While the rice industry can boast of major successes in recent decades, such as famine-eradicating rice-production increases in China, India, Vietnam and Bangladesh, it is also struggling with major challenges, such as: how to grow the extra rice the planet is predicted to need to feed a growing population, while using less land, labor and water; the impact of liberalization on the international rice trade, with the possibility that some national rice industries could be wiped out; and the poverty trap that ensnares millions of rice farmers.
The 1,000-plus delegates to the International Rice Congress grappled with these and other issues as they met at the two main events: The International Rice Research Conference (IRRC) and the World Rice Commerce Conference (WRCC).
Ministers from eight of the world’s major rice-producing nations, representing about half the planet’s population, kicked off the congress with a special ministerial roundtable on rice.
The roundtable was a historic event, Dr. Ronald P. Cantrell, director general of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute said. "Bringing together for the first time some of the world’s largest rice producers — notably China, India and Indonesia — it came at a crucial time in the history of rice improvement, with the sequencing of the rice genome under the leadership of the rice-growing countries themselves," he said. He also noted that it marked the emergence of a rice bloc among nations, he said.
The IRRI director general said this development was especially significant for his institute. "Since it was founded 42 years ago by the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, IRRI has been funded mostly by Western governments," Dr. Cantrell said. "This group includes Japan, which historically has been one of our biggest donors. It is noteworthy that Japan is the only rice-producing nation that has significantly supported international rice research over a long period of time.
"If rice research is going to continue to benefit the poor rice farmers and consumers of the world," he added, "then the rice-producing nations of the world need to get together and provide more resources. We can’t expect Western nations to support institutions like IRRI forever."
Recent advances have confirmed the impact of rice research. Among its achievements, it has: increased potential yields from four tonnes per hectare to more than 10 tonnes; helped to raise world rice production from 260 to 600 million tonnes, more than doubling production in four decades; provided rice varieties that mature quickly and so allow two or even three crops per year, varieties that resist various pest and diseases, varieties that need less fertilizer, and varieties that thrive under such stresses as high salinity and insured the development of more nutritious rice.
"There is no doubt that rice research has achieved a lot and done a great deal of good," Dr. Cantrell said. "However, enormous challenges remain, especially with regard to alleviating poverty."