Upland rice a cross between yielding Asian, disease-resistant African varieties

Farmers weed a field of Upland rice in Rongo, Migori County. (Photo: Stanley Ongwae/Standard)

With recent breakthrough in development of the New Rice for Africa (Nerica) for upland production systems and the high demand for rice, farmers from Western region are now embracing the venture, which gained popularity in India and Southeast Asia.

Over 100 million people now depend on the rice as their staple food. The Upland rice is grown in rain-fed fields prepared and seeded when dry, much like wheat or maize in mixed farming systems without irrigation and puddling.

This rice is a cross between varieties of high-yielding Asian rice and the robust and disease-resistant African rice.

Nearly 20 million hectares of the world’s rice growing areas are planted to upland rice. About 60 per cent is in Asia, 30 per cent in Latin America, and 10 per cent in Africa.

Upland rice farming is considered an important initiative in attaining the goal of rice sufficiency in Kenya, as it provides an opportunity for food availability, income and nutrition in the household and the community in general.

A number of farmers have shown interest in growing upland rice but they do not have a ready source of information on production of the variety and how to tackle the new challenges.

The increase in world rice production over the past decades resulted from successes in research and the transfer of modern technology. These successes had no effect on upland rice production.

Upland rice is mono-cropped or inter-cropped in favoured environments with long growing seasons. It may be planted in sequence with other upland crops. Upland rice is more tolerant to fluctuations in water availability and temperature than rice grown under a flooded culture.

The crop is prone to soil erosion, water unavailability, grows in dry areas, favourable to climate change; the ecosystem is extremely diverse, including fields that are level, gently rolling or steep, at altitudes of up to 2,000 metres and with rainfall ranging from 1,000 to 4,500mm annually. Soils range from highly fertile to highly weathered, infertile and acidic. In many countries it grows on rolling hills.

Rice is a cereal and thus supplies carbohydrates to human diets. Often, legumes are preferred food crops for inter-cropping because they have high protein content and enrich the soil by fixing nitrogen.

About 70 per cent of Asia’s upland rice areas have made the transition to permanent systems where rice is grown every year and is closely integrated with other crops and livestock.

Of the 143.5 million hectares of world rice area, about 19.1 million hectares are planted to upland rice. Of this, 10.7 million hectares is in Asia, 6.1 million in Latin America, and 2.3 million in Africa. About 75 per cent of rice area in Latin America and 50 per cent in Africa is upland rice.

Inter-cropping upland rice is most common on subsistence farms in Southeast Asia and is also being embraced in Kenya.

Many crops are inter-cropped with upland rice, depending on length of growing period and farmer preference. Rice and maize is the most popular system for Asian uplands.