Cheju, Zanzibar - With one of the fastest growing populations in Africa and a surge in tourism, Zanzibar needs more rice, and its farmers and authorities are turning to nuclear techniques for help.
Currently, around 70% of the rice consumed in this semi-autonomous region of Tanzania is imported, a ratio the Government would like to halve in coming years. It is working on a project in partnership with the World Bank to increase local rice production and self-sufficiency, and save the hard currency currently spent on importing rice, said Mansoora Kassim, Deputy Principal Secretary at Zanzibar's Ministry of Agriculture, Natural Resources, Livestock and Fisheries. Rice accounts for a fifth of the territory's imports.
Farmers involved in this greenfield rice production project have selected the variety SUPA BC, developed using nuclear techniques, with the support of the IAEA in partnership with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Mutation induced by irradiation speeds up natural changes in the genetic make-up of crops, so scientists can select improved plant lines with desired traits such as higher yields and eventually identify the best. They then use conventional techniques to multiply the seeds of plant lines with favorable traits, test them and eventually release them as varieties to farmers.
More rice means less dependence on imports, more income and more jobs for Zanzibar. (Photo: M. Gaspar/IAEA)
SUPA BC, developed using this technology and released in Zanzibar to farmers in 2014, has a yield that is double that of the traditional variety and it can be harvested twice a year - which means quadrupled production and income, said Ali Iddi Mjombo, a farmer in Cheju, a village in central Unguja, the larger of Zanziba's two main islands.
Mjombo is one of 700 farmers using the new variety, which also has a better aroma, so millers pay a 20% premium compared to the traditional varieties, he added. "It has made a real difference for us," he said. "I've bought a new plot of land and built a metal roof over my house from the additional cash."
The Government is planning for most of the territory's 70,000 smallholder rice farmers to eventually use SUPA BC and achieve similar results to Mjombo and his neighbours. SUPA BC is planted on 80% of irrigated land used for rice on Zanzibar - though that for the time being is only 6,400 hectares. With support from South Korea, the Zanzibar Government is installing irrigation systems on more than 1,500 acres of land to plant more SUPA BC, Kassim said. "With the support of the IAEA we have eradicated tsetse flies, improved livestock rearing - and are now working on rice."
Virus and fungus
There is still a problem though: SUPA BC is susceptible to two major diseases - the Rice Yellow Mottle Virus and rice blast, so work is under way at the Zanzibar Agriculture Research Institute (ZARI) to improve the resistance of SUPA BC. The IAEA, in partnership with the FAO, through the Joint FAO/IAEA Division of Nuclear Techniques in Food and Agriculture, has provided expert and technical services as well as training and fellowship to several researchers, and - through its technical cooperation programme, has provided equipment and consumables to ZARI's laboratories for the testing of new lines and for marker assisted selection.
Using equipment donated by the IAEA, researchers identified a promising line and cultivated it further. The result was SUPA BC, a rice variety which has double the yield of local varieties and it can be harvested twice a year. (Photo: M. Gaspar/IAEA)
Using this knowledge and equipment, Salum Hamad, the lead researcher, and his colleagues have characterized and inoculated 100 samples of SUPA BC, irradiated at various doses in order to induce genetic change, with the Rice Yellow Mottle Virus. One of the samples was found resistant to the virus. It will now be tested further to validate resistance and proceed with further trials of the variety.
Work on achieving resistance to the rice blast fungal disease is also under way at ZARI, supported by the IAEA. Last month the IAEA sent to ZARI a new batch of irradiated seeds. Soon they will be planted and inoculated with rice blast fungus to select resistant plants, Hamad said. "In a few years, we hope to have a further improved variety resistant to blast."
More local rice means less dependence on imports, more money and more jobs for Zanzibar - helping it to achieve its targets under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.