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Rice-based production systems for food security and poverty alleviation in Latin America and the Caribbean

L.R. Sanint
Executive Director, FLAR


The slogan of the International Year of Rice (IYR) reflects well the situation in the Latin America and the Caribbean region (LAC). Rice plays a prominent role as a primary food source and rice-based systems are essential for food security, poverty alleviation and improved livelihoods. In the last century, rice became an important staple and a basic cash crop. It evolved from being a dominant pioneer upland crop in the process of expansion of frontier areas in the first half of the century, to becoming, in the past four decades, a well-established, intensive, highly technical crop mainly produced in flooded environments.

Rice production

Rice is now cultivated in 113 countries of the world and on all continents except Antarctica. Of these, 26 countries belong to LAC; they annually produce in excess of 22 million tonnes of paddy. Present world rice production is around 592 million tonnes (2000-02 average), of which LAC represents 4 percent (FAO, 2003). The rice area harvested in LAC is around 5.9 million ha. Annual rates of growth for production over the 1961-1991 period were almost identical in Asia and in LAC (2.9 percent). Most of the growth in Asia was explained by the contribution of enhanced productivity (79 percent). In LAC, yield increase accounted for 51 percent. Over the last decade, rice output in LAC expanded at a rate of 1.9 percent per year (compared to 1.3 percent in Asia), while yields grew at an outstanding rate of 3.8 percent per year (1.0 percent in Asia) and area contracted at a rate of 1.8 percent per year (Table 1). Since 1967, more than 300 new rice varieties have been released in LAC (i.e. about ten new varieties every year), the majority of them (90 percent) targeted to flooded environments. Of the new varieties, 40 percent came from crosses made at CIAT (International Centre for Tropical Agriculture) and several of the others have parentage from CIAT or IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) progenitors. Modern semi-dwarf rice varieties (MSVs) now account for 93 percent of all flooded rice production, itself representing more than 80 percent of total rice production in the region. Average yields in flooded areas have risen from 3.3 tonnes/ha in the mid-1960s to 4.9 tonnes/ha in 2002; and total rice production almost tripled between 1967 and 2002 to reach over 22 million tonnes of paddy rice.

Rice consumption

Throughout the last century, rice gradually became a staple in the diets of consumers in tropical Latin America. Per caput consumption of white rice went from less than 10 kg in the 1920s to approximately 30 kg in the 1990s. Although significant improvements have been witnessed in rice production in LAC, regional demand surpasses production. The region has a net deficit of nearly 1 million tonnes of milled rice per year. Apparent consumption is approximately 30 kg/caput for the region's 511 million inhabitants. There are 14 countries and states in the Caribbean that have little potential for domestic rice production and will continue to be rice importers. However, there are another 14 with a shortfall in local production to meet internal rice needs, but which have the natural resources available to support additional rice production in order to satisfy national demand and even generate surpluses for the export market.

Annual rates of growth for rice in the world





































Source: FAO, 2003.


In the developing world as a whole, rice provides 27 percent of dietary energy supply and 20 percent of dietary protein intake. Rice is the most important grain crop for human consumption across most of the tropics of LAC. It supplies more calories to these people's diet than do wheat, maize, cassava or potatoes. In the rapid urbanization process in LAC, where 70 percent of the population now lives in the cities, rice has displaced from the diet traditional, bulky and perishable staples, such as plantains, cassava, yams and potatoes. About half of LAC's population live below the FAO poverty line, and income is lowest in the tropical parts of the region. Food purchases account for over 50 percent of total expenditures for the poor, and rice accounts for about 15 percent of their total food purchases. With rice prices falling by about 50 percent in real terms over the period, consumers have been the main beneficiaries (Sanint, Correa-Victoria and Izquierdo, 1998). In the tropical regions of this continent, rice is now well established as a "wage good". There has been a marked increasing trend in consumption during the last 15 years in high-consuming countries, such as Ecuador, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Peru, Brazil and Colombia. Rice is the main source of calories and protein for urban dwellers in big centres such a Sao Paulo, Rio, Porto Alegre, Panama, Barranquilla and Guayaquil. Although the average consumption level is far from that of Asian countries, consumption in Brazil (the largest producer in the region accounting for half of its supply) is 60 kg per caput of paddy rice (equivalent to a daily intake of 400 calories).

Agrobiodiversity and the environment

A paramount achievement of rice technologies in LAC was the fact that production tripled while area did not grow. This was largely the result of higher yields in the irrigated sector and it is a vivid example of the release valve effect that higher yields on favourable ecosystems have on other less favourable, more fragile environments. The unit cost of rice fell by over 50 percent in real terms and this was accompanied by a similar fall in prices. Rice ceased to be a preferred crop in less favoured environments and its production moved to the flooded systems. The role of rice in agricultural and rural development has been notorious. The cereal was a key pioneer crop in the early part of the century as traditional and improved tall upland rice varieties were very well adapted to the newly opened, frequently acid soils of the savannahs, the lowlands and the forest margins. Upland rice area peaked at more than 6.0 million ha in 1976, when it accounted for over 75 percent of the rice area in the region. With the incursion of the new semi-dwarf varieties in the 1970s, upland rice lost its competitive ability against the rapidly growing yields and the descending real unit production costs of the flooded rice areas. Currently, upland rice has plunged to below 2.5 million ha (40 percent of the rice cultivated area in LAC), the vast majority of which is still found in the Brazilian Cerrados, as rice production is increasingly concentrated in the more stable lowlands under irrigated and flooded conditions driven by the higher productivity of these systems. Rice-based systems are hubs of biodiversity. They combine well with other agricultural production activities, such as the raising of fish or ducks on waterlogged rice fields, and the feeding of rice straw to livestock. In turn, ducks and fish feed on weeds and small aquatic organisms, while livestock help with transportation and land preparation, as well as providing organic fertilizer. Rice fields also host a wide variety of natural enemies that control harmful insects and pests.

Water and land management

In LAC, rice is a key commodity in pasture establishment and renovation, mainly in Brazil (both in the upland Cerrados and in the temperate irrigated areas of the south), Uruguay and Argentina. In the temperate region, the system includes cattle and sheep. While rice was a preferred crop in forest margin settlements in the 1960s and 1970s, the drop in its price associated with higher yields and lower unit costs relegated it (particularly in Central America, Colombia and Ecuador) in the rank of alternatives to maize, cassava, cotton etc. In Brazil, Peru and Bolivia, rice is still important among forest margin settlers. In the Cerrados, besides pastures, rice is a key element in rotation with other crops (mainly soybean). In several flooded areas, rice is the only viable cash crop and represents a vital tool for the efficient management of such ecosystems. In these ways, rice-based systems provide great opportunities for improved nutrition, diversified agriculture, increased incomes and the protection of genetic and agricultural resources.

Employmentand income

Rice cultivation is the principal activity and source of income for about 100 million households in Asia and Africa, and several countries are highly dependent on rice as a source of foreign exchange earnings and government revenue. In LAC, there are close to 1 million rice producers. Together with the crop activity, important linkages occur in milling, mechanization and commercialization, as the threshing, milling, processing, market transport and post-harvest of rice help support rural livelihoods and other rural people generate income from producing, servicing and maintaining tools, implements and equipment for rice cultivation and post-harvest operations. Furthermore, rice involves many professional services and has other indirect effects on employment, investment and growth, as well as having an important multiplier effect on aggregate demand; there are places known as "rice regions" and "rice towns", as this cereal constitutes the life of the community.


Women and men often develop different agricultural expertise and knowledge, and women play important roles in both rice production and post-harvest activities, especially among the traditional farming systems in the forest margins of LAC.


Improved technologies enable farmers to grow more rice on limited land with reduced need for water, labour and agrochemicals. In rice cropping, a significant number of scientific developments converge: from biological knowledge and discoveries, to engineering (machinery, irrigation, post-harvest), social sciences, management and statistics. The confluence of all this wealth of information, coupled with resource endowments and attitudes of diverse social groups towards them, configure a very wide array of rice-cropping systems throughout LAC.

Economic policy issues

For many decades, rice was one of the most heavily protected agricultural commodities. Since the 1980s, structural adjustment programmes and the 1994 WTO (World Trade Organization) Agreement on Agriculture have changed this situation, and the world rice trade is expanding rapidly; nevertheless, rice remains the most subsidized cash crop in the world. While urban consumers enjoy most of the benefits (especially lower rice prices), many of them face the effects of unemployment associated with the deployment of the national rice production capacity. However, it is rice farmers in developing countries who bear the brunt of the changes. Developing countries now face the challenge of advocating for fair rice trade policies and practices where everyone will be able to reap the benefits associated with more efficient resource allocation.


IYR aims to confront the many issues associated with rice-based systems in a global, coordinated framework in order to positively harness the potential of properly managed rice-based systems. The following discussion touches on the issues identified at global level and puts them in the perspective of LAC.

Improving nutrition and food security

Rice must continue its consolidation as a food staple in LAC. It is essential that rice maintains an advantage as a cheap energy source for the poor and that it is produced locally in order to adequately exploit comparative advantages as well as maintain a production base generating employment and income. Several countries have low levels of per caput rice consumption. In those countries with low individual consumption, rice is offered at relatively high prices in presentations of high-quality products (low content of broken grains). Therefore, rice does not compete well with other available carbohydrates, such as wheat, cassava, plantains, potatoes or maize. It is important that the market for rice products be enlarged by tackling the low-income groups with lower quality but much cheaper rice, while at the other end offering products with higher value added (convenience foods, elaborated products etc.). A major challenge for food security in the rural sector is to maintain viable alternatives in the face of huge subsidies in developed nations for major cash crops, such as rice. The effort here must be twofold: increase efficiency and maintain a line that checks unfair trade policies in the world market so as to ensure competitiveness.

Managing water resources in rice ecologies

There is growing concern over the sustainability of global freshwater resources. In Latin America, there are three prevalent approaches for addressing the issue of water scarcity within rice-based systems.

The first two approaches refer to demand and use: one aims to reduce the amount of water required for cultivation; the other focuses on justifying water use by employing each drop of water for multiple uses (an example being the concurrent use of water for irrigation and aquaculture). The third approach focuses on the supply of water and efficient use of water cycles in the atmosphere and environment. LAC possesses abundant water supplies, and the rice producers - as prominent users of the resource - must be vigilantes and promoters of investment in processes of water procurement and supply. IYR can help raise awareness among the many beneficiaries of water in rice fields of the diversity of life forms that are sustained within the rice-based systems while promoting the development of rice cultivation in low-water regimes and the need to foresee water needs and investments in a longer time frame.

Environmental protection

There are a growing number of environmental concerns in rice production. Flooded rice production has been receiving most of the attention in LAC (outside Brazil). Input-use efficiency is necessary to reduce undue pressure on systems; a major challenge is to increase yields without augmenting inputs. Higher precision is required and timing is also a critical issue. IYR provides an opportunity for the exchange among the various stakeholders of concrete ideas on these environmental issues and related challenges and opportunities.

Enhancing productivity: new technologies with the efficient use of resources

Most existing rice varieties, particularly high-yielding varieties (HYV) and hybrids, have a potential yield that exceeds actual yield. Furthermore, there is considerable variation in the actual yield levels achieved even under similar production systems. Production under irrigation and the highly favoured upland systems currently account for approximately 70 percent of all rice production in LAC, and high-yielding genotypes currently occupy more than 90 percent of the area. However, farmers' yields remain far below the potential of available varieties. The difference between readily obtainable yield and average farm yield is referred to as the "yield gap". The yield gap is apparent in all irrigated rice production areas and bridging the yield gap represents the most immediate opportunity for increasing rice production in LAC. The yield gap is apparent in all countries of LAC; however, the size of the yield gap varies across regions, among countries and within production zones. The yield potential for irrigated rice is higher in the temperate region of the Southern Cone due to more favourable climatic conditions. In the tropical zone, the yield potential for irrigated rice is lower but the yield gap is approximately the same when compared with the temperate region. This is due to lower current yields in tropical South and Central America. The estimated yield gap for this region takes into account only those areas capable of supporting high-productive rice, i.e. irrigated and favoured rainfed systems. The possible increase in production by bridging the yield gap in the 12 LAC countries analysed is estimated at 2.7 million tonnes. This is equivalent to a 27 percent increase in production and represents an annual increase to the gross income of rice growers of more than US$400 million. The technology for bridging the yield gap is already available, but it must be introduced, modified to suit local conditions and, more importantly, extended to growers. Technology transfer is the key ingredient to bridging the yield gap, and the focus on grower associations provides the means for transferring technology in an economical and sustainable manner.

Per caput water availability by continent (1 000 m3)




















Latin America












North America






Source: FAO, 1996.

Rice in the institutional context

In the wake of reduced capacity in public agricultural research and extension, the private sector institutions have become crucial partners. In 1995, several LAC countries created the Latin American Fund for Irrigated Rice (FLAR), a new institutional model financed mainly by the rice sector and incorporating national and international public research institutions, as well as the private sector. This new model is a pioneer of international research. Currently, nine countries from LAC and CIAT collaborate to generate new and better technologies for the rice sector and contribute close to US$600 000 per year. Its main thrust is on germplasm development, but crop management has received increased attention since 2003, when the Common Fund for Commodities (CFC) granted (through FAO) almost US$ 1 million for a 3-year project to close the yield gap in rice in Venezuela and Brazil. While FLAR is entering its tenth year of activity, the challenge to ensure its permanence is still real. Partners in FLAR are quite diverse in nature, have dissimilar interests, even conflicting paradigms and opposing commercial interests. But they know the value of international cooperation, of research and technological innovation and of avoiding duplication of efforts. On the other hand, declining funds for public research are a challenge for the sustainability of vital partners in that sector, at national and international level, and the answer must be to pool resources from all institutions involved and strengthen strategic alliances within countries and at regional level.


Latin America tripled its output in the last three decades due to the rapid adoption of improved varieties while the area remained basically stagnant at 6 million ha as production in upland areas was replaced by production in flooded environments. Consumption steadily grew and rice became a staple for the urban poor with self-sufficiency levels above 90 percent. Average yields (3.8 tonnes/ha) are still low as crop management has to close the gaps to allow varieties to express their yield potential. The region has abundant supplies of water, land and people, and represents a potential rice basket for the world. A major challenge for the region is the consolidation of FLAR, a pioneer model for rice research funded mainly by rice sector funds and including international, national and private research institutions.


FAO. 2003. FAOSTAT 2003 (available at

FAO. 1996. World Food Summit, Rome, Italy, 13-17 Nov.

Sanint, L.R., Correa-Victoria, F.J. & Izquierdo, J. 1998. Current situation and issues on rice production in Latin America and the Caribbean. Paper presented at the 19th Meeting of the IRC, FAO, Rome, Italy.

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