Year of Rice will help fight poverty

Posted: 11 February 2004

The International Year of Rice 2004, could prove a vital stimulus to research that will help farmers to grow this staple crop more efficiently, profitably and sustainably, according to one of the world's leading experts in the field.

Indeed, unless there is recognition of the essential role of rice in meeting the UN Millennium Development Goals, they will not be achieved, says Ronald Cantrell, Director General of the Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

Floating rice field, Asia© CGIAR
Floating rice field, Asia© CGIAR
Floating rice field, Asia© CGIAR

He said that at least two of the eight millennium goals depend heavily on these research efforts:

  • eradicating extreme poverty and hunger and

  • ensuring environmental sustainability.
Improved rice farming can contribute directly to four other goals, according to Dr. Cantrell, who was speaking in Nairobi, in advance of the launch of the Year by the Food and Agricultural Organisation. FAO is running the special year and the major conference on rice in Rome in February.

Among the poorest

"The first and most important millennium goal of halving the number of poor and hungry by 2015 concerns rice consumers and producers more than any other group in the developing world," Dr. Cantrell said. "That's because they are among the poorest and the most deprived of access to food."

Some examples of this link come from recent World Bank figures which indicate that poverty has eclined significantly in Indonesia since early 1999, as rice prices have fallen and real wages have started to recover from the Asian economic collapse of 1997.

Earlier figures from the heyday of the Green Revolution in Asia show how effectively improvements to rice farming fight poverty. With modern varieties allowing large increases in rice production, the incidence of hunger fell from 33 per cent in most Asian developing countries to 18 per cent, while poverty was halved.

"Obviously another key factor is the research and policies needed to help farmers diversify out of rice," Dr. Cantrell added. "Many rice farmers will remain poor if they have to keep growing only the one crop."

For achieving the millennium development goal of ensuring environmental sustainability, research to improve rice farming represents both an acute need and a great opportunity, he said. Because rice occupies more farmland in Asia than any other food crop - 60 per cent or more of total cropped area in the poorest countries - even limited progress toward cleaner and greener rice farming can bring significant benefits.

Optimising fertiliser use

"For many years now we have been breeding improved rice varieties with natural resistance to pests and diseases," Dr. Cantrell explained. "This reduces the need for farmers to spray their crops with pesticides. We are also studying a range of options in integrated pest management that further reduce farmers' need to spray potentially dangerous chemicals.

"At the same time, we're testing simple but reliable techniques farmers can employ to optimise their fertiliser use. Ensuring a crop's maximum uptake of fertiliser by applying just enough of it at just the right time means less fertiliser runoff polluting rivers and streams. The added benefit - and the immediate incentive for farmers - is lower input cost and so improved income."

Making rice fields as productive as possible also protects forests, wetlands and other natural areas by reducing or eliminating farmers' need to clear marginal lands to create new fields.

"Rice research that improves the productivity of existing fields boosts harvests in line with the number of mouths to feed without encroaching on natural areas," explained Dr. Cantrell. "This has been true since the beginning of the Green Revolution."

Other key goals

Recent research has determined that, without the productivity improvements in rice and other crops brought by the Green Revolution, the world's agricultural land would be 3 to 5 per cent more extensive than it is today - covering an dditional area roughly the size of France. Almost all of this expansion of crop land would have taken place on such marginal and environmentally sensitive areas as sloping highlands, whose deforestation and subsequent erosion can have devastating environmental consequences hundreds of kilometers downstream.

Dr. Cantrell said the other four millennium goals that could be directly advanced through continued rice research are:

  • achieving universal primary education
  • promoting gender equality and empowering women
  • reducing child mortality
  • improving maternal health.

Perhaps the greatest obstacle to achieving universal primary education is the inability of poor parents to put food on the table every day and still save enough money to pay their children's school fees.

"Although rice prices have dropped to historic lows in recent years, Asia's poorest still spend 20-40 per cent of their income on rice," noted Dr Cantrell.

"Helping farmers grow rice more efficiently means cheaper rice for consumers, higher income for producers and more money for both to invest in their children's education. More efficient rice farming also lightens the labour burden on farm households, leaving children more time for their studies."

Dr. Cantrell said the same principle applies to promoting gender equality and empowering women, particularly those on the farm.

"Women traditionally shoulder many of the chores of rice farming," he said. "These days, they are assuming additional responsibilities as their menfolk go off looking for employment off the farm. Research that makes rice farming more efficient frees women to grow cash crops and independently pursue other paid activities. This means they can earn money to cover school fees for all of their children, boys and girls alike. And maybe they even have a little money left over for their own personal fulfillment."

Helping dietary deficiences

Dr. Cantrell said there was one revolutionary strategy that can help achieve the millennium goals of reducing child mortality and improving maternal health.

"Because Asia's poorest depend on rice for most of their calories and protein, many suffer dietary deficiencies. Globally, deficiency in micronutrients - or hidden hunger - afflicts more than half of humanity. The most vulnerable are women, especially when they are pregnant or lactating, and young children."

Recent research at IRRI, he said, had advanced the new concept of biofortification, or breeding rice varieties that have a higher nutrient content in the endosperm of the grain, the part left after milling. The institute is focusing on three essential micronutrients: iron, zinc and vitamin A.

"We are excited about this new research and its potential to significantly contribute to these two millennium development goals," Dr. Cantrell said.

"Because rice reaches most of the world's poor, even in the most isolated villages, on a daily basis, so will these micronutrients. And, because iron-and zinc-rich rice does not entail genetic modification, there have been no political hurdles to clear. It's already in feeding trials in the Philippines, and we hope to announce some results soon."

  • Speaking on the eve of the rice conference in Rome, in February, Dr Cantrell warned of the dangers caused by the declining support for public rice research.

    "The Asian rice industry is in trouble," Dr. Cantrell said... "Not only is the rice industry in Asia facing a crisis in the supply of such essential resources as land, labour and water, but - most importantly of all - many nations are finding it difficult to develop sustainable ways to provide decent livelihoods for rice farmers and consumers."

    Dr. Cantrell said this huge challenge comes at a time of collapsing support for public rice research. "While IRRI still has some verycommitted donors, there is no doubt that the institute could do a lot more if it had more support."

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is the world's leading rice research and training centre. Based in the Philippines and with offices in 10 other Asian countries, it is one of 16 centres funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).Related links:International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)IRRI LibraryConsultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR)Future Harvest FoundationRice Knowledge BankRiceworld Museum and Learning CenterCGIAR