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Rice-based production systems for food security and poverty alleviation in Asia and the Pacific

R.P. Cantrella and G.P. Hettelb
a Director General and b Head, Communication and Publications Services IRRI, Los Baños, the Philippines

The milestone FAO Conference on Rice in Global Markets and Sustainable Production Systems is part of the kick-off to the celebrations of the International Year of Rice. It provides a great opportunity to raise public awareness on very important subjects, namely, the key economic and production issues that will shape the world rice economy. It is an honour to make this presentation during this influential forum before many distinguished representatives from concerned governments, international and non-governmental organizations, and the private sector.


This year, 2004, is the second time that the United Nations (UN) has designated a year for rice. Thirty-eight years ago - in 1966 - rice became the first ever agricultural commodity to be declared "Crop of the Year". When something unprecedented is suggested, some of the overly cautious will always have reservations. According to O.E. Fischnich, then Assistant Director-General of FAO, when the idea was first proposed, a number of the representatives of national governments expressed some reluctance to putting a "year tag" on any one crop. However, as the proposal was more fully discussed, as the facts established the pre-eminent position of rice as human food, and as thinking people reviewed the world food position and determined to exploit every possibility to encourage more food production, all resistance to the idea of declaring an International Rice Year disappeared (IRRI, 2003a).

The objective of International Rice Year 1966 was to encourage concerted efforts to promote rice and improve understanding of the world's most widely eaten grain, especially in the context of its role in furthering the UN's Freedom From Hunger campaign. The big Asian news story of 1966 was indeed hunger. In recalling that year, the Far Eastern Economic Review pointed out that 1966 brought into sudden and sharp focus the fact that the largely agricultural economies of Asia were failing to produce sufficient food to feed the region's rapidly growing populations (Anon., 1967). Asia, once a net exporter of food, the domain of some of the world's lushest rice bowls and wheat-lands, home to some of the world's most skilled and industrious farmers, was a food-deficit region, literally dependent on the West to stay alive (Davies, 1967).

According to the Far Eastern Economic Review, the tragedy of the food situation in Asia was underlined by the fact that, in the year dedicated by FAO as the International Rice Year, grave shortages of rice supplies developed. Asia in 1966 had to struggle to fill its rice bowls. According to the Review, the only heartening development on the Asian food scene was the appearance of some positive signs that the official agencies respons-ible were willing to change their approach and give agriculture the priority that it deserved in the war on poverty.

Nevertheless, 1966 truly was an International Rice Year. Year-tagged conferences and events played a role in making it so. The release by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in November of that year of IR 8 - the first modern semi-dwarf rice variety - and other achievements during those thrilling days of publicly funded international rice research left indelible marks. A year of living dangerously, teetering at the brink of mass famine, galvanized policy-makers and donors to take the bold steps that launched the green revolution (IRRI, 2003a). Whatever branded 1966 as International Rice Year, its legacies today are lasting improvements in rice farmers' productivity and poor rice consumers' diets. And while it cannot be said for sure that this designation was a major factor in the success that was achieved during the remainder of the twentieth century, it cannot be denied that it probably had an impact in mobilizing resources for the rice research that helped lead to those successes.

It is most appropriate that we have come full circle in declaring 2004 the International Year of Rice. Today, we have some new challenges to face - perhaps not on the mammoth scale of those of 38 years ago, but rather even more difficult from the point of view of technology. The challenges for rice farmers and researchers in 1966 were fairly straightforward. Renowned economist Dr Peter Timmer, formerly of Harvard University, points out that the task of agricultural development was much easier at that time, when the need for greater cereal output to accomplish national food security was met by new seed and fertilizer technologies, which were already in fairly advanced stages of development (Timmer, 2003). The International Year of Rice 2004 should be used to elevate the awareness (again) of key policy-makers and donors to be able to face the new (and much more complicated) challenges of the twenty-first century.


Before discussing these challenges, it is essential that everyone present understands that the discussion is framed in the context of rice-based cropping systems in countries and areas of the world that are dominated by rice. Other speakers will list the challenges and opportunities for rice in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Near East and North Africa (all, of course, important for the people living there). The magnitude, however, pales in these regions when compared with Asia. As was pointed out during FAO's Expert Consultation on Bridging the Rice Yield Gap in the Asia-Pacific Region (Bangkok, 5-7 October 1999), rice is the lifeline of the region where 56 percent of humanity - including about 70 percent of the world's 1.3 billion poor people - lives, producing and consuming around 92 percent of the world's rice (Papademetriou, 1999).

In terms of rice and its importance, there are more poor people - and starving children - in eastern India alone than there are in all of Africa! Of the most important African food crops, rice ranks a distant seventh place behind cassava, yam, maize, plantain, sorghum and millet (Hartmann, 2003). However, rice is by far the most dominant crop in Asia, where in many countries it covers half the arable land cropped.


Clearly, there are two integral major challenges, for now and well into the future, involving rice in Asia. The first is the ability of nations to meet their national and household food security needs with a declining natural resource base, two of the critical resources being water and land. How the current level of annual rice production of around 545 million tonnes can be increased to about 700 million tonnes to feed an additional 650 million rice eaters by 2025 (D. Dawe, personal communication, 2003), using less water and less land is indeed the great challenge in Asia.

The second challenge - as stated so eloquently by the UN as one of its eight Millennium Development Goals[11] - is the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger. 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.

Scarcity of water and land


As put forth by the CGIAR (Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research) Challenge Program on Water and Food, increasing water scarcity and competition for the same water from non-agricultural sectors points to an urgent need to improve crop water productivity to ensure adequate food for future generations with the same or less water than is presently available to agriculture.[12] About 70 percent of the water currently withdrawn from all freshwater sources worldwide is used for agriculture; rice requires about twice as much water as other grain crops, such as wheat or maize. In Asia, irrigated agriculture accounts for 90 percent of the total diverted freshwater used, and more than 50 percent of this is used to irrigate rice (IRRI, 2001). Until recently, this quantity of water was taken for granted, but this situation cannot continue.

The reasons for the looming water crisis are diverse and location-specific, but include decreasing water quality (chemical pollution, salinization), decreasing water resources (falling groundwater tables, silting of reservoirs) and increased competition from other sectors, such as urban and industrial users (IRRI, 2003b). Though a complete assessment of the level of water scarcity in rice production is still lacking, there are signs that declining quality and availability - as well as increased competition and increasing costs - are already affecting the sustainability of the irrigated rice production system. By 2025, it is expected that 2 million ha of Asia's irrigated dry-season rice and 13 million ha of its irrigated wet-season rice will experience "physical water scarcity", and most of the approximately 22 million ha of irrigated dry-season rice in South and Southeast Asia will suffer "economic water scarcity" (Tuong and Bouman, 2002). Drought is one of the main constraints to high yield in rainfed rice production systems in both the lowlands and the uplands.

With increasing water scarcity, rice-land will shift away from being continuously flooded (anaerobic) to being partly or even completely aerobic. This shift will cause profound changes in water conservation, soil organic matter turnover, nutrient dynamics, carbon sequestration, soil productivity, weed ecology and greenhouse gas emissions. While some of these changes can be perceived as positive (e.g. water conservation and decreased methane emissions), others are perceived as negative (e.g. release of nitrous oxide from the soil and decline in soil organic matter). The challenge is to develop effective integrated natural resource management interventions which allow profitable rice cultivation with increased soil aeration while maintaining the productivity, environmental protection and sustainability of rice-based ecosystems.

To assist in meeting this challenge, the International Platform for Saving Water in Rice (IPSWAR)[13] was created during an international workshop, Water-Wise Rice Production, held at IRRI (Bouman et al., 2002). IPSWAR is a mechanism to increase the efficiency and to enhance the coherence of research on water savings in rice-based cropping systems in Asia. The overarching goal is to conserve water resources, which will safeguard national and household food security and alleviate poverty.


The lands most at threat in Asia are the fragile rainfed or upland environments where the poor are forced to use whatever resources are available to produce the food they need. As the Asian population is expected to increase from 3.7 billion in 2000 to 4.6 billion in 2025, pressure to intensify land use, in both favourable and marginal areas, will thus increase. One study (Beinroth, Eswaran and Reich, 2001) shows that most Asian countries will not be able to feed their projected populations without irreversibly degrading their land resources, even with high levels of management inputs.

In the marginal areas, intensification of land use will lead to degradation of resources through loss of biodiversity, deforestation, build-up of pest infestations, depletion of natural soil fertility and soil erosion. These changes will ultimately affect the functioning of the ecosystems. Deforestation and soil losses from upland environments also have off-site effects through changed patterns of water-flow, leading to increased frequency and intensity of flooding and consequent damage to infrastructure. Similarly, excessive use of inputs, such as chemical fertilizers and pesticides, and exploitation of groundwater in the intensive rice bowls of Asia, will likely result in resource degradation and environmental pollution, with adverse effects on human health (IRRI, 2003b).

Rice researchers have developed yield-increasing technologies for favourable environments, which have led to a massive growth in rice production through the green revolution. Had the yield of rice remained at its pre-green revolution level of 1.9 tonnes/ha, current production would have required more than double the current rice-land area. Such an expansion of rice area would have most certainly led to high environmental costs. In addition, yield improvements through better rice technologies in marginal areas have made a direct contribution to the decrease in intensification pressure in these environments.

A strategy for the future would be to further strengthen the two-pronged approach of increasing productivity in favourable environments while developing rice technologies that have minimal adverse effects on the resource base of fragile environments (IRRI, 2003b). This will involve the use of new integrative approaches that take into account resource flows, interactions and trade-offs in the use of land, labour, water and capital across the landscape for assuring farmer livelihood and resource conservation. It will be important to conduct comprehensive analyses of farmers' livelihood strategies in fragile environments and of how these interact with the use of land resources to underpin efforts at developing suitable technologies.

Breaking out of the poverty trap

To illustrate the challenge of alleviating poverty, it is useful to examine a real human situation, for example, the dilemma of Mr Sucipto, a subsistence farmer on the rainfed lowland plains of central Java in Indonesia. He uses most of his one-quarter-tonne harvest from his direct-seeded wet-season crop on his small farm to feed a large extended family. He would sell more rice if his yields were higher, but he has a lot of mouths to feed.

How can Mr Sucipto and his family (and millions like them) break out of their poverty trap? First, they are in this "trap" mainly because of the small size of their farms, which to date has not allowed them to produce much beyond their families' needs. However, Mr Sucipto would most likely not even be adequately feeding his family were it not for the green revolution - certainly an important accomplishment. Neverthelss, even though Mr Sucipto and legions like him are not starving, they are still extremely poor!

The economist, Peter Timmer, points out that, with staple cereal prices at an all-time low in world markets, dynamic agriculture in Asia depends on diversification into commodities with better demand prospects, such as fruits, vegetables and a variety of livestock products (Timmer, 2003). To accomplish this, rice production needs to be even more efficient, freeing up resources so that many small farmers, like Mr Sucipto, can indeed consider diversifying their farms; they would also choose to use the additional resources to start or enhance full-time non-farm livelihoods.

IRRI economist, David Dawe, points out that throughout history, every country (without exception) that has become wealthy has removed most of its population from agriculture. It is, therefore, necessary to get some people out of rice farming, while still keeping rice prices low in order to assure household food security for the hundreds of millions of rural and urban poor who will still be eating the staple. To accomplish this, anew breed of rice farmer must emerge in Asia, capable of taking advantage of a more efficient, productive and profitable rice industry made possible by the exciting new technologies being developed by rice research.

One last point must be made before moving on to the array and the importance of those new technologies. The terms "national food security" and "household food security" are used in this paper, and the difference should be explained. Dr Dawe defines national food security, which was achieved for many Asian nations by the green revolution with its new seed and fertilizer technologies, as the ability of a country (in some sense) to either produce or import enough grain or food to meet the average needs of its population. However, a country can achieve national food security and obviously still have a large part of its population poor and not enjoying what we call household food security, which is (as defined by Dr Dawe) providing poor families with enough income to buy the food that they need. With household food security, a family can lead a healthy, active life with no worry about where the next meal is coming from.


It is safe to say that almost everyone agrees that technological innovation is essential for human progress. Indeed, it has been at the heart of development over the centuries. From early farmers' selection of seeds to the green revolution, from the first use of penicillin to the widespread use of vaccines, and from the printing press to the computer, people have devised tools for raising agricultural productivity, improving health, and facilitating learning and communication.

Building human capacities and economic growth are integrally linked with technological innovation: you cannot have one without the other. Technological innovation is a means to human development because of its impact on economic growth through the productivity gains it generates. And conversely, human development is an important means to the development of new technologies.

The assessment of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP, 2001), as articulated in its 2001 Human Development Report, is that technology deserves more attention than ever. Certainly, just as the technological breakthroughs of the past have improved human health and nutrition, expanded knowledge and stimulated economic growth, the genetic, molecular and digital wonders of the modern world will only accelerate how we can use technology to alleviate, if not eradicate, poverty and to meet the challenges posed by water scarcity, land degradation and other problems.

There is no doubt that technology will play a crucial role in helping a substantial percentage of the poor people currently tilling millions of tiny rice farms in Asia break out of the poverty trap. This conviction is based on what green revolution technology has already accomplished in rice on the continent over the last 25 years.

Certainly, increased production and lower prices of rice across Asia have been the most important results of the higher yields that rice research and new farming technologies have made possible. Around 1 000 modern varieties (approximately half the number released in 12 countries of South and Southeast Asia over the last 40 years) are linked to IRRI germplasm, i.e. a very large impact. Modern varieties and the resultant increase in production have increased the overall availability of rice and have also helped to reduce world market rice prices by 80 percent over the last 20 years. Poor and well-to-do farmers alike have benefited directly through more efficient production that has led to lower unit costs and increased profits. Poor consumers have benefited indirectly through lower prices. This has brought national food security to China and India, not to mention Indonesia and other countries. However, further increases in output and even lower prices continue to be needed for many poor families to realize household food security.

Some of the technologies IRRI and its partners are using to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century are discussed below. Some are already benefiting farmers, while others promise results in the near (<5 years) and distant (5-15 years) future.

Dawn of tropical hybrid rice in Asia

After more than 20 years of research, tropical hybrid rice is becoming an option for many Asian farmers. By exploiting the phenomenon of hybrid vigour (FAO, 2003a), hybrid rice varieties yield between 1 and 1.5 tonnes/ha (15-20 percent) more than the best semi-dwarf inbred varieties grown under irrigated conditions. The vigorous and more active root system of hybrid varieties also enables them to tolerate moderate stresses caused by salinity and drought due to limited irrigation water.

This technology has already demonstrated great potential for increasing rice production in China, where 15 million ha (5 0 percent of the total rice area) are planted to hybrid rice varieties (Virmani, Mao and Hardy, 2003). In tropical Asia, hybrids have started showing their potential in India, Viet Nam, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Indonesia, where a total of about 1 million ha were planted to hybrid rice varieties in 2003 (S.S. Virmani, personal communication, 2003).

This technology clearly helps rice farmers to increase their yields, productivity and profitability by using less land and water, and enables them to opt for crop diversification to increase their income. An associated seed production technology has helped to develop a seed industry in Asia, which in turn has contributed to increasing rural employment opportunities.

Within the next few years, the hybrid rice area in tropical Asia should increase significantly due to the efforts of countries such as the Philippines, where an ambitious hybrid rice programme aims for its farmers to be growing 600 000 ha by 2005 (Aguiba, 2003).

New plant type: foundation for higher-yielding rice plants Parallel to the development of hybrid rice, IRRI and colleagues in national research programmes have achieved another important success: the new plant type (NPT). With the NPT, the objective is to increase both the total biomass and the harvest index of the plant, which it is hoped will increase yield potential by about 20 percent over current modern varieties. In yield trials, the top-performing tropical NPT line has produced 10.2 tonnes/ha, which is very close to the best yields of any post-green revolution varieties.

NPT lines have been distributed via nurseries of the International Network for Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER) to interested countries. National programme researchers are now evaluating these very best lines under local conditions. Three NPT varieties are outyielding popular modern varieties in farmers' fields by 1 tonne/ha in China.

The evidence accumulated by IRRI suggests that the yield barrier of 10 tonnes/ha is probably a fundamental obstacle rooted in the bioenergetics of 100-day rice crops growing in the tropics. A radical solution is therefore needed and NPTs will have a major part to play in breaking this yield barrier: NPTs have many properties (mechanical strength to support higher yields and high leaf nitrogen content for building higher grain yields) that could make them part of the foundation of the higher-yielding lines of the future. The improved NPT lines have equal contributions from both the indica and japonica subspecies, resulting in a significant increase in genetic diversity of the elite breeding lines from IRRI. The NPT lines will be valuable parents for achieving higher heterosis in hybrid rice varieties.

Transferring C4 maize genes to C3 rice to save water and fertilizer

As part of the quest for higher yield potential in rice, the link between photosynthesis, yield and radiation-use efficiency (RUE) must be examined. According to some scientists, the upper yield limit of rice with its conventional photosynthetic pathway will go only halfway to the goal of increasing rice yield by 50 percent by 2050. Improved crop photosynthesis would then seem essential. One proposal for increasing rice's RUE is to incorporate the high C4 photosynthetic capacity of a crop such as maize into rice, which is a less photosynthetically efficient C3 cereal (Sheehy, Mitchell and Hardy, 2000).

Making the photosynthetic pathway of rice resemble that of maize would require a long-term genetic engineering project (10-15 years) to introduce genes for enzymes of the C4 pathway and for leaf anatomy. If accomplished, the benefits would be enormous across the rice ecosystem spectrum. A C4 rice plant would yield the same as a C3 with half the transpirational water loss. It would also require significantly less N fertilizer, thus providing for a cleaner environment. In irrigated rice, yield potentials would rise significantly, enabling poor farmers to produce enough additional income to break out of that poverty trap.

In drought-prone ecosystems (rainfed lowland and upland rice), yields could be maintained or increased with less water and less fertilizer, especially when coupled with the predicted rising atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide that is associated with future world climate change. Farmers living at the margins in these ecosystems would see improvements in yield and yield stability. It would be a revolution in rice farming.

Molecular breeding for dealing with complex traits

There has been great success in backcross breeding for simply inherited traits. There are also tremendous amounts of "hidden" genetic diversity for many complex traits, particularly for yield and abiotic stress tolerances, in the primary gene pool of rice - much of which will be more easily "found" with the wealth of information coming out of the sequencing of the rice genome (Cantrell and Reeves, 2002). The new International Network for Rice Molecular Breeding (INRMB), devised by Zhikang Li, an IRRI molecular geneticist based at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, is attempting to fully exploit the genetic diversity in the germplasm collections preserved in rice gene banks by integrating gene discovery and allele mining with rice improvement.

INRMB has a comprehensive strategy involving marker-aided and backcross breeding and improved phenotypic selection. We believe this strategy will contribute to discovering and exploiting the hidden diversity. Currently, large-scale gene/QTL (quantitative trait loci) discovery, allele mining (see below) and marker-aided pyramiding of complex traits are in progress in China and at IRRI. By sharing this information and materials with participating national agricultural research and extension systems (NARES), the network will aid in the development of elite rice varieties in a shorter time than could be achieved through more conventional breeding approaches.

Allele mining for efficient use of natural variation

Regarding allele mining, an operation has been set up at IRRI's International Rice Genebank (Leung, Hettel and Cantrell, 2002). The bank contains more than 102 000 distinct accessions with a wide range of untapped traits for variety improvement. With the rice genome sequence available, it is possible to identify important loci and screen the gene bank collection for novel alleles at those loci to find traits, for example, related to disease resistance. The challenge is to find genes and mechanisms to provide broad-spectrum resistance to rice pathogens, such as blast and bacterial blight. This will benefit farmers by avoiding the boom and bust cycle caused by disease epidemics. Promising results are due soon. For example, in the fight against blast, five known defence genes have been put together in a rice cultivar from China, resulting in good resistance across locations, presumably because of resistance to multiple races of the pathogen.

Meeting the water crisis head on with aerobic rice

To meet the water crisis head on, valuable gains can be achieved by growing rice with less water. Traditionally, producing 1 kg of rice requires between 3 000 and 5 000 litres of freshwater. It is necessary to develop a fundamental approach for reducing the water requirement of rice to significantly below this level. Why not create an "aerobic rice" that could be treated like other irrigated crops?

Within the next 4 to 5 years, it will be possible to develop an "aerobic" rice plant for the Asian tropics that grows similarly to rice plants being grown in irrigated upland rice fields in Brazil. An aerobic rice working group, involving breeders, physiologists and water and soil scientists, is striving to overcome the many difficulties involved in taking rice out of its natural environment. By developing a completely new management system, the new aerobic rice should be able to yield 6 to 7 tonnes/ha using only half the water.

Aerobic rice will also help close the yield gap in marginal rainfed environments. Initial results in the Philippines suggest that aerobic rice outperforms lowland rice under rainfed conditions. It is hoped that similar inroads can be made in the rainfed uplands.

Developing resilient varieties for drought-prone environments

In addition to aerobic rice, drought tolerance is being enhanced on other fronts. Molecular geneticists and physiologists are producing an enormous amount of information in order to develop resilient rice varieties for drought-prone environments. Over the next few years, significant progress is expected in our understanding of the genetic basis of variation in drought tolerance among rice varieties. Novel introgression lines between drought-susceptible lowland cultivars and low-yielding but drought-tolerant upland varieties have been developed. Genomics and bioinformatics tools are being used to identify the exact genes that confer this tolerance. Breeders will then use markers to locate these genes to improve drought tolerance in agronomically adapted varieties. It is expected that multiple genes and alleles will be important in different stress scenarios.

IRRI has developed a broad range of introgression stocks to be used for this gene discovery. Within the next few years, these products are expected to reveal key genes and superior alleles for breeders to use in improving yield under drought conditions. Recently, IRRI hosted a drought workshop during which specialists developed collaborative research agendas. Much of the new information on drought tolerance has been captured in a new IRRI book, Breeding rice for drought-prone environments (Fischer et al., 2003).

Integrated pest management to protect the environment

Another technology that will maintain and even enhance yields while protecting the environment - and at the same time allow farmers to save their scarce and precious resources for other endeavours - involves integrated pest management (IPM). Hundreds of millions of farmers in Asia still overuse pesticides, despite the emergence of viable alternative strategies for pest control. Not only do misapplied pesticides pollute the environment and threaten the health of farmers and their families, they set the stage for secondary pest infestations that can cause devastating crop losses (IRRI, 2003c).

At IRRI, patterns of insecticide use have been studied and it has been found that spraying early in the crop cycle is unnecessary. Farmers often spray to eliminate visible leaf-feeding worms that do not cause yield loss. Worse, spraying disrupts the diverse ecology of the field, paving the way for pest infestations. Researchers, therefore, came up with a way to motivate farmers to change their spraying practices.

A Viet Nam study offers valuable lessons, and findings were expressed in one simple rule: "Don't spray for the first 40 days." A media campaign was launched to deliver the message to farmers, stressing the cost savings and health benefits of reduced spraying: in the test area of 21 000 households, after 18 months, a 53 percent reduction was recorded in the number of insecticide applications - with no effect on yields! Many farmers reduce input costs by between US$30 and US$50 per season (the equivalent of a month's income in Viet Nam). Under-scoring the significance of this work, the project received the St Andrews Prize for the Environment from St Andrews University (Scotland, United Kingdom) in 2002 and the International Green Apple Environment Award from the United Kingdom-based Green Organization in 2003 (IRRI, 2003c).

IRRI researchers and collaborators achieved another notable IPM success in China's southwestern province of Yunnan. In what the New York Times called "one of the largest agricultural experiments ever" (Yoon, 2000), it was found that intercropping rows of different varieties of rice can almost completely control devastating rice blast (Zhu et al., 2000). Some farmers there were already using this technique, albeit in a haphazard way. Several variations of the concept were scientifically tested and improved.

Findings are now being disseminated, confident that the practice not only reduces farmers' reliance on chemical pesticides, thereby protecting the environment, but also improves yields and incomes to give farmers the options they need to break out of the poverty trap. Word-of-mouth is already leading to the technique's wide adoption in China.

Nutrient-use efficiency for intensive systems

New inroads into nutrient-use efficiency in intensive rice-farming systems are soon to make an impact. Collaborative research in the Irrigated Rice Research Consortium[14] has found that inefficient and unbalanced fertilizer use is widespread among Asia's rice farmers and millions of them may need to change their management practices and adopt new technologies to increase productivity and sustain the soil and water resource base. These changes promise substantial increases in their yields - and their incomes - which will in turn give them new options for the future.

An approach called site-specific nutrient management (SSNM) is central to this effort. This tactic has been successfully tested over the last 6 years in more than 200 on-farm experiments across Asia. On average, farmers' yields and profits increased by 10 to 15 percent with improved nutrient management. The concept is being simplified in collaboration with researchers, extension personnel and farmers in pilot villages in six Asian countries with supplemental support from the Potash and Phosphate Institute in Singapore.

Information on SSNM is being disseminated through a comprehensive practical guide (Fairhurst and Witt, 2002) and a new book that summarizes SSNM research conducted since 1994 (Dobermann, Witt and Dawe, 2004). Training materials and software are also being released for a support system to aid farmers in making the right decisions regarding their nutrient applications.

Biofortification to boost rice's nutrient content

Finally, household food security is only truly achieved when, in addition to being available in sufficient quantity, the food is also of good quality. Although rice supplies adequate energy in the form of calories and is a good source of thiamine, riboflavin and niacin (FAO, 2003b), it is lacking as a source of vitamin A and other critical vitamins, iron, zinc and other micronutrients and amino acids that are essential to human health, especially the health of children. The nutrient content of rice can be improved substantially by using both traditional selective plant breeding and new biotechnology approaches.

IRRI is a major player in the CGIAR Challenge Program, Harvest Plus,[15] which is seeking to reduce the effects of micronutrient malnutrition by harnessing the power of plant breeding to develop staple food crops that are rich in micronutrients, a process called biofortification. In this effort, rice will involve more scientists and research teams than any other crop. Swapan Datta, IRRI plant biotechnologist and the rice crop leader of Harvest Plus, has been active in research on enhancing micronutrient levels in rice through genetic engineering and leading the development at IRRI of tropical varieties of vitamin A-enriched Golden Rice (Datta et al., 2003). It was only in early 2001 that the first seed samples were delivered to IRRI by Prof. Ingo Potrykus, the German co-inventor of this genetically modified rice, which could save half a million children each year from irreversible blindness (Nash, 2001).

Dr Datta's team of scientists has bioengineered several Asian indica varieties with genes for beta-carotene bio-synthesis. Selected lines, including genotypes of IR 64, show expression of beta-carotene, the precursor of vitamin A (Datta et al., 2003). Non-antibiotic and marker-free IR 64 Golden Rice is now being evaluated in the IRRI greenhouse, which will be used for evaluating agronomic performance in 2004. Dr Datta says that a long programme of safety and bioavailability tests means that the release to farmers of indica Golden Rice is probably still 4 to 6 years away.

Also, IRRI and its collaborators in Japan have introduced an iron-enhancing ferritin gene to indica rice in such a way that it expresses itself in the rice endosperm; after polishing, the rice grains contain three times more iron than usual (Vasconcelos et al., 2003). Dr Datta says this is the most significant increase in iron ever achieved in an indica rice variety and it could have significant benefits for the 3.5 billion people in the world who have iron-deficient diets.


In conclusion, IRRI has a special role to play in bringing to the poor the benefits of many of the technologies discussed above. The sequencing of the rice genome, followed by the discovery of the functions of individual genes and combining them to accelerate crop improvement, is revolutionizing rice science (Cantrell, 2002). Entry into this genomics era has fomented new interest in rice from the private sector. Critics fear that private ownership of portions of the rice genome will commercialize the crop in a way that subverts the right of farmers to grow the traditional varieties their ancestors developed over the millennia, as well as the improved varieties that publicly funded research institutions have bred and distributed as public goods over the past few decades. Insisting that rice must remain wholly within the public domain, they roundly condemn both private research and public-private research partnerships. But they remain silent on the question of how cash-strapped public research institutions, such as IRRI, can maintain momentum without private-sector participation and the patents that corporations need to protect their investments. Wholly public ownership of the fruits of rice research would require steadfast commitment to public support for that research - sadly lacking at present (Cantrell, 2002).

IRRI's roles as a producer of knowledge and a catalyst in technology development and transfer among various public institutions (and increasingly between the public and private sectors) are important as never before for assuring strength in both sectors and maintaining a balance (Leung, Hettel and Cantrell, 2002). For example, one approach advocated is the formation of the International Rice Functional Genomics Consortium as a means to engage both developed and developing nations in contributing to the functional characterization of all agronomically important genes in rice. Active participation by developing countries will ensure access to the new science in the future.

As illustrated in this presentation, IRRI's key assets are a wealth of genetic resources and collective know-how across biological disciplines that are directly relevant to improving rice-based production systems, which will result in enhancing national and household food security, thus alleviating poverty across Asia and the Pacific. There has been investment in research infrastructure to provide training and complementary support to NARES research partners and IRRI has the technical expertise to be a strong research partner with advanced research institutes (ARIs).

IRRI has also adopted a policy on intellectual property rights that adheres to the institute's principles and mission, while allowing collaboration with the private and public sectors to bring in new science to benefit the poor. To capitalize on the advances being made in rice science research, IRRI can serve as the unbiased "broker" between the rice improvement institutions in the developing world and the ARIs.

The IYR slogan, "Rice is Life", applies perfectly to Asia today and, conversely, the Asia of the future has no life without rice.[16]


Aguiba, M.M. 2003. Government plans to double hybrid rice planting area to 600,000 hectares. Manila Bulletin, 4 Nov., p. B-1.

Anon. 1967. The food crisis. Far Eastern Economic Review Year Book. p. 39-47.

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