Sustainable production tops IRC agenda

by Emily Wilson
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Senior policy makers and rice specialists from 61 countries reviewed their national rice research and development programs in the light of slowing production and environmental impact, when they met for the 20th session of the UN’s International Rice Commission (IRC), in Bangkok, Thailand, 23-26 July 2002.

"The intensification of rice production needs to be adjusted in order to reverse natural resource and environmental degradation," said IRC chairman Pramoj Raksarart at the opening of the meeting, held every four years.

Prior to the meeting, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned: "There is an increasing concern about the current rice production practices meeting demands, contributing effectively to rural poverty alleviation and minimizing environmental degradation,"

"Productivity of rice is now increasing at a slower rate than during the height of the Green Revolution," FAO expert Dat Tran said. "Yield stagnation in many Asian countries, limited possibilities for arable land expansion, and fewer water resources for expanding rice planted areas are the main constraints to expanding production. Other concerns are related to environmental degradation, genetic erosion and nutritional quality of rice." The growth rate of rice yields decelerated from 2.3% per year during the 1980s to 1.1% per year during the 1990s due to the difficulty of sustaining the growth of rice productivity as yield has advanced, according to FAO. In 2001, world production of milled rice reached 397.2 million tonnes as compared to 381.1 million tonnes in 1996. Milled rice represents 67% of paddy rice (592.8 million tonnes in 2001 and 568.5 million tonnes in 1996).

However, a considerable quantity of rice will be required to meet future needs. In 2030, global demand is projected to be approximately 533 million tonnes of milled rice, compared to 472 million tonnes projected for 2015 and 386 million tonnes in 1997/99. In 2030, the world population is expected to reach 8.2 billion, compared to 6.2 billion today. Rice is the world’s most important staple food crop, the FAO said. More than four-fifths of the world’s rice is produced and consumed by small-scale farmers in low-income and developing countries. More than half of the world’s population relies on rice as the major daily source of calories and protein. The amount of rice consumed by each of these people ranges from 100 to 240 kg per year. In recent years, the world’s rice production has especially suffered from the lack of investment in irrigation development and research work. This has slowed down the adoption of existing high yielding varieties — hybrid rice, for instance — and improved crop management techniques. Another concern is that genetic uniformity of modern rice varieties may render the crop more vulnerable to outbreaks of pests and diseases. "The erosion of genetic diversity due to the adoption of few improved varieties may limit the success of rice varietal improvement for higher yield, quality and resistance," FAO experts said. The current approaches to intensification of rice production have caused considerable damage to the environment and related natural resources, including the building up of salinity/alkalinity, water pollution and health hazards caused by excessive use of agro-chemicals and emission of important greenhouse gases. Proper management practices will certainly minimize these negative effects and will increase productivity, according to the FAO.

During the Green Revolution (1966-1990), the increase in world rice production has resulted in more rice being available for consumption despite the continued increase in population. However there are still some 815 million people in the world suffering from hunger and malnutrition, and most of them live in areas that are dependent upon rice production for food, income and employment, the FAO emphasized.