Rice will never be just another commodity. Much of the truth behind this simple statement can be derived from the 2008 rice crisis that shocked the world and triggered massive protests in Africa and parts of Asia. It revealed the fragile economic state of many families across the world that relied on this staple for daily nourishment. Rice, which has dwindled in significance after the successes of the Green Revolution, was suddenly catapulted again to a national priority and an international imperative—with several new challenges that will test the ability of the world to deliver food for the future.
Speakers at the first-ever International Rice Policy and Investment Conference (IRPIC) covered key issues on rice trade and the impact of policy and investment. This conference, organized in conjunction with the 28th International Rice Research Conference during the International Rice Congress 2010 held in Hanoi, Vietnam, 8-12 November, highlighted rice’s importance in both achieving food security and reducing poverty (see Rice for future generations).
Considering that half of the world depends on rice, any tip in the balance of global rice production can cause ripple effects in the market that eventually hit poor farmers and consumers. Dr. Samarendu Mohanty, head of the International Rice Research Institute’s Social Sciences Division and IRPIC organizer pointed out that, over the past 2 years, many nations have moved toward food security by attaining rice self-sufficiency. Nations have awakened to the truth that the agricultural sector demands as much attention as any other sector in the economic development process; hence, efforts to expand domestic production by increasing yield and providing better input subsidies have mushroomed in most countries.
Nations also saw a need to build their domestic stocks by increasing minimum support prices to encourage more farmers to plant, and, in some cases, governments such as India were compelled to protect their stocks by imposing an export ban. Trade restrictions, however, were often seen to distort the market and are therefore not healthy in the long run. Such market shocks, including calamities that drastically cut supplies, have brought a renewed focus on regional rice reserves to serve as a buffer. Plus, the challenge of a limited water and energy supply added two more constraints to production; these resources were previously assumed to be broadly available during the last Green Revolution. This has, in turn, made sustainability a recurring theme, as rice production’s impact on the environment was also considered in assessing policy and investment initiatives.
Increasing yield is the key
According to IRRI, the key to building the global rice supply lies in improving yield. In his outlook for 2020 and 2035, Dr. Mohanty noted that, in order for the supply to keep up with the growing demand, the world needs to produce an additional 84 million tons of paddy in the next 10 years. This requires a 1.5% increase in yield every year compared with the current 0.8%. Dr. Mohanty added that, by 2035, without yield improvements, land available to rice must expand by much more so as to produce the additional 116 million tons that will be needed to keep the world sufficiently fed. But, little land is now available for expansion.
IRRI’s main thrust is to use innovative technology to develop new varieties that can provide better yield and thrive during drought, flooding, and salinity, among other extreme conditions.
Marker-assisted breeding and hybridization are two modern technologies that have been used to develop new rice varieties that have been adopted in major rice-growing countries (see On your mark, get set select and Hybridizing the world) . Genetically modified (GM) rice may also hold potential to safely deliver unique rice varieties that cannot be achieved through other breeding methods—although currently, no GM rice is commercially available.
Moreover, Dr. Thomas Reardon of Michigan State University pointed out that increasing yield does not necessarily lie only in developing new varieties. Sometimes, it just simply needs efficient postharvest and structural management.
Poor postharvest practices can reduce yield by 15–20% (see Grain gains). He also noted that moving away from long supply chains can help prevent a large amount of rice from being wasted. Citing China as an example, he said that 5% of production is lost in just bringing rice from the farm to the plate.
Strength in policy and investment
To be able to obtain the necessary technologies, the rice sector calls for better policies and more investments. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has recognized the strength that lies behind these two factors, and it has already put its financial support behind IRRI’s initiatives—most recently, the Global Rice Science Partnership (see Blueprint for a greener revolution).
Prahbu Pingali, deputy director of agricultural development at the Foundation, said that the Foundation believes that everyone should have a healthy, productive life, and IRRI’s innovative research is recognized as a vital tool that will catalyze a shift toward this vision. While investments start to come in, governments are further encouraged to do their fair share to implement more efficient policies that will sustain the development of these programs for the benefit of the present and future generations.