ROME, 17 July 2002 -- "There is an increasing concern about the current rice production practices meeting demands, contributing effectively to rural poverty alleviation and minimizing environmental degradation," the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warns in advance of the 20th session of the International Rice Commission (IRC) to be held in Bangkok, Thailand, 23-26 July 2002.

"Productivity of rice is now increasing at a slower rate than during the height of the Green Revolution," FAO expert Dat Tran says. "Yield stagnation in many Asian countries, limited possibilities for arable land expansion, and fewer water resources for expanding rice planted areas are the main constraints to expanding production. Other concerns are related to environmental degradation, genetic erosion and nutritional quality of rice," Mr. Tran adds.

Rice yield growth rate decelerated from 2.3 percent per year during the 1980s to 1.1 per cent per year during the 1990s (or approximately equal to population growth) due to the difficulty of sustaining the growth of rice productivity as yield has advanced, according to FAO.

In 2001, world production of milled rice reached 397.2 million tonnes as compared to 381.1 million tonnes in 1996. Milled rice represents 67 per cent of paddy rice (i.e. 592.8 million tonnes in 2001 and 568.5 million tonnes in 1996). However, a considerable quantity of rice will be required to meet future needs. In 2030, global demand is projected to be approximately 533 million tonnes of milled rice, as compared to 472 million tonnes projected for 2015 and 386 million tonnes in 1997/99. In 2030, the world population is expected to reach 8.2 billion as against 6.2 billion today.

Rice is the world's most important staple food crop. More than four-fifths of the world's rice is produced and consumed by small-scale farmers in low-income and developing countries. More than half of the world's population relies on rice as the major daily source of calories and protein. The amount of rice consumed by each of these people ranges from 100 to 240 kg per year, according to FAO.

In recent years, the world's rice production has especially suffered from the lack of investment in irrigation development and research work. This has slowed down the adoption of existing high yielding varieties (hybrid rice, for instance) and improved crop management techniques.

Genetic uniformity of modern rice varieties may render the crop more vulnerable to outbreaks of pests and diseases. "The erosion of genetic diversity due to the adoption of few improved varieties may limit the success of rice varietal improvement for higher yield, quality and resistance," FAO experts say.

The current approaches to intensification of rice production have caused considerable damage to the environment and related natural resources, including the building up of salinity/alkalinity, water pollution and health hazards caused by excessive use of agro-chemicals and emission of important greenhouse gases. Proper management practices will certainly minimize these negative effects and will increase productivity, according to FAO.

Rice is the main source of food energy and is an important source of protein providing substantial amounts of the recommended nutrient uptake of zinc and niacin. It is very low in calcium, iron, thiamine and riboflavin and nearly with no beta-carotene. However there appears to be some genetic variation for iron and zinc content in rice, which may offer an opportunity for improving its nutritional value, FAO experts say.

During the Green Revolution (1966-1990), the increase in the world rice production has resulted in more rice being available for consumption despite the continued increase in population. However there are still some 815 million people in the world suffering from hunger and malnutrition, and most of them live in areas that are dependent upon rice production for food, income, and employment, FAO underlines.The FAO's International Rice Commission is a forum where senior policy makers and rice specialists from 61 countries review their national rice research and development programmes. Its objective is the promotion of national and international action in matters relating to the production, conservation, distribution and consumption of rice. Its member countries have grown from 15 in 1949 to 61 at present. The last 19th Session of the IRC was convened in Cairo, Egypt in 1998.