Forty rice breeders from 27 African countries and from AfricaRice and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) met a few weeks ago in Kampala, Uganda 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. The meeting was organized from April 15-19, 2013 by AfricaRice in collaboration with the National Agricultural Research Organization (NARO) and the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NACCRI), Uganda.
Africa’s rice producers and consumers are facing a huge challenge: rice in Africa is grown in a bewildering diversity of growing environments, from the salty delta of the Senegal River to the windy highlands of Madagascar. Farmers often face large variability in soil and water availability within their fields and a range of biotic and abiotic stresses. There are also differences in terms of consumer preferences for rice, both between and within countries. To make matters worse, training and recruitment of rice breeders has been neglected across the continent since the 1990s.
Despite the difficulties, AfricaRice and partners have contributed to the release or adoption of a large number of rice varieties over the last decades. However, many rice farmers do not have access to new varieties that are better adapted to their growing environment and likely to sell well. This is certainly partly due to slow or non-existent varietal release procedures or non-functional seed systems in many African countries. However, there is also an urgent need to adopt a more systematic approach to rice breeding across the continent.
It is for those reasons that AfricaRice established, with support from the Government of Japan, a continent-wide Rice Breeding Task Force in 2010, with the explicit goal to accelerate rice varietal development through continent-wide varietal evaluation of nominated elite lines from AfricaRice and international and national partners. The meeting in Kampala was the fourth annual meeting of the Task Force. As of April 2013, the Task Force counts breeders from 30 African countries and from AfricaRice, IRRI and Cirad, all partners in the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP).
The Task Force uses a systematic, product-oriented and multi-environment testing (MET) approach involving a series of three consecutive trials with clear protocols and objectives. An overview of experimental sites of the Task Force is shown in the map (Figure 1).
Data collected at these sites are analyzed by breeders from the various countries and centrally at AfricaRice, enabling comprehensive genotype-by-environment (G×E) analyses. Farmers, millers, traders and other stakeholders participate in the trials. Members of national varietal release committees attend as well. The ultimate decision to nominate a particular variety for release in a country is made by the country’s rice breeder involved in the Task Force, based on evaluation of all data acquired before and during the MET phase.
Rice breeding lines are usually distinguished by a code linked to an experimental station, followed by numbers that refer to a particular cross. For example the well-known Sahel108 variety in Senegal is a variety developed at IRRI with the breeding code: IR 13240-108-2-2-3 and selected by AfricaRice and partners in Senegal. Breeding codes are really too long to remember and AfricaRice and partners have decided to assign new names to particularly promising breeding lines that result from Task Force activities: ARICAs, which stands for ‘Advanced RICes for Africa’.
ARICA varieties can be considered as the next generation of rice varieties for Africa, after the success of the ‘NEw RICes for Africa’ (NERICAs) developed in the 1990s and the first decade of this century. An estimated 800,000 hectares of NERICA varieties are currently grown across Africa.
For a breeding line to be nominated as an ARICA line it must have a clear advantage over the best check varieties in a region, backed by quality data over at least 3 seasons. Moreover at least one country should show interest in nominating the line for varietal release. The ultimate decision on naming an ARICA line is taken by AfricaRice, and is based on data gathered in the Task Force trials, and any other data gathered during the breeding process.
During the Kampala meeting five nominations for ARICA naming were examined by the Task Force and after intense discussions they were all accepted to become the first ARICA lines. ARICA1, 2 and 3 are suited for the rainfed lowland growth environment and are proposed for varietal release in Mali (ARICA1, ARICA2 and ARICA3) and Nigeria (ARICA2 and ARICA3). ARICA4 and ARICA5 are suited for the upland growth environment and have just been released in Uganda. All ARICAs out-yielded local checks including NERICAL-19 in the rainfed lowland environment and NERICA4 in the upland environment. In addition, ARICA3 has better grain quality, higher milling recovery, lower chalkiness and shorter cooking time than NERICAL-19.
Additional data about the performance of these ARICA lines will be gathered through the Task Force, allowing the ‘passport data’ of these lines to be updated over time. Through the Task Force, new ARICA lines will become available, backed by solid data. Unlike the NERICA varieties, they are not restricted to interspecific crosses. Any line that shows promise, regardless of its origin can become an ARICA line as long as the data that are collected are convincing. Of course the long and complex breeding codes are known for each ARICA line and the origin and pedigree of any ARICA line can, therefore, be easily traced.
Finding champions among breeding lines will always remain time consuming, but through the Task Force at least a very systematic, product-oriented approach is used that is already increasing the efficiency and efficacy of breeding efforts across the continent. However, for all of this to really succeed rice breeders should not only select lines but also use them as parent material to make crosses to develop lines that are really tailored to the needs of farmers and consumers in their country. Each region, country or market niche will have specific requirements in terms of traits that ideally need to be incorporated in a new variety. To really beat the challenge of Africa’s diversity we need many more, young, bright university students to become rice breeders and join hands in the Africa-wide Rice Breeding Task Force.