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Welcoming remarks

L.O. Fresco
Assistant Director-General, Agriculture Department, FAO

It is a pleasure to welcome all of you today. I wish to emphasize just how important it is to FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) to have key figures in rice research and development here at this landmark meeting. We are all aware of the importance of rice, not just as a commodity but as a symbol of prosperity in many world cultures. Thus, rather than repeating the importance of rice, I would like to take this opportunity to outline some of the present and future challenges we must confront as an international team.

Over the past decades, we have made great progress in addressing the genetic, biological and ecological challenges associated with rice. We have reached a consensus as to the importance of stewarding diversity in our rice fields and gene banks. We are aware of the need to use water efficiently and we have methods to do so. We are aware of the need to watch methane emissions from our rice fields and of the importance of curbing climate change. The mapping of the rice genome has opened new possibilities for science and technology to help make the future of rice an ecologically sustainable future.

Now is the time to look ahead and expand our focus to include both environmental sustainability and food quality. The battle against hunger and poverty does not end when bellies are full, but when they are nourished. We must also look to science and new technologies to confront the need for added value and biofortification of this staple crop. In addition to treating rice as a staple, we must also focus on its value as a speciality food - a food that is treasured in developed and developing economies alike. Future consumers might not seek out rice because they are starving, but they may select it for quality and taste. In order to secure the future of rice we must include it in our vision of a more prosperous and healthy population.

It is also time to increase our focus on the rice plant within its ecosystem - we still do not have an integrated understanding of this crop's potential because we have not sufficiently studied how rice interrelates with fish, livestock and vegetable systems. The rice system is a hub of biodiversity that can be harnessed to improve rural diets and livelihoods in an ecologically sustainable way. It is time to consider the rice system with vision. Are there properties of the rice plant that might be of interest to future consumers? There are a number of biological and ecological challenges to think about beyond sole survival. I do not refer to the next 5 years, but the next 10 years. We need to look ahead.

We also need to foster sustainable mechanization that respects the environment and that can help to keep young people interested in farming. Overcoming labour shortages and addressing the obvious need to reduce drudgery in the field are among our greatest challenges today. We must also clarify our goals. To what extent are we aiming for monocropping, crop rotations or more diversified systems? These decisions must be debated and addressed in the context of local conditions - labour is going to be the key driving factor in rice-based systems. There is no sense in building intensified-labour diversified systems if our future sources of labour come up short.

There are also socio-economic political challenges. How do we solve the issue of intellectual property rights, knowing full well that research funding for rice in the public domain has not increased? We are talking about a crop that is vitally important to over half of the world's population - how can we get the private sector involved to make a profit while at the same time guaranteeing access to technology for the poor? What can we do to make sure that the future of rice is really a sustainable future?

The fundamental challenge associated with rice production is that the crop is so necessary that it is often taken for granted. Rice has not received the high level attention that so many other crops receive, and yet its importance is indisputable.

These are the challenges I see for the future of rice. We need to start looking ahead at the rice crop as a whole and within its diverse socio-economic contexts, and find ways to ensure its future.

Thank you and I wish all of you a very successful Conference.

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