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* Assistant Director-General and FAO Regional Representative for Asia and the Pacific, FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, Bangkok, Thailand
It is a great pleasure and privilege for me to welcome you to the Expert Consultation on “Bridging the Rice Yield Gap in the Asia-Pacific Region”. May I take this opportunity to extend to you warm greetings on behalf of Dr. Jacques Diouf, Director-General of FAO, my colleagues in the Regional Office and myself.

I am happy to see the positive response we have received from scientists working on rice in the Asia-Pacific Region. Considering the importance of this crop for the countries of the Region and the need for inter-country cooperation, we have decided to hold this Expert Consultation in order to elaborate on the issue of narrowing the yield gap. I hope this meeting will prove to be productive and beneficial for all the participating countries in their attempts towards alleviating rice shortages.

As you know rice is not only a major cereal crop in Asia but also a way of life. The region produces and consumes more than 90 percent of the world’s rice. The crop contributes around 40 percent of the total calorie intake in some countries of the Region, and in a number of countries the contribution goes up to 70 percent. Increased productivity and sustained production of rice is critical for food and nutritional security in Asia. However, during the 1990’s global rice production has grown at a much slower rate than population, eroding the gains made earlier in expanding the per capita availability of this dominant staple food crop in the region. The annual growth rate of rice production was about 4.35 percent during the 1960’s, 2.59 percent in the 1970’s, 3.24 percent in the 1980’s, and 1.25 percent in the first half of the 1990’s.

The Asia-Pacific Region, where more than 56 percent of the world’s population live, adds 51 million more rice consumers annually. As a result, the thin line of rice self-sufficiency experienced is disappearing fast, and more countries are importing rice. How the current annual production of 540 million tonnes of rice will be increased to over 700 million tonnes by the year 2025, using less land, labour, water and pesticides is an enigma to national planners. The task of increasing the current production faces various difficulties, as the avenues of putting more land area under modern varieties and using more fertilisers for closing the yield gap, or bringing in additional area under rice or under irrigation are becoming limited. Irrigated rice occupies about 56 percent of the area and contributes 76 percent of the total production of rice. It would be difficult to increase its production due to water scarcity, alternative and competing uses of water, problems of soil salinity, and the high cost of irrigation development.

Estimates of the Inter Centre Review instituted by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) indicate, however, that about 70 percent of additional production will have to come from the irrigated rice ecosystem and almost 21 percent from rainfed lowland. To achieve this, it was estimated that the yield ceiling of irrigated rice in Asia, for example, would need to be increased from 10 tonnes/ha to around 13 tonnes/ha in 2030. Simultaneously the yield gap would have to be reduced from 48 percent to 35 percent to produce average yields of about 8.5 tonnes/ha. But now the increasing population and consumption, and decreasing land, labour, water and other components of the resource base are predicted to change the equation completely. It is estimated that by the year 2010, Asia may no longer have a net rice export situation. Rather, it is forecasted that by the year 2020, Asia may become a net importing continent.

Superior conventionally bred varieties, super rice, hybrid rice, super hybrid rice, and biotechnologically engineered rice are all pointers to the increased yield potential. Exploited appropriately, these can enhance biological potential and stabilise yields. However, the countries of the Region are at various levels of development, transfer and use of technology, and policy support, and no single formula can apply across the board. But the yield ceiling must be raised and stabilized, and the yield gap narrowed while still remaining sustainable and environment friendly. Problems in bridging the yield gap under the limitations of social, biological, cultural, environmental and abiotic constraints need close scrutiny. Breaking yield barriers and development of new kinds of rice varieties with superior nutritional attributes (higher protein, iron, zinc, vitamin A etc.), will be the next popular strategies to address.

Policies supporting investments to help farmers in improving their crop management practices and post-harvest handling will be critical, as also those that will promote efficient transmission of prices from the international market to the domestic retail markets and, finally, to the farmers.

Groups of Asian farmers have been able to achieve yields close to the yield potential for their respective locations, reducing the existing yield gap of 30-70 percent. A clearer understanding of factors contributing to this phenomenon could lead to the recovery of a significant part of the current yield potential and provide another avenue to increase production and farm incomes.

Distinguished participants, FAO looks forward to your advice and guidance concerning appropriate strategies for narrowing the rice yield gaps in order to alleviate or avoid shortages. I assure you of our support in your efforts towards this important issue. I look forward to the outcome of this Expert Consultation, and wish you success in your deliberations. I hope you have a very pleasant stay in Bangkok.

Thank you.

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