Sunday, July 4, 2010

IRRI: Rice Science for a Better World

People depend on rice for food and employment. These people are the poorest of the poor. They earn less than a dollar a day. Rice is life for millions of the world's poor. Have you ever wondered how people grow rice?

By 2025, the world will have 3.9 billion rice consumers. And, farmers will have to produce more rice using vital resources—land and water—that are becoming scarcer and scarcer. With climate change already damaging the planet at an alarming pace, can poor farmers continue to feed the world with rice, sustainably and safely? Scientists at the International Rice Research Institute, or IRRI, think they can. For nearly 50 years, IRRI and its partners have used high-quality science to develop new technologies to help the world's rice growers.

By introducing modern science and farming technologies to the rice fields of Asia, IRRI and its partners around the world are helping farmers produce more rice.

IRRI freely shares improved varieties and better crop management and postharvest techniques to reduce losses with its partners around the world. However, rice prices skyrocketed in early 2008. Many factors brought about this rice crisis.

Population growth is outstripping production. We are consuming more than we can produce. Rapid economic growth in large countries has increased demand for cereals, for both consumption and livestock production.

Demand is higher from countries in Africa and the Middle East, where rice is becoming increasingly popular.

Public investment in agricultural research, development, and infrastructure has declined. Productive rice land is being converted for housing and industrial development. The increase in oil prices has made farming inputs more expensive. Natural disasters—flooding, drought, and typhoons—have been catastrophic. Global temperatures are rising. And, re-occurring pest outbreaks have made it much harder to produce more rice.

But, there is still hope and there are solutions. Rapid advances in science and technology present exciting possibilities that could revolutionize rice farming. IRRI and its partners are now working to ensure that rice crops can adapt to rising temperature, flooding, salinization, and drought; and, to reduce rice farming's impact on the environment by helping farmers optimize fertilizer and pesticide use, and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions from rice fields.

In the coming years, IRRI and its partners will, through precison-breeding, 1) create new varieties that have higher yield potential and excellent grain quality, and can better withstand stresses such as diseases, insects, flooding, drought, heat, and salinity; 2) create varieties that are more nutritious, such as Golden Rice; 3) accelerate the introduction and adoption of existing higher-yielding rice varieties; 4) deliver better soil, water, and crop management technologies to help farmers exploit existing yield gaps so they can have better income and consumers can have better access to affordable rice; 5) continue to design crop management systems that improve rice farming's profitability and reduce drudgery while protecting the environment; 6) and accelerate the delivery of new postharvest technologies -- for drying, milling, and storage -- to reduce losses, which are often around 15%.

Today, IRRI and its partners have new tools at their fingertips that help accelerate research on the world's thousands of rice varieties, stored in IRRI's International Rice Genebank, so scientists can tap into the vast reservoir of knowledge they contain.

They are developing a new generation of rice scientists, and professional extension workers for both the public and private sector, and they are using modern tools to manage information.

Scientist must also work on new frontiers such as developing rice with more efficient photosynthesis known as C4 rice that will produce higher yields with increased use efficiency of water and nitrogen fertilizer. This will take many years of hard work -- and investments in this must start now.

But IRRI cannot do this alone.

In the near term, urgent actions from national governments, international agencies, the private sector, and private philanthropists are needed.

These would provide better support for rapidly exploiting technological opportunities for increasing rice yields and policy reforms to improve poor peoples food supply.

New public-private sector partnerships must be designed for creating new knowledge and bringing new seeds and new management technologies faster to millions of rice farmers in Asia and Africa.

Sustainable rice production can be revitalized, but there are no silver bullets.

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