- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 12, 2002

MAFERENYA, Guinea Mamady Douno slips off his flip-flops and wades through his rice field, stooping to check the spindly plants. He treads with care after all, these delicate green shoots have changed his life.

The rice in this field in Maferenya subprefecture, 30 miles outside Guinea's capital, Conakry, is called Nerica, or New Rice for Africa, and it is behind a minirevolution in this verdant West African nation.

Branded a "miracle rice" by some, Nerica is hailed by the United Nations and other international sponsors as promising an end to the specter of hunger for thousands of West Africa's 20 million rice growers.

Consider the various ways people here describe it. In the forest uplands, they call it "Mother can no longer refuse her children." Elsewhere, its name means, "I will no longer have to sell my best goat."

"Since I started to grow this rice, I no longer buy rice on the market. With Nerica, I can feed my family, pay my kids' school fees and be sure of having food all year," said Mr. Douno, the father of 10 children.

Nerica was created by crossbreeding African and Asian varieties of rice. Researchers at the Ivory Coast-based West Africa Rice Development Association used advanced biotechnology techniques to combine the high yields of Asian varieties with the robustness of African strains.

The project, which started in the early 1990s, is backed by the U.N. Development Program and the Japanese government, among others.

"There is no genetic modification," said Gunther Hahne, director of research at the West Africa Rice Development Association in Bouake, Ivory Coast.

Mr. Hahne says this is probably why Nerica has not set off a debate of the kind surrounding golden rice, a strain genetically engineered to produce vitamin A to combat malnutrition and blindness. Critics call it "Frankenfood."

Nerica varieties yield up to 50 percent more at harvest, without fertilizers, and are more resistant to disease and pests. They ripen in three months, compared with four or five for other varieties.

That means Nerica can be harvested in August and September, when people tend to run out of reserves and often go hungry as they wait to harvest the new crop in November and December.

And Nerica benefits the land, promoters say. Slash-and-burn farming is common here, because the more productive Asian rice varieties cannot compete with weeds, forcing farmers to move on after a crop or two. Nerica smothers weeds.

"This chases hunger away, and when there is hunger you are not free," said Mr. Douno, standing in his field under a light drizzle.

Previous attempts to crossbreed African and Asian rice had resulted in sterile plants, but researchers circumvented this problem with a technique called embryo rescue, which is like in vitro fertilization.

Different varieties of Nerica have been created to suit different soils and different climates. "Nerica, for us, is not a product. It's a technological process which allows us to do what we want," Mr. Hahne said.

The U.N. Development Program says Nerica could save West and Central Africa $100 million annually in rice imports during the next three to five years.

Farmers played a key role in three years of trials, testing different varieties of the rice and selecting the ones best suited to their land. Now, the rice is being cultivated in 17 or so West and Central African countries.

Guinea is one of the frontline countries in the Nerica project in 2000, about 20,000 farmers cultivated the seeds.

But Nerica's success has raised some problems.

Near Kindia, a busy market town 90 miles north of Conakry, researchers at the Kim Il-sung Center for Research into Agronomic Science test the purity of seeds produced by local farmers in a rundown, ill-equipped laboratory.

Director Banou Keita says there is a danger that farmers, who have been chosen to grow seeds and sell them, might mix them with older varieties, distilling the purity of the crop.

"It is essential to train and monitor the farmers. We are using the best people, but it is not enough," he said.

Back in Maferenya, Mr. Douno has big ideas. He would like to buy a tractor, so he can harvest up to 120 acres.

"Now there are some of my relatives who are even bigger than me," he said, proudly sticking out his big stomach.

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