Asian stability threatened by stagnating rice sector
IRRI Press Release, February 12, 2004

Los Baņos, Philippines -- The stability of the Asian region, including the troubled nations of Indonesia and Philippines, is threatened by the continuing lack of development in the rice sector. Rice farming remains a poverty trap in many Asian nations, mainly because of very small farm size. Adding to the misery of rice growers in the region is declining support for public rice research, one of the few proven avenues for improving the lives of rice farmers and consumers alike. The United Nations cannot hope to achieve its Millennium Development Goals -- especially in such crucial areas as eradicating poverty and hunger -- unless more is done to improve the livelihoods of poor rice farmers.

Ronald P. Cantrell, director general of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), said that achieving at least two of the eight goals heavily depends on continued and strengthened research efforts to help farmers grow rice more efficiently, profitably and sustainably. These two goals are

  • eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, and
  • ensuring environmental sustainability.

Recent research has shown that in 1999, for every US$1 million invested at IRRI, more than 800 rural poor in China, and 15,000 rural poor in India, were lifted above the poverty line. These poverty-reduction effects were even greater in earlier years.

Dr. Cantrell, a respected plant breeder, was speaking on the eve of a major conference on rice organized in Rome, Italy, by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Titled "Rice in global markets and sustainable production systems," the conference marks the official launch of FAO activities for International Year of Rice 2004.

More information on the conference is available on the FAO's International Year of Rice Web site at www.rice2004.org.

In the early years of the Green Revolution up to the early 1980s, the rice-producing nations of Asia enjoyed annual rice yield increases of 2.5 percent and production gains of over 3 percent. However, between the middle of the 1980s and the late 1990s, the rate of annual yield increase was nearly halved, and the rate of production increase fell even further.

Many rural rice communities in Asia are growing increasingly restless, as productivity stagnation leaves them trapped in poverty and urgently needing new strategies and fresh ideas to help them improve their lives. They are waiting for new technologies to make them more productive and competitive and so lift them out of poverty.

"There is nothing more important to any country than its ability to feed itself," said Dr. Cantrell. "In Indonesia, this means growing enough rice. But, if food security is one essential pillar of national security, another is rural development."

Poverty and a lack of opportunity -- for education, livelihood or simply the chance to lead a happy, healthy life -- can foster instability.

Desperate people forced to leave home in search of work are susceptible to extremism; one of the Bali bombers had reportedly left his home village of Tenggulun, East Java, to seek work in Malaysia, where he was recruitedby terrorists. While this is a worst-case scenario, such reports should not be discounted. A lack of opportunity in heavily agricultural Tenggulun has forced 20 percent of its working-age population to leave in search of employment -- a story repeated time and again throughout rural Asia.

"The Asian rice industry is in trouble," Dr. Cantrell said. "At a time of abundant supplies and record low prices, some may laugh at such a statement. But please allow me a few sentences to explain. Not only is the rice industry in Asia facing a crisis in the supply of such essential resources as land, labor and water, but -- most importantly of all -- many nations are finding it difficult to develop sustainable ways to provide decent livelihoods for rice farmers and consumers."

Dr. Cantrell said this huge challenge comes at a time of collapsing support for public rice research. "While IRRI still has some very committed donors, there is no doubt that the institute could do a lot more if it had more support."

For more than 4 decades, the research system that develops and delivers knowledge and new technologies to Asia's rice farmers has been funded -- and influenced -- mostly by Western nations. But now, having achieved visible success, many of these generous donors are taking their resources elsewhere, such as Africa.

"For those talented Asian scientists who are already being prevented -- some by unemployment -- from using their knowledge to help the region's farmers, this worrying decline in support for rice research has already reached a critical, if not a crisis, level," Dr. Cantrell said. Fortunately, there is also some good news. In the past 40 years, rice scientists and extensionists have built an impressive network all over Asia. "In many nations, these scientists have as much expertise as their colleagues in the developed world," Dr. Cantrell said. "Asia'srice scientists are world class and have achieved impressive results." Working at the national, regional and international level -- and at organizations such as IRRI -- these scientists have developed an impressive array of new technologies and strategies by which farmers can improve their lives. This despite underfunding and the persistent shortcomings of networks and mechanisms for delivering new technologies to farmers.

Dr. Cantrell cited the sequencing of the rice genome as the most important of many exciting new developments in rice research. "This breakthrough is providing us with more scientific knowledge of the rice plant than we have gathered in the 15,000 years of its cultivation." Other major scientific advances include:

  • More nutritious rice. Researchers are developing rice varieties that are rich in such essential micronutrients as iron, zinc and vitamin A, as well as protein.
  • Rice that grows with less water. Asia's looming water crisis means that the traditional use of up to 3,000 liters of water to produce 1 kg of rice is unsustainable, so scientists are working on a new type of dry-field rice.
  • Rice that withstands such complex stresses such as drought or saline soils. IRRI's researchers foresee success in developing new technologies for the particularly poor populations of marginal areas.
  • Hybrid rice and other varieties that will provide higher yields for farmers and motivate private sector investment in developing improved varieties for farmers.

"All of these breakthroughs have great potential to help poor rice farmers, laborers and consumers," Dr. Cantrell said. "However, in many countries the extension systems for delivering these technologies are chronically underfunded.

"Assuming there are 200 million rice farmers in Asia, an investment of just 40 cents per farmer for each of the next 20 years would go a long way toward ensuring that they can earn a decent living sustainably supplying poor rice consumers with plentiful supplies of affordable, nutritious rice," he said.

"Clearly, finding that much money won't be easy, but if we agree that there is nothing more important in Asia than rice, then the challenge seems a little less daunting -- especially during the International Year of Rice," Dr. Cantrell concluded. "Raising the funds we need will take time and careful thought, but the rewards will be there for all to see in a strong, vibrant rice industry that leads, rather than lags after, other regional industries in technological innovation."

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The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is the world's leading rice research and training center. Based in the Philippines and with offices in 10 other Asian countries, it is an autonomous, nonprofit institution focused on improving the well-being of present and future generations of rice farmers and consumers, particularly those with low incomes, while preserving natural resources. IRRI is one of 16 centers funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an association of public and private donor agencies. Please visit the Web sites of the CGIAR (www.cgiar.org) or Future Harvest Foundation (www.futureharvest.org), a nonprofit organization that builds awareness and supports food and environmental research.

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For information, contact Duncan Macintosh, IRRI, DAPO Box 7777, Metro Manila, Philippines; tel: (63-2) 580-5600; fax: (63-2) 580-5699; email: d.macintosh@cgiar.org
Web sites: IRRI Home (www.irri.org), IRRI Library (http://ricelib.irri.cgiar.org), Rice Knowledge Bank (www.knowledgebank.irri.org), Riceworld Museum and Learning Center (www.riceworld.org)

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