Agronomy: Rice of the Gods

To chronically starving Asia, reports of the new rice sounded like an invitation to a feast. It was tough and fast-growing, able to root almost anywhere and twice as bountiful as ordinary strains. Crossbred from a common tropical rice called peta (meaning seed) and an ancient Chinese variety known as dee-geo-woo-gen (brown-tipped, sharp-legged thing), IR8, as scientists tagged the hybrid, was promptly—and prematurely—labeled a miracle.

Then, as results came in from experimental plantings two years ago, the miracle proved highly vulnerable to such mundane enemies as bacteria, blight and insects. It required expensive nitrogen fertilization and often broke during milling. Many...

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