Rice Price Hike Alarms Scientists at World Rice Conference

By Frederick Noronha

NEW DELHI, India, November 8, 2004 (ENS) - International rice prices have jumped this year by 40 percent, and scientists warn that this hike, brought on by shortages in some countries, is a grim reminder that Asia's ability to feed itself cannot be taken for granted.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) announced that an "international effort" has been launched to renew focus on the development of sustainable strategies to feed the half of the world's population that depends on rice.

This emerged at the four day World Rice Research Conference held in Tokyo and Tsukuba, Japan which ended Sunday. The event is the culmination of the International Year of Rice 2004, which the United Nations declared to focus international attention on the enormous challenges facing global rice production.


This photo by Vu Nguyen of Vietnam of terraced rice paddies won first prize in the Professional Photographers category of the International Year of Rice global photography contest sponsored by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). (Photo courtesy FAO)
One of the greatest challenges is guaranteeing the food security of three billion rice consumers despite the erosion of such vital agricultural resources as land, labor and water.

Rice covers almost 150 million hectares worldwide. As one of the most widely planted crops, it has a profound impact on the environment and natural resources.

One big challenge facing Asia, say scientists, is for nations to meet their national and household food security needs with an ever declining natural resource base, especially water and land.

The current annual rice production of 545 million tons needs to be increased to 700 million tons to feed an additional 650 million rice consumers by 2025, using less water and less land, which is a big challenge delegates to the rice research conference agreed.

In addition, rice is seen as crucial in meeting a prominent UN Millennium Development Goal - the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger.

Says the IRRI, "Rice is so central to the lives of most Asians that any solution to global poverty and hunger must include research that helps poor Asian farmers reduce their risks and earn a decent profit while growing rice that is still affordable to poor consumers."


Rice is important in Africa as well as Asia. The golden rice ready for harvest in this field in Ghana, is separated from the younger rice by a small canal. (Photo by P. Cenini courtesy FAO)
The IRRI announced details of a new Environmental Agenda at the conference. The institute, based in Los Baņos, Philippines, listed seven key challenges to producing rice for the world, and doing so sustainably.

These are - poverty and the environment, farm chemicals and residues, land use and degradation, water use and quality, biodiversity, climate change and the use of biotechnology.

"Each of these issues is crucial to rice production and efforts to ensure that the 800 million rice consumers who are trapped in poverty in Asia can get access to the rice they need to feed themselves and their families," said IRRI Director General Ronald Cantrell.

Cantrell said, "As international rice prices jumped this year by a surprising 40 percent because of shortages in some countries, we are reminded that we cannot take Asia's ability to feed itself for granted. If we do, millions will suffer because of our complacency."

The Association of Southeast Asian Nations has been warned that it faces challenges in vitally important areas such as the looming impact of global warming, and inadequately trained and increasingly scarce human resources.


Woman harvests rice in India's Hyderabad District (Photo by G. Bizzarri courtesy FAO)
Since the start of the Green Revolution - which began in Asia with IRRI's release in 1966 of IR8, the first modern, high yielding semidwarf rice variety - supporters of this technology based drive say global rice harvest has more than doubled, racing slightly ahead of population growth.

IRRI says around 1,000 modern varieties - approximately half the number released in South and Southeast Asia over the last 38 years - are linked to varieties developed by the institute and its partners.

Increased availability of rice has pushed down world market rice prices by 80 percent over the last 20 years, greatly benefiting poor rice consumers, urban slum dwellers and landless farm workers alike, claim supporters of the Green Revolution. Farmers have also benefited as improved efficiency has lowered unit cost and increased profit, they say.

But critics of the Green Revolution contend that its policies have adversely affected the ecology, agriculture, politics, and social relations in the developing world.

IRRI, a leading global rice research and training institute, has offices in 10 countries in addition to its headquarters in the Philippines. It is one of 15 centers funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, an association of public and private donor agencies.