With the rice price shooting up and millions, for whom the grain is their main source of calories, at risk of hunger and malnutrition, experts have been seeking long-term solutions to the rice crisis.
Agricultural experts advocate developing improved rice varieties so there is enough for everybody
Despite a trend in recent years, in emerging economies such as China and India, towards more meat-based diets, rice has remained the staple food of the poor. Meanwhile, those who had diversified to more protein-rich diets have been sent back to the basics -- back to rice -- by the global food price rises.
It seems clear to most experts that rice will continue to be a staple for years to come and, therefore, there is a necessity to improve yields and make sure improved varieties of the grain are developed.
Adam Barclay from the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute says that there are already many existing technologies, which need to be disseminated more widely and quickly.
“There’s research into breeding new improved varieties that are better able to withstand the problems that are likely to come up in the next few years because of climate change, both in terms of weather and pest problems. The expectation is that warmer weather is going to favour pests so we’re worried we’re going to see a lot worse pest problems than we have in the past few years. The thing about agricultural research is that you have to do it to stay ahead of the game.”
Reduced funding for agricultural research
But funding for agricultural research has dwindled over the past decade and it is increasingly difficult to stay “ahead of the game”, although circumstances indicate that the game is a dangerous one.
Another problem the International Rice Research Institute is concerned about is the fact that fewer young people are pursuing careers in the field of agricultural research.
Adam Barclay is optimistic that there can be a change of wind if enough people are made aware of the potential problems ahead and address them soon: “It can be done but it requires commitment and support; investment from governments and the international donor community.”
Need for increased productivity
“But really, in the long-term, the only thing that will allow farmers to make a reasonable living and keep prices at a low level so that poor people have access to rice is a steady increase in productivity,” said Barclay.
“There are two fundamental ways to increase production: to bring more land into rice cultivation or to improve productivity -- the amount of rice you grow per unit area -- and in Asia in particular there’s not so much scope for increasing the amount of land. Even if there were, it’s not necessarily desirable to do that. There’s a lot of competition from urban and economic development as well that’s putting pressure on rice land. The only way we can improve production is to improve productivity: to increase the yield farmers can get per hectare. That is a long-term solution that is not going to happen overnight, it’s a slow incremental thing.”
It is a slow process but one which experts are urging the international community to promote -- otherwise, they warn, poor people are at risk of hunger and malnutrition for many years to come.