Rice: The issues
To meet the food needs of the world's rapidly expanding population, rice-producing countries must address a range of issues
Since the 1970s, demand for rice has been met thanks to high-yielding varieties and improved production methods. Irrigation was key -- during the green revolution irrigated area grew by 4 to 5 million hectares per year. Today, as populations grow, land and water resources for rice production are diminishing. To head off a crisis, governments should promote better crop management techniques and higher-yielding hybrid seeds to reap more from already irrigated lands. Wetlands could be converted to irrigated rice production -- in Africa and the Americas, over 135 million hectares of wetland are suitable.
Excessive use of pesticides in rice farming pollutes water and creates health hazards. Intensive irrigation can cause salinization and waterlogging. Flooded rice is a major source of methane emission while the use of nitrogen-based fertilizers produces nitrous oxide -- both are greenhouse gases linked to global warming. One solution is integrated pest and crop management, which teaches farmers to monitor the pests in their fields and adopt practices that reduce the need for pesticides.
Small-scale rice farmers will never be rich, but they too can benefit from improved technologies and methods -- if the improvements are designed with small-scale needs in mind. Double-cropping with tomatoes or cabbage, for example, can increase income. Women farmers have less access to credit, farm inputs, marketing facilities and extension services - a missed opportunity to boost production and reduce poverty. National policies often favour the consumer and the export market instead of being pro-poor. Increased rice production also means more jobs in support sectors such as milling, marketing and trading.
In addition to being a rich source of dietary energy, rice is a good source of thiamine, riboflavin and niacin. The nutrient content of rice can be improved by using both traditional selective plant breeding techniques and new technologies, such as modification of the plant's genetic code. "Golden rice", a rice with high levels of Vitamin A, is expected to reach consumers in the near future.
Biotechnology can help increase yields and reduce the need for inputs. For example, biotechnology could one day create a drought-resistant variety of rice, or one that fixes nitrogen directly from the atmosphere, reducing the need for fertilizer. Human and environmental safety must come first, though, and benefits should flow not only to multinational companies but also to farmers.
High-yielding rice varieties take credit for much of the remarkable gain in rice production over the past 35 years. Yet since 1966, yields have been stagnant. Unfortunately, the cost of hybrid seed production is four to five times higher than normal seeds - out of reach for most poor farmers. Developing countries need international help to start their own hybrid rice programmes.
Although the use of new, high-yielding varieties instead of traditional rice varieties brought huge gains in yield, the planting of a single variety over large areas year after year may compromise genetic resistance to pests. Research needs to be supported to continue the search for new, more pest-resistant varieties. The rice genome was recently mapped fully and more effective breeding is expected.
After the harvest
Unfortunately, even when rice thrives, a significant portion is lost after harvesting. Hand harvesting and threshing are still common, rudimentary grain drying prevails and rice is poorly stored. Farmers often lose 10 to 37 percent of the harvest, especially in the rainy season. Improved silos, and new varieties more tolerant to delayed harvesting would help.
To find out more about the International Year of Rice or how you can take part, visit http://www.rice2004.org
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