty stricken West African countries.
NERICA (NEw RICe for Africa) was developed by crossbreeding high yielding Asian varieties of rice with the more robust drought and disease resistant African strains. This had been attempted earlier, and resulted in sterile plants, but researchers at the Ivory Coast-based West African Rice Development Association solved this problem with a technique called embryo rescue, much like in vitro fertilization in animals.
NERICA yields about 50% more rice at harvest than conventional varieties, and ripens in only 3 months, as opposed to 4 to 5 months for other rice varieties. NERICA is also more drought and disease resistant than most high-yield rices, and different varieties have been developed to suit different climates and soil types.
Sounds pretty amazing doesn't it? Well, the United Nations is touting NERICA as a way to end hunger for thousands, if not millions of African people. The farmers chosen to test-grow NERICA have given it names in their native tongues that translate into such phrases as "Mother can no longer refuse her children." and "I will no longer have to sell my best goat." NERICA is also good for the land acccording to proponents. The high yield Asian rice varieties cannot compete with weeds, forcing farmers to adopt a sort of "Slash and Burn" form of agriculture, moving on to new fields after a couple of seasons. NERICA grows thick enough that it smothers weeds, and enables farmers to farm the same piece of land for many years.
So, what's the catch? Well, to be honest, there aren't many. NERICA isn't genetically modified, so it isn't arousing the controversy that an earlier rice variety known as Golden Rice did. Golden Rice, called Frankenfood by critics, was genetically engineered to produce high levels of Vitamin A to combat malnutrition and blindness. So far, the only downside seems to be that if farmers aren't careful they will mix NERICA with older varieties of rice, and produce a variety with less desirable qualities.
NERICA has been being tested for the past three years in Guinea, where around 100,000 farmers are already growing NERICA. This year (2002) seeds will be be distributed to farmers in Benin, Gambia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Nigeria and Togo. The target is to produce 750 million tonnes in 2003, which could save those seven nations as much as $100 million by reducing rice imports.
From there, if all goes well, its developers hope NERICA will spread across sub-Saharan Africa.