Rice productivity figures give cause for concern at international meeting

Falling growth figures for rice production topped the agenda at the 19th session of FAO's International Rice Commission (IRC), held September 1998 in Cairo. The IRC, which currently has 61 member states - the world's major rice producers - promotes national and international action on production, conservation and consumption of rice.

A rice farmer and his son in Cambodia: will there be enough rice to harvest when the boy is grown? (FAO photo 19667)

Rice is the staple food for more than half the world's population. While production is expected to keep pace with demand until about 2005, forecasts give cause for concern over the longer term, according to FAO's Dat Van Tran, Executive Secretary of the IRC.

Asia currently grows and consumes 90 percent of the world's rice. A paper on rice production in Asia and the Pacific presented to the meeting described demand projections to 2025 as "mind boggling". Rice consumption in many Asian countries is forecast to increase faster than population growth.

According to the paper, the current level of production needs to grow steadily at 1.8 percent a year. "This is frightening to note when we consider that the rice production growth rate of 1975-1985 (3.2 percent), which declined to 1.7 percent during 1985-95, is declining further," the author comments. According to FAO forecasts, world rice production will reach about 760 million tonnes of paddy rice by 2025.

Over the next 10 to 20 years, as production slows and trade liberalization continues, many Asian countries are expected to move away from self-sufficiency in rice and become net importers. But who will produce this rice?

In the light of these grim forecasts, the IRC meeting focused on three major issues:

  • planting more hybrid rice,
  • closing the yield gap between farmers' yields and readily obtainable yields,
  • sustaining productivity levels.

Hybrid rice can yield up to 20 percent more than conventional high-yielding rice varieties. Although hybrids are grown extensively in China, transferring the technology to other Asian countries has not always been easy, though progress has been made over the last decade. India grew more than 80,000 ha of hybrid rice in 1997 and Viet Nam grew 102,000 ha in 1996, thanks to FAO technical assistance, in collaboration with IRRI, China and Japan.

The meeting identified the most important constraint to widespread adoption of hybrid varieties as the cost and difficulty of producing hybrid seeds. Delegates resolved to work on ways to involve the private sector seed industry in a concerted effort to promote adoption of hybrid technologies.

The yield gap is the difference between the yields farmers are getting in their fields and the yields achieved at research stations at a given location and season. Research shows that closing the current yield gap could increase world rice production by one quarter. Helping farmers to improve crop management practices and to adopt available technologies were seen as keys to closing the yield gap. FAO and other organizations are working on new innovative means of technology transfer, such as Farmers' Field Schools, which have been highly effective in Indonesia and other places (Go to Integrated Pest Management (IPM) activities for more information).

Several IRC-member countries reported that rice productivity is falling in intensively cropped irrigated areas where two or three crops a year are grown. Similar trends are seen in Africa, South America and Asia, but the exact causes are unknown. FAO is researching the incidence and intensity of the problem with a view to devising a strategy to confront it.

Recognizing the fact that, in many developing countries, women perform nearly all tasks during harvest, post-harvest treatment, seed cleaning and storage of rice, the meeting stressed that the key role of women in rice production should be a cornerstone of development project and strategies.

1 October 1998

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