Colleagues from IRRI, Development Partners and FAO
Ladies and Gentlemen
I have great pleasure to address this important regional meeting on “Increasing Rice Productivity in Under-exploited Areas of SAARC Countries”. On behalf of FAO Director-General, Jacques Diouf, and on my own behalf, I warmly welcome all of you to this meeting. I also express my deepest sense of gratitude and thanks to our colleagues from IRRI for being with FAO, in jointly organizing this event today at Bangkok.
Although, FAO organized similar type of meetings in the past, it is perhaps the first time where all concerned stakeholders have gathered together, to address one of the most pressing challenges the member countries of SAARC are confronting, the looming food insecurity. It is also perhaps, for the first time we are going to address this vital issue in an integrated, holistic and coordinated manner for developing a strategic blueprint for action.
Rice cultivation is the most important economic activity on earth. Rice eaters and rice growers form the bulk of the world’s poor. Rice is also the staple food for the largest number of people in the world. Irrigated low land rice ecosystem had been the most important ecosystem, but world-wide irrigated agricultural growth projections for 1995-2020 is in deceleration mode at the annual growth rate of 0.6 %, as compared to 1.3 percent in the previous decade. Global food security and food security in the SAARC countries thirty years from now will depend on rapid scientific advances in understanding the physiological basis of crop yield potential, the process governing the relationship between soil quality and crop productivity and ecology related to the many interacting environmental factors that determine crop yields.
As we all know, through concerted efforts since the mid-1960s, thanks to the advent of HYVs of rice by IRRI, we have been assisting member countries to enhance their food security by increasing both production and productivity of rice. Agriculture has been able to meet the rapidly growing demand for food over the last half century. This was only possible due to sizeable agricultural productivity growth. Even though, success of our past efforts have been commendable resulting in increasing food security of a vast majority of the population of the region, its positive impacts varied widely from country to country across the region: keeping some countries still deficit in rice production with unstable and unsustainable production systems.
Recent reports from the Asia Society noted that nearly 560 million people living on less than $1.25 per day are in rice-producing areas and out of them around 400 million people live in South Asia where rice has been the principal crop. The livelihood of these people largely depends on the production of rice. It became apparent that people living in these particular areas could not realize the full benefits of the Green Revolution. That is one of the weighty reasons for the low growth in rice productivity in these areas. Improvement in productivity and resilience of production systems are of particular importance in countries with limited import capacity and where productivity growth in agriculture is essential for raising rural incomes, improving access to food for the poor and enabling local agriculture to compete better with low-price imported foods.
Various international organizations including FAO and IRRI have made projections on the future production scenario of rice in this region. FAO projection states that the aggregate rice production at global level in 2050 would largely be able to meet the growing demand for rice and by that time approximately 50 million tons of rice would become available in the international trade, from the current level of 30 million tons. It is also expected that the demand growth is likely to decline from 1.4 percent in the very next 25 years to 0.4 percent during the next 25 years. The current unbridled consumption pattern of rice in the SAARC region is also expected to go down further, due to changed food habits and an expected increase in family income.
On the other hand, it is difficult to say whether it would be possible to produce enough rice by the countries that need it most and also their capacity to buy rice from international market to meet their domestic demand. On this count- most of the South Asian countries come in to the scene. Among SAARC countries, only Pakistan is classified as a net exporting country; while others, except India, are net importing countries. India’s rice self-sufficiency is neck to neck heavily depending on whether conditions.
Further to that productivity of rice is low in the areas where the concentration of the poor people is very high. Here is the crux of the problem. Unless and until, it becomes possible to increase the productivity of rice in these densely populated and environmentally harsh ecosystems of the region, it would be hardly possible to bring them out of the poverty trap and to increase the rice production at national level.
As you are aware, FAO attaches top priority to the production and productivity of agricultural crops. It has been reflected in the Strategic Objectives of FAO. I am pleased to inform you that out of eleven Strategic objectives, number one is Sustainable intensification of crop production. It has also been reflected in FAO Regional Priority Framework 2010-2019, where out of five strategic priority areas number 1 is Strengthening food and nutrition security, and number 2 is Fostering agricultural production and rural development. These are clear manifestations of FAO’s commitment towards food security and creation of a hunger-free world. Considering the importance of this meeting, FAO Regional office, Bangkok has invited colleagues from FAO Hqs and also an ex-FAO expert, who worked earlier as a senior scientist with IRRI by the end of eighties and later on with FAO in the Asia-Pacific region.
The soaring food prices, especially that of rice which we had witnessed in 2008 and also the recent spikes in food prices in the SAARC countries in particular, has been forcing Governments to find out additional land for rice production as rice yield growth rate have been slowed down in many countries. Expansion of rice areas, though difficult, is going on at the cost of other crops mainly pulses, oilseeds and sugarcane. On the other hand, bulk of the coarse grain produce are being used for biofuel production. We do not have any viable option, other than to increase rice productivity from the existing lands and, where possible, to release land for other crops through increases in productivity so as to promote crop diversification. It is gratifying to note that the Governments of the SAARC countries in this region have been putting more money now for research and extension, in order to promote the production and productivity of rice than in the earlier days, though these efforts alone are not enough to ensure accelerated growth in agriculture and thus fulfill the target of MDG1 by 2015.
However, we must agree that it is not going to be the work of any single agency striving in isolation; we all have to work together to solve the complex problems of food insecurity and malnutrition affecting the vast majority f people living in these vulnerable areas. It is not also enough that the UN specialized agency-FAO and CGIAR Institute- IRRI, jointly work together in tandem; but we also need the cooperation, blessings and support from the various other development partners to pool our resources and to work in these particular zones of the region, where rice productivity has been extremely low, concentration of the poorest people -the highest and population growth rate- much higher than national averages. It would be worthwhile, in this connection to remember the launching of a Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP), as the first new CGIAR Research Program at the third International Rice Congress (IRC 2010) last November in Viet Nam.
The suite of technology options should be as broad as possible, ranging from new plant varieties and animal breeds better adapted to changing conditions; to farming systems with improved water and labor saving technologies, reduction of crop losses and wastages and natural resource management. Preference should be given to technologies promising win-win combinations of enhancing productivity and sustainability, managing natural resources-such as conservation farming, minimum tillage, etc.
Considering these entire complex problems, FAO and IRRI put lot of efforts to formulate, plan and make this meeting successful. We earnestly hope that we will continue to work together in future also to jointly discuss, plan and implement recommendations that will come out from this meeting.
I would like to thank all our development partners for accepting our invitation at short notice and again thanks to IRRI for their excellent cooperation. We in FAO, look forward to the deliberations and outcomes of this important meeting and will be happy to work further with our partner agencies and member countries, for improving the production and productivity of rice, in general and of the food and nutrition security of the poorest of the poor people inhabiting these under-exploited and ecologically harsh environments in the SAARC region.
I wish you fruitful deliberations and a pleasant stay in Thailand.