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CHAPTER 1 - A PERSPECTIVE ON RICE RESEARCH


1.1 The Future of Rice in Asia
1.2 Rice outside Asia
1.3 The Historical Role of Research
1.4 Challenges for Rice Research
1.5 IRRI in the Rice Research Community

1.1 The Future of Rice in Asia

Superficially, the problem of rice availability in Asia would appear to have been solved. Since 1966, when IRRI first released its IR8 variety, world paddy production has nearly doubled from 261 million tonnes (with Asian production at about 240 million tonnes) to 519 million tonnes (Asian production: 479 million tonnes) in 1990. Production has expanded faster than population, which has grown 1.6 times in Asia during the same period by an amount enough to accommodate the increasing per capita demand arising from increasing incomes. In some countries, the income increase is itself to a significant degree a consequence of the increased productivity of their rice farmers. A measure of that success is partly reflected by the fall in the real price of rice in the world markets, which has touched historic lows in the last five years (Figure 1.1). Responding to the low rice prices, the multilateral agencies have been cutting down their lending to finance irrigation. Governments now no longer feel as pressed to support agricultural research as they did.

Fig. 1.1 Trends in World Prices of Rice, Wheat and Maize (US$/tonne) Source: IRRI, Social Sciences Division. Original source: World Bank.

Looking to the future, the rate of growth of demand for rice is expected to slacken off from 2.80 percent annual rate between 1966 and 1988, to 2.11 percent rate between 1988 and 2005, well above the expected population growth rate of 1.5 percent per annum. Extrapolating using past growth rates from a 1988 base, it is expected that production will grow at the rate of 2.02 percent between 1988 and 2005. The shortfall of production below domestic utilization will be of the order of 3.5 million tonnes (paddy equivalent) in 2005.1 Table 1.1 provides the actual tonnage figures for production and consumption in Asia. These figures do not appear to be unmanageable when set against the current volume of trade which stands at about 18-21 million tonnes (paddy equivalent).

1 These are preliminary figures from IFPRI, Food Supply, Demand and Trade in Asia: Regional Trends and Projections, Washington DC, May 1992.

Table 1.1 Current and Projected Production and Consumption Levels of Rice and Wheat in Asia, 1988 and 2005 (mn. tonnes)


1988

2005

Production

Consumption

Net Balance

Production

Consumption

Net Balance

RICE:








China

171.8

170.8

1.0

236.9

238.5

-1.6


India

94.9

94.6

0.3

148.1

150.2

-2.0


Southeast Asia

104.1

101.1

3.1

150.3

149.6

0.7


East Asia (excluding China)

27.5

26.7

0.7

32.8

29.7

3.2


South Asia (excluding India)

33.8

33.5

0.2

50.5

53.2

-2.8


Other Asia

0.1

1.0

-0.9

0.1

1.1

-1.0


MONSOON ASIA

432.0

427.7

4.4

618.8

622.3

-3.5

WHEAT:








China

85.6

102.3

-16.6

129.1

145.8

-16.7


India

44.5

45.3

-0.8

68.2

69.0

-0.8


Southeast Asia

0.2

4.1

-3.9

0.4

7.2

-6.8


East Asia (excluding China)

1.8

12.0

-10.2

2.6

13.5

-10.9


South Asia (excluding India)

16.1

20.3

-4.2

23.8

32.3

-8.5


Other Asia

0.0

0.6

-0.6

0.0

0.6

-0.6


MONSOON ASIA

148.1

184.5

-36.4

224.0

268.4

-44.42

Note: Other Asia includes Fiji, Papua New Guinea, Hong Kong and Singapore; China includes Taiwan.

Source: International Food Policy Research Institute, Food Supply, Demand and Trade in Asia: Regional Trends and Projections, Washington, DC, May 1992.

But complacency is unjustified, for three reasons. First, the aggregate shortfall projections conceal the fact that among the various subregions, East Asia (Japan, North and South Korea) would have a surplus of some 3.2 million tonnes (paddy equivalent) in 2005. It is well known that rice production in these countries (entirely of japonica rice) takes place under extremely high-cost and uneconomic conditions, and will continue to do so in the future. That surplus will not be available for the rest of Asia where people in any case consume mainly indica rice.

Furthermore, concentrating exclusively on rice projections overlooks the fact that all of Asia is projected to be short of wheat by more than 40 million tonnes. China alone is expected to be importing more than 16 million tonnes of it in 2005. South Asia except India (which will remain self-sufficient) is projected to import a further 8.5 million tonnes of wheat in 2005. Considering that imports on this scale would drain the foreign exchange resources of the importing countries enormously, it is clear that in many parts of rice-eating Asia, the food position will remain precarious.

Second, the projection is based on increments to the current demands and supplies in the various Asian regions. It therefore has a strong bias toward linearly extrapolating the present. Experience shows the error of this approach. It was quite common for projections coming out during the late 1970s and the early 1980s to show extremely large and continued food deficits among developing countries. While developing countries continue to have to import food, the volumes imported are not as large as projected.

We have to be additionally cautious regarding the projections because the world rice market has a long cycle, whose mechanism runs as follows. Food surpluses give rise to low market prices internationally (as in the 1960s); the multilateral lending agencies are reluctant to invest in irrigation because these schemes would never pass the project evaluation test; and governments consider it less necessary to invest in research. Population growth however remains independent of such considerations, as is, to some extent, income growth. Over time the demand growth catches up. It then takes a year of bad weather (1972-73) to see food prices skyrocketing, and prognoses of a continued food crisis. The lending agencies then find that irrigation investments would pay off handsomely, and governments find it useful to invest in research and to provide fertilizer subsidies (as they did after 1975). As these various measures begin to bear fruit, the long decline in world rice prices would then begin (as it did in 1981), as would the slashing of irrigation investments and of research expenditures, completing what may be called the irrigation-rice cycle (the term is employed in analogy to the well-known corn-hog cycle which it resembles except in time scale).2

2 The behaviourial relations that give rise to the cycle are well documented, some of them by work done at IRRI. Thus the correlation between world rice prices and irrigation expenditures was shown as far back as in 1978 in Yujiro Hayami and Masao Kikuchi, Investment Inducements to Public Infrastructure: Irrigation in the Philippines. The Review of Economics and Statistics. Vol. 6 No. 1, 1978. The decline in research expenditures in response to world rice prices is also documented, see Y. Hayami and K. Morooka, The Market Price Response of World Rice Research Agricultural Economics Department paper #87-21. Los Baños, Philippines: International Rice Research Institute, 1987.

The same behaviour that generates the cycle is still with us: irrigation investments by the multilateral lending agencies continue to be curtailed,3 and the CGIAR System itself now lives in an atmosphere of austerity and retrenchment. If this behaviour pattern is not reversed by a conscious act of policy, then the current and projected favourable food supply situation will reverse itself. Already there is evidence at both the macro and the micro levels that yield increases are no longer as easy to attain as before. Table 1.2 shows that in all major producing regions in Asia, with the exception of India, yield increments have fallen in the last five years. (In the case of India, much of the gains have been due to the increased yields in the previously technologically lagging states such as West Bengal and Bihar.) Over all, there appears to be a negative correlation between the yield level already attained and the further increment that can be achieved, suggesting some sort of a ceiling.

3 The combined support to irrigation by the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, the Overseas Economic Cooperation Fund (Japan) and the U.S. Agency for International Development, is now half the levels reached at its peak in 1977-79. Public irrigation expenditures among the national governments have also fallen by between 15 to 60 percent. (Mark W. Rosegrant and Mark Svendsen, Irrigation Investment and Management Policy for Asia in the 1990s, mimeo. Washington, DC, International Food Policy Research Institute, August 1992).

Worse, and here we come to the final and probably the most important argument against complacency, in irrigated areas which have been the prime beneficiaries of IRRI's work in the past, the yields are not only constrained by some sort of a ceiling but the ceiling (measured by yields in the experimental stations) itself appears to be slowly coming down. Indeed, yields are in decline in the intensively cropped systems. The kind of agriculture that is now practised in irrigated paddies across Asia is more intensive than anything the world has ever seen. With yields in excess of 5 tonnes per crop per hectare, and with two or three crops a year, it was only a matter of time before the question of sustainability would arise. That time has now come, and we have only a weak understanding of the processes at work.

The problem of irrigated rice areas, with high external inputs, is particularly important, as they supply 70 percent of the world's rice. The current favourable supply position and the gradual pace of the yield decline give us some time to work on the many problems that will have to be addressed to make irrigated rice cultivation sustainable and yet continue to give the high yields on which the world has come to depend. But the scientific questions will be very hard to solve, as some fundamental questions will have to be addressed, and it is urgent to get on with the work.

If increasing rice yields in the irrigated areas is beset by so many difficulties, perhaps research should turn to the rainfed lowlands, uplands and deepwater areas. Although it must be stated at the outset that research into these areas brings results only reluctantly, the case for IRRI working in these areas is compelling. About 30 percent of Asia's rice-growing area is classified as rainfed lowlands. With the yield ceiling becoming increasingly binding in the irrigated areas, if work in this area succeeds, the result can be dramatic.

Table 1.2 Yield Levels and Increments


Average Yield
(t/ha)

Yield Increments
(kg/ha/yr)

1986-90

1950-65

1965-75

1975-85

1985-90

MONSOON ASIA

3.5

26

42

81

60


China a/

5.5

33

84

216

39


India

2.4

23

22

44

93


Rest of Monsoon Asia (indica)

2.8

24

31

66

49


Rest of Monsoon Asia (japonica)

6.3

77

83

74

2

SUBSAHARAN AFRICA

1.6

19

5

8

35


West Africa

1.4

19

14

14

22


Other Africa

1.7

19

-14

0

58

SOUTH AND CENTRAL AMERICA

2.4

3

7

43

70

REST OF THE WORLD

5.0

93

31

44

69


Developed

5.5

107

15

51

110


Developing

4.1

90

33

23

2

WORLD

3.4

26

40

75

62

Note: a/ For China the third and fourth columns cover the periods 1965-78 and 1978-85
Source: IRRI, World Rice Statistics 1990. Original Source: FAO.

Another reason why the rainfed lowlands need more attention is the concentration of poverty there. According to the World Bank's estimate in 1985, 525 million out of the developing regions' 1125 million poor people lived in South Asia. Most of them are located in the rainfed lowlands in Eastern India, Bangladesh and the Tarai region in Nepal, where rice is the major crop.

The uplands demand attention for the same reason. Their contribution to world rice production is marginal, of the order of 10 percent or less, and it is unlikely that rice is the most profitable crop from a commercial point of view. However, the uplands are home to some of the poorest farm communities. That they are growing rice at all reflects their disadvantage rather than their advantage: they simply have no access to markets, and therefore cannot exchange more profitable crops for rice. As long as there are such communities, IRRI has to be concerned with them, as part of its mandate requires that it should pay due regard to the concerns of the poorest people in the region.

1.2 Rice outside Asia

IRRI is singularly fortunate to be assigned to work on rice in Asia (more strictly speaking, Monsoon Asia). For very few other commodities and regions can it be said that the commodity defines the region and vice versa. The region supplies slightly more than 90 percent of the world's rice and consumes just as much. For most people living in the region, except for Pakistan and important sections of China and India, rice provides more than two-thirds of the calories.

The role of rice is important in some regions outside Asia, but nowhere is it as predominant. In sub-Saharan Africa, only Madagascar and parts of West Africa have populations that eat rice as their staple food. Even though the total volume of rice production in this region is small, about 6-7 million tonnes of paddy, the fast population growth in these regions has made the task of meeting their food needs urgent. The problem is underscored by the fact that the region imports about 1 million tonnes (paddy equivalent) of rice every year.

South and Central America is another region with rice production scattered throughout. It produces about 18 million tonnes of paddy, and is almost self-sufficient.

1.3 The Historical Role of Research

It is difficult to discuss IRRI without harking back to its achievements with IR8 and succeeding varietal improvements. The point man of IRRI's success was the plant breeder. Embodying the technology in the seed had one big advantage: it facilitated immensely the transfer of technology. Because the technology transfer was less complicated, the diffusion was extremely rapid, and Asia's rice production, as we have seen, has since grown on a sustained basis for the following twenty-five years.

The success of IRRI's formula also convinced many Asian governments of the importance and the usefulness of agricultural research, and at least for a time, to put increased resources at the disposal of their National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS). More importantly, its scientific success has led them to follow IRRI along its road to success, which means that they have also concentrated their efforts on varietal improvements to meet the requirements of their farmers and consumers. Varietal improvements, at least for the irrigated lowlands, have become routinized and fully absorbed in many Asian NARS.

Even at the height of his success, however, the plant breeder could not have achieved his aim single-handed. To achieve his goals, he needs the work of the agronomist, plant physiologist, pathologist, entomologist, soil scientists and a whole array of other biological and social scientists, collaborating closely with the clear goal of achieving a sustained increase in rice yields. In this also, IRRI has been an important role model for the NARS in Asia.

Just as importantly, the plant breeder's task requires that he has at his disposal a germplasm bank. The largest collection of rice germplasm in the world is now held by IRRI, and it serves the world's scientific community. Including capital cost and salaries, IRRI's germplasm centre probably costs slightly in excess of US$1 million per year. Considering that of all varieties of rice currently planted, two-thirds have at least one grandparent from IRRI's germplasm bank, we can easily see how cost-effective this part of IRRI is.

This account of rice research has stressed the role of varietal improvement in increasing yields. It is often the most visible and measurable of a research centre's output. Equally importantly, however, a centre has to devote a significant proportion of its activities to resource management. Of course, a plant has to interact with its environment, and its capacity to do so will vary with the type of environment that it faces. The success of a centre in varietal improvement work depends on coming out with a seed that will be productive in as wide an area as possible. Here again, IRRI has been singularly fortunate, for the soil and water conditions of the (properly) irrigated paddy environment are remarkably uniform in geographically quite disparate regions. IR8 could be and was spread over a wide area, as were its successors.

As research shifts toward the rainfed lowlands and the uplands and as yield declines in the irrigated areas demand increasing attention, work on resource management has to be stepped up and take a greater share of research funds available. In the atmosphere of retrenchment that now pervades both the International Agricultural Research Centres (IARCs) and the NARS, exertion of more effort in this area implies an absolute reduction of effort in varietal improvement work. The technology of classical varietal improvement research is now, thanks in part to IRRI and its training programme quite widely dispersed among the Asian NARS. But with the yield ceiling in irrigated rice yet to be pierced, and new breeding goals to be met for different environments, strategic research on germplasm by IRRI, involving considerable doses of biotechnology, remains urgent.

On resource management research in rice-based systems, IRRI is almost compelled by its new ecosystem approach to expend considerable effort. Research in this area must be expected to have a long pay off period, and its output may not be as visible and measurable as in the case of varietal improvements. But given the situation that is now facing us, expenditure of resources in this area is urgent.

1.4 Challenges for Rice Research

Yield decline in irrigated areas

Yield increases that have been achieved and are now routinely expected should not blind us to the fact that nature gives up her resources only reluctantly and sooner or later exacts her price. The yield decline that currently afflicts only the experiment station and the more advanced farmers is a forewarning of that price. It would be extremely remiss of the rice research community to ignore the warning. It will be an enormous undertaking simply to sustain past yield increases in irrigated areas where resources are currently strained to the utmost. The work needed to be done is highly complex, requiring an interdisciplinary attack on the problem. We should have no illusion: results that are practicable on farmers' field are uncertain and long-term. But this is an undertaking that cannot be shirked or postponed.

Lifting the yield ceiling

Perhaps it may be possible to pierce the yield ceiling that has been imposed by the plant design of IR8. Ever since its introduction, there has not been a variety that could break through that ceiling substantially. To do so, a radical approach is needed. Some recent work at IRRI suggests that a total redesign of the rice plant is necessary. With the key proviso that this method of increasing yields will be sustainable in the long-run, researchers should continue to explore ways of breaking the yield ceiling.

Germplasm improvements and biotechnology

A new emphasis on sustainability does not imply that work on varietal improvements should be suspended. It is an oversimplification to identify varietal improvement solely with yield increases. Indeed, a large part of the work done at IRRI and in the NARS since the release of IR8 has been on introducing host-plant resistance to many of the major insects and diseases attacking rice. Such a strategy reduces the use of chemicals and thus helps ensure the sustainability of rice-farming. An important reason to continue work on varietal improvement is the considerable untapped potential in the rainfed lowlands, where yield increases can still take place without unduly straining the resources of the soil and the environment.

Classical plant breeding methods will continue to be used in germplasm improvement and will still have a major role. The rice research community is, however, seeing its horizon expand enormously by some of the new methods from biotechnology. The centre for much of this work still remains in the industrialised countries. Although interest has increased with the discovery that rice is the most amenable among the cereals to biotechnological manipulation, scientists in industrialised countries otherwise have little reason to place rice as their top research priority. This makes it incumbent on IRRI and NARS to acquire and keep abreast of this new and valuable research tool, and to put it to use on the myriads of problems that afflict the still impoverished rice farmer.

Rice in unfavourable environments

Scientists have contributed a great deal to the welfare of the rice farmer, but their natural inclination has been to tackle the more soluble problems first, and leaving the less soluble ones until later. This means that work on areas with intractable problems tends to remain forever on the shelf. The rice research community has therefore to force itself, against its inclination, to look into the problems of the less favourable areas, both in the rainfed lowlands and in the uplands. This is where the poorest of the rice farmers live. In some ways their livelihood has been threatened by advances made in the irrigated areas, and they have been forced to migrate to irrigated areas or to other occupations. Although this is a normal working out of the market mechanism, for those affected it is not an attractive solution. Ways of helping them maintain their options in rice-farming need to be found, even if it means diverting some resources away from research on some of the easier problems.

Global climate change

A final problem has arisen from growing concerns with global climate change. Partly responsible for the phenomenon is the alleged emission of greenhouse gases from rice paddies. Despite the estimates that are now freely floating around, there is little scientific measurement of the emission levels. The rice research community will have to be engaged in this task, first to measure the extent of the emission and then perhaps to see the consequences of the change on rice-growing environments.

1.5 IRRI in the Rice Research Community

The task ahead for the rice research community is large. How can that task be shared among IRRI, the other CGIAR centres and the NARS? The current organization of rice research in the CGIAR system is described in Appendix VI. This section focuses on the relationship between IRRI and NARS.

Currently many of the larger Asian NARS are capable of undertaking a much wider variety of tasks than before. The work on varietal improvements by classical methods, for example, is now being done increasingly effectively by the NARS, particularly for the irrigated areas. In doing this, the NARS will continue to depend on one crucial input from IRRI, namely its pre-breeding and development of new and novel parental sources; together with the associated International Network for Genetic Evaluation of Rice (INGER).

As the NARS have continued to improve the varieties, IRRI has appropriately been reducing its role, and has increasingly confined its activities to the more fundamental questions (strategic research in CGIAR terminology). One example is the application of biotechnology to improve the germplasm. In this task, IRRI has begun to work directly and also collaboratively with laboratories in the industrialised countries that have capacity and are showing increasing interest in working on rice.

Another example of a move toward strategic research is the work on pests and diseases. IRRI's studies of the ecology of pests provide the bases for the deployment strategies for durable pest management.

Increasingly, the immediate beneficiary of IRRI's research will not be the farmer but the rice research community in the NARS. For IRRI's activities to bear fruit, capacity in the NARS has to keep pace. Here lies probably the most difficult of IRRI's challenges: how to help the NARS keep pace with the extremely rapid pace of scientific advance, particularly as the NARS are facing retrenchment at least as severe as IRRI itself.


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