(BULLETIN) By CECIL MORELLA (AFP) — Vietnam’s farm sector is reeling from outbreaks of pests and disease that could threaten its neighbors including China, according to one of the world’s leading rice experts.

Hanoi and the world scientific community have yet to find a way to prevent another crop failure following a virus attack on rice crops last year, said Robert Zeigler, head of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

Vietnam is the fifth largest rice producer and number three exporter in the world, and last year’s troubles hit some of the best rice-growing areas, Zeigler told AFP in an interview at the Institute, just south of Manila.

"The fact is, they got taken by surprise and they had some significant yield losses that they were just not expecting," he said.

"Of course we are concerned about Vietnam. But some of these pests can migrate up into China, and who knows if could they move up and cause some serious problems?"

He noted that, while China is not a key player in the international rice trade, the country is by far the world’s largest producer and consumer of the grain.

Vietnam also lies close to Thailand, the world’s top rice exporter, and rich rice-growing areas in Myanmar and Cambodia.

Zeigler said the IRRI is monitoring the potential impact of the severe winter in China on its rice crops, both in the north where only one crop is grown a year and in the south where the usually milder climate allows for multiple planting seasons every year.

The troubles have helped lead to spiralling prices, with many nations relying on Vietnamese exports. Prices have soared to more than 700 dollars a ton, more than three times the rate of five years ago.

Along with other disasters such as flooding in Java and a devastating cyclone in Bangladesh, the Vietnam troubles — a viral disease called tungro and infestations of the brown planthopper insect — have also led to global supplpies being drained.

Zeigler said it was still not clear why the pest and virus attacks had swept across the southern and central regions of Vietnam.

"We’re faced with a lot of unknowns," said the American, who has headed the Institute — credited for developing high-yield rice strains in the 1960s that helped lift hundreds of millions in Asia out of poverty — since 2005.

"(Farmers) did shift varieties and they shifted the way they managed those varieties, and so we’re still trying to sort out whether it was some change in the strain or it was the change in the management practices, or both," he said.

Zeigler said nations in the region and across the world needed to invest more in agricultural research, now that the vast yield gains seen since the 1960s have begun to flatten out.

"To some extent we can lay the blame ... on reduced investment in agricultural research in the last 15 years," he said. The IRRI, first set up with funds from US foundations, is supported by government donors worldwide.

"Certainly the kinds of things that took (Vietnam) by surprise are areas of work that IRRI had to cut back on in the last five to 10 years because of budget cuts," he said.

World oil prices plunge below US$ 100 in London LONDON, March 20 (Reuters) —

Oil slipped below $ 100 a barrel on Thursday for the first time in two weeks, extending a hefty sell-off in the previous session on growing concerns an economic slowdown in top consumer the United States would undermine global energy demand.

US crude was down $ 2.00 to $ 100.54 barrel by 1117 GMT, up from an earlier low of $ 99.59, the first time since March 5 that it has fallen below $ 100.

It dropped almost $ 5 on Wednesday and is about $ 12 off the record $ 111.80 hit on Monday.

London Brent crude fell $ 1.71 to $ 99.47 by 1059 GMT.

"We continue to see profit-taking among commodities. There are also macro-economic concerns about the economy and the dollar has been doing better," said Mike Wittner, global head of oil market research in London for Societe Generale.

Gold dropped more than 4 percent to a one-month low Thursday, while platinum slid more than 5 percent to $ 1,820 an ounce, the lowest since early February as funds cashed in.

Oil and other commodities had struck a series of record highs since the beginning of the year as investors fled stocks markets and took refuge in dollar-denominated assets. US oil prices averaging around $ 97 a barrel since the beginning of this year, up from $ 72.30 in 2007.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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