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Asia may soon lose ‘world rice bowl’ status
R. Senthilnathan, Rome
Feb 09, 2001 12:40 Hrs (IST)

ICE cultivation, barring a few exceptions, is facing a crunch across the Asian continent where history says rice cultivation began at least about 5,000 years ago.

The area under rice cultivation is also dropping along with the yields. What is worse, other regions of the world, notably Africa and even the Americas, may one day become the rice bowls, overtaking Asia where currently 90 percent of the just under 600 million tons of rice is produced, traded and consumed.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) says that experts began to notice the decline in rice productivity in the nineties in India and Thailand, and then confirmed this trend through field trials in the Philippines.

And even though the urbanization witnessed in all Asian countries, particularly in the Tiger economies, has seen lower growth rates in rice demand with urbanites tending to eat less rice than their rural counterparts, global demand for rice is set grow 1.7 percent annually, higher than the growth in rice production.

"We'll need to increase current rice production from nearly 600 million tons annually to almost 800 million by year 2025 if we want to keep up with population growth," says Nguu Nguyen, agricultural officer of the FAO's Crop and Grassland Service.

Besides population growth, increased use in other parts of the globe, particularly Africa, will play a role in the global rice demand. In western Africa, for instance, governments had to spend a billion dollars in 1995 to import rice as local demand has led to 400 percent increase in imports over the past 25 years.

A host of reasons are attributed by the FAO and organizations like the Manila-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) - the world's premier rice institute -- for the decline in rice production in Asia. One of them is the decrease in market prices for rice.

During the period 1967-81, a ton of rice fetched $769, but it dropped to $322 between 1984-1997, a drop of 58 percent. Degraded land and decreasing water availability are other leading factors. Cultivation of a kilogram of rice needs roughly 5,000 liters of water, but the Sri Lanka-based International Water Management Institute (IWMI) says by year 2020 a third of Asian population will face water shortages.

The Rome-based UN body's statistics prove that rice production in Asia slowed down after rapid increases in the sixties, when the Green Revolution was initiated, through the early eighties. Throughout Asia, rice yields grew by 2.5 percent annually between 1967-84, but only by half that amount between 1985-1996 when the area under rice cultivation dropped by half and production from 3.2 to 1.5 percent.

In India, rice yield grew by 1.9 percent during the 1967-84 period, and further by 2.3 percent during the 1984-96 period. The area under cultivation grew by 0.7 seven, and then by less than half during 1984-96.

The figures for China are profound; rice yield grew only by one percent during the 1984-96 period, as against 3.3 percent during the previous period. The area under cultivation witnessed a decline during the second period.

To turn the tide, rice experts are working to come up with new varieties of rice that would produce even more rice with less land, water and pesticide. At the core of these efforts is the so-called super rice, pioneered by the IRRI. Currently under field trials, the rice is expected to be mass distributed by year 2004, and will increase the yield to about 12.5 tons per ha. Currently, yields of seven to ten tons per ha are harvested.

China, which developed the now widely used so-called hybrid varieties, has already developed rice varieties that have yielded up to 17 tons per hectare. There are also other, less technological ways to increase rice production, say rice experts. Australia's successful Ricecheck system and Indonesia's integrated pest management systems for instance.

Asia is in dire need of innovative methods and technologies if only to retain its status as world's rice bowl as rice producers outside of Asia are thriving, warn experts.

India Abroad News Service


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