September is National Rice Month, and the Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Stuttgart, Arkansas, is well positioned—literally and figuratively—to support the production, harvest, and public enjoyment of this versatile and nutritious grain. And on the world-food security front, ARS’ Stuttgart center is closing in on genes that regulate rice’s uptake and storage of iron, thiamine and other important vitamins and minerals—a pursuit that could bolster the nutritional value of this cereal grain crop as a staple food for roughly half the world’s population.
In the United States, nearly 85 percent of the rice eaten by consumers is grown on family-run farms across six States: Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. Of these, Arkansas produces about half of all U.S. rice on nearly 1.3 million acres of cropland.
Stuttgart, which is located about 55 miles southeast of the state capital (Little Rock), is referred to as the “Rice and Duck Capital of the World” because of its proximity not only to rice fields and two of the Nation’s largest rice mills but also to the Grand Prairie region, to which migratory waterfowl, hunters, and duck callers are drawn in equal measure.
Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center is co-located with the University of Arkansas at Stuttgart, making the two organizations an epicenter of sorts for cutting-edge research on the grain crop. Between them, the ARS center and university boast more than 15 PhD scientists specializing in such areas as rice genetics, grain quality, disease and pest management, and cultivation.
The Stuttgart center also curates the USDA-ARS National Small Grains Collection, which contains specimens of both cultivated and wild rice acquired from around the world.
“Central to our research effort is using natural genetic variability found in the USDA-ARS rice collection to identify genes and traits that can help sustain U.S. production. This includes identifying genes linked with improved yield, superior milling, cooking and nutritional quality, and reduced losses due to disease and weed pressure,” says Anna McClung, the center director. “Future directions include a greater focus on abiotic stress factors associated with a changing climate,” she adds.
The impact of the research is far-reaching, with global implications in world food security as well.
In other cases, the ARS center staff play a more local role, including working with the community to help create awareness about ARS rice research. This month, for example, the center’s staff provided 15 pounds of raw grain and freshly cut rice plants to help assemble a display celebrating National Rice Month at the local grocery store, Mayflower Foods.
“Being located in Stuttgart is a huge advantage to us in that we have direct access to all segments of the rice industry—producers, millers, and processors—with benefits passed along not only to U.S. consumers, but worldwide as well,” says McClung.