A global rice science partnership: the source of innovation to spur rice productivity growth in Asia

A. R. Dobermann and R. S. Zeigler1

1. Background and Context
Importance of rice and challenges

Rice is the most important food crop of the developing world and the staple food of more than half of the world’s population, many of whom are also extremely vulnerable to high rice prices. In developing countries alone, more than 3.3 billion people depend on rice for more than 20% of their calories. One fifth of the world’s population, more than 1 billion people, depends on rice cultivation for livelihoods. Harvested from 158 million hectares annually, rice has twice the value of production in the developing world of any other food crop: more than $150 billion per year. Nearly 560 million people living on less than US$1.25 (purchasing power parity [PPP]) per day are in rice-producing areas, far more than for any other crop (Fig. 1). Asia, where about 90% of rice is grown, has more than 200 million rice farms, most of which are smaller than 1 hectare. Rice is the staple food for most of the poor in Asia, where poverty remains staggering, particularly in South Asia (Fig. 1). For the extreme poor who must live on less than $1.25/day, ,rice accounts for nearly half of their food expenditures, and a fifth of total household expenditures, on average. This group alone annually spends the equivalent of $62 billion (PPP) for rice.


Deputy Director-General and Director-General, respectively, of International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

Over most of the developing Asia, rice availability is equated with food security and closely connected to political stability. Changes in rice availability, and hence price, have caused social unrest in several countries, most recently during the food crisis of 2008. The World Bank estimated that an additional 100 million people were pushed into poverty as a result of that crisis. Rice production systems are unique and the longevity of rice farming speaks for itself. Irrigated lowland rice, which makes up three-quarters of the world rice supply, is the only crop that can be grown continuously without the need for rotation and can produce up to three harvests a year - literally for centuries, on the same plot of land. Farmers also grow rice in rainfed lowlands, uplands, mangroves, and deep water areas. In Asia rice is grown almost exclusively by small holders (<2 ha). Rice remains productive in environments where most other crops would fail. In irrigated and rainfed lowland systems, rice is grown in anaerobic (flooded) soil, which is disturbed after each crop; fields are periodically submerged and the soil softened. The aquatic phase reduces soil acidity and improves nutrient availability, and biological nitrogen fixation; it brings with it a host of arthropods, snails, and frogs and other beneficial fauna and flora in cycles that have their origins millennia ago. Fish and ducks can be raised in the fields. Apart from these provisioning ecosystem services are also regulatory services: flood buffering and trapping of sediments and nutrients, and moderation of air temperature; supporting services: irrigated fields are “human-made wetlands” that support a rich biodiversity; and cultural services: many ancient communities were founded around rice irrigation areas where rice remains an important cultural icon. Whichever way rice is viewed - quantity, productivity, value of production, number of farmers, number of consumers, affordability to the poor, or dietary importance - it will remain the dominant feature of the nutritional and agricultural landscape of many developed and developing countries far into the foreseeable future. The importance of rice to the overall sense of well-being for most rice consumers cannot be ignored. And, the phrase “rice is life” is not to be taken lightly because the grain figures in many creation beliefs across Asia and is deeply embedded in social practices and customs. Thus, rice shortages affect society far beyond the cold statistics that price, caloric intake, yield growth rates, and international trade suggest. Any significant disruptions of rice supplies can and do have far-reaching social and political ramifications.

2. Issues and Challenges
A variety of factors, from falling yield growth to climate change, threaten future rice production. Declining yields and less land, water, and labor availability - Yield growth has fallen, partially as a result of the decline in investment in productivity research since the early 1990s, from 2.2% during 1970-90 to less than 0.8% in the 1990s and 2000s. The area under rice production in major producing countries has been decreasing owing to the conversion of land for other purposes. Fewer hands are available for farming as young people prefer to look for jobs outside the agricultural sector. Although there is still


scope for expanding the area under rice cultivation,, conservation of natural ecosystems must remain a high priority. Increasing rice yields on existing land must remain the primary strategy for increasing production. Irrigated rice provides 75 % of the world’s rice production, which is typically grown in puddled transplanted fields with continuous ponding. However, water for agriculture is becoming increasingly scarce. The causes are diverse and location-specific, but include decreasing physical availability (e.g. falling groundwater tables, silting of reservoirs), decreasing quality (e.g. chemical pollution, salinization), malfunctioning irrigation systems, and increased competition from other sectors such as urban and industrial users. By 2025, an estimated 15-20 million ha of irrigated rice will suffer some degree of water scarcity. Labor for the huge task of transplanting rice is also becoming increasingly scarce because of migration to urban areas and overseas. In 2007 the Government of India introduced the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (2007 which promises 100 d paid work in people’s home villages, creating serious labor scarcity in the cereal food bowl of North West India which is dependent on millions of migrant laborers. Effects of economic growth. Rapid economic growth in large countries, such as China and India, has increased demand for cereals, both for consumption and for livestock production, and this has pushed up the price of cereals in general. Economic growth is often accompanied by diversification of food demand, which creates opportunities for diversification of rice-based systems to include higher-value crops and livestock, but also reduces the amount of land available for rice. The rice-related tensions that developing countries face are growing more complex as their economies grow: between poor rice farmers and poor consumers, between small-scale and large-scale rice-based farms, between rice and more lucrative/cash crops, between edible crops and biofuels, between crops and other land uses, and between crops and other water uses. Pressure on land use. As a consequence of economic growth, current rice cultivation areas are likely to be lost to urban expansion, land conversion to biofuels, and diversification into other agricultural products. This all means that sufficient production to meet growing future demand will have to come from smaller and smaller areas, particularly if diversification is to be possible while keeping rice prices affordable to poor consumers. In turn, this adds urgency to the need to improve productivity. Climate change. Global climate change has potentially grave consequences for rice production and, consequently, global food security. Land-use systems in most developing countries are highly vulnerable to climate change and have little capacity to cope with its impacts. Conditions for rice farming will deteriorate in many areas, through water shortages, low water quality, thermal stress, sea-level rise, floods, and more intense tropical cyclones. An International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) study forecasts a 15 % decrease in irrigated rice yields in developing countries and a 12 % increase in the price of rice as a result of climate change, by 2050. Moreover, flooded intensively managed rice systems release large amounts of methane, but also sequester carbon in soil organic matter, whereas more diversified rice-based cropping systems release less methane, but more nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide. Most disconcerting is that more than half of the growth in Asian rice production over the past decades came from the “delta countries,” such as Vietnam and Bangladesh - precisely the countries most


vulnerable to sea-level rise and climatic extremes. Many unique ecosystem services in wetland rice culture are now under threat from increasing water scarcity, further aggravated by climate change. What will change in these systems if farmers diversify cropping or switch to “aerobic” water management? Will these systems be resilient and productive enough over the longer term? What will be the sustainable ricebased cropping systems and crop management practices of the future? Global and regional rice demand growth and challenges - Global rice consumption remains strong, driven by both population and economic growth in many Asian and African countries. Based on population projections from the United Nations and income projections from the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI), global rice demand is expected to rise from 439 million tons (milled rice) in 2010 to 496 million tons in 2020 and further increase to 553 million tons in 2035 (Fig. 2). This is an overall increase of 26 % in the next 25 years, but the rate of growth will decline from 13% for the first 10 years to 11 % in the next 15 years as population growth drops and people diversify from rice to other foods. Among the various rice-consuming regions, Asian rice consumption is projected to account for 67% of the total increase, rising from 388 million tons in 2010 to 465 million tons in 2035. In addition, 30 million tons more rice will be needed by Africa, an increase of 130% from 2010 rice consumption. In the Americas, total rice consumption is projected to rise by 24% over the next 25 years. With further area expansion unlikely in Asia, rice yields from small holders must rise much faster than in the recent past if world market prices are to be stabilized at affordable levels for the billions of consumers (Fig. 3). Globally, farmers need to produce at least 8 to 10 million tons more paddy rice each year - an annual increase of 1.2 - 1.5% over the coming decade, equivalent to an average yield increase of 0.6 tons per hectare during the next decade. Over the longer run, growth in global rice consumption is expected to slow down but yields will have to continue to grow faster than at present because of pressure on rice lands in the developing world from urbanization, climate change, and competition from other, high-value agriculture. Rice yield growth of 1.0 - 1.2% annually beyond 2020 will be needed to feed the stillgrowing world and keep prices affordable. At the same time incomes for the small holder rice farmers must rise significantly if the best and brightest are to remain in the farms and their quality of life is to improve. Constraints to increasing rice production are largely of a nature that spans borders. Hence, a regionwide effort to increase rice production will require not only new tools; it must also change the practices and mindsets of millions of farmers to accept the challenges in their fields. While commonalities underpin a regional program, needs, opportunities, and priorities differ across regions. However, the adoption of rice technologies and approaches may be stalled if the policy environment is unfavorable. Harmonized and enabling rice-related legislation region wide will be essential if farmers and other rice-sector stakeholders are to take advantage of new and improved production systems adapted to climate change. Finally, knowledge of such production systems must reach the many, especially poor, small producers. This will require increased numbers of knowledgeable extension personnel and information sources to keep them informed. Since women play large and crucial but often unrecognized roles across the sector, extra efforts are needed to ensure they have the same opportunity as men to access new technologies.


3. Innovations and Good Practice
Innovations that can be contributed by international rice research
Our thesis is that innovations to benefit small holders and that address the significant challenges facing rice growers and countries that depend on rice will require solid research and political underpinnings. Scientific advances in genomics and marker-assisted breeding mean that gene bank materials can be explored on a large scale to identify and embed the genes responsible for ever more complicated target traits. Transgenic technologies offer the potential to engineer new plants that were previously unthinkable, such as rice using a new photosynthetic pathway. Meanwhile, improvements in sensors, processing, communications, and possibly nanotechnology offer the potential to revolutionize how field experiments are conducted, and can enable a precision-agriculture revolution in input-use efficiencies. New information and communication technologies have made the time ripe for maximum exploitation of the economies of scale possible in rice research. We present three areas where major investments are required and that can have major impact on the well being of small rice holders: Stress tolerant rice varieties adapted to neglected areas; improved water management approaches that can stabilize productivity; approaches to capture greater and significant value for small holders. Stress-tolerant rice varieties. Flooding, drought and salinity are major problem for farmers across Asia. Likewise each is expected to increase in severity and frequency in the coming decades in a changing climate. Submergence, or flood tolerant, rice is the furthest along in its development and serves as an excellent example of innovations that can directly benefit the poorest and smallest rice farmers. It is also an excellent practical example of how research in partnership with a range of local, state and national government agencies can come together to accelerate the impact of new and effective technologies. Although rice is usually grown in standing water, as for most plants, complete prolonged submergence is disastrous. In India and Bangladesh alone, farmers suffer annual crop losses because of flooding of up to 4 million tons of rice - enough to feed 30 million people. Over the past decade, IRRI researchers and colleagues from the University of California isolated the SUB1 gene - which confers tolerance of submergence for up to 2 weeks - from a traditional, low-yielding, flood-tolerant Indian variety. IRRI scientists used a method known as marker-assisted selection (this technique is not transgenic and thus not subject to the regulations and testing that delay the introduction of genetically modified crops) to develop flood-tolerant versions of existing popular rice varieties. Planted in flood-prone areas, these varieties can handle more than a week’s submergence with almost no loss of yield (1 week is enough to severely dent the harvest of the non-tolerant versions) and recover to produce a reasonable yield after even 2 weeks’ submergence (enough to almost wipe out the non-tolerant versions). Under good conditions, the yields of the Sub1 and “normal” versions are almost identical and there is no need for farmers to learn new crop management techniques. In collaboration with national rice research systems, a suite of these so-called Sub1 varieties have been or are soon to be released for cultivation in farmers’ fields. In 2009, over 600 tons of seed were produced and distributed to more than 50,000 farmers in India, Bangladesh and Nepal. Similar results have been


obtained for salt-tolerant and drought-tolerant varieties in South Asia. In 2009, the Indian Ministry of Agriculture through the national and state seed corporations and the National Food Security Mission have produced and distributed more than 110,000 “minikits” - 5 kg packets of stress-tolerant rice seed- and plans to distribute over 200,000 minikits in the first half of 2010. It is expected that these new varieties will cover more than 10 million hectares of rice in only a few years, bringing the Green Revolution to millions of farmers who until now have been left behind. Improved water management - The imperative for research and development of technologies to address water scarcity is greater than ever. There is no single technology to respond to the wide range of water-scarcity scenarios and environments in which they occur, and future research efforts will need to focus on the development of a “basket” of options. In the past 10 years IRRI and partners have made much progress in the development of technologies that greatly reduce water input to rice, including safe Alternate Wetting and Drying (AWD). Lowland rice production involves flooding, puddling and transplanting, and the fields are normally kept flooded until shortly before harvest, resulting in excessive losses in the forms of deep drainage, surface runoff and evaporation. Irrigation water use in lowland rice can be reduced by 15-40% by AWD instead of continuous flooding, while maintaining yields. However, if the soil in the rootzone is allowed to dry too much (above about 10 kPa water tension, but still wetter than field capacity!) for extended periods, yields decline. Safe AWD involves flooding the field with a shallow depth of water, say 5 cm, and then re-irrigating a few days after the floodwater has dissipated. The question for farmers is “for how long is it safe to wait between irrigations”. A compelling example of how years of water management research at the field level can be translated into a simple technology that any small rice farmer can use to implement safe AWD is found in Bangladesh. In 2002, IRRI and several partners began research into dissemination of safe AWD. Very simple water monitoring tools were developed to allow farmers to adopt this technology reliably and safely. IRRI scientists developed a simple perforated PVC pipe that farmers can drive into the soil of their rice plots to monitor soil moisture. When the free water (watertable) in the pipe falls 15-20 cm below the soil surface, farmers know it’s time to irrigate to their fields to avoid stressing the plants. These pipes are known as “panipipes” (pani is Bengali for water), but some farmers refer to them as “magic pipes”. Syngenta has distributed over 50,000 of these simple field tools free of charge via their dealer networks, and is now commencing to promote the technology in India. Tens of thousands farmers in Bangladesh, more than 60,000 in the Philippines, and thousands in Vietnam have since adopted safe AWD. For Bangladeshi adopters, reduction in irrigation water use of 15–30% means reduced pumping costs and fuel consumption, and increased income of $67–97 per hectare. IRRI’s Irrigated Rice Research Consortium received requests from Myanmar, Laos, Indonesia, and Thailand to help them disseminate AWD, which will become more important in the face of water scarcity that is predicted to affect 15-20 million hectares of irrigated rice by 2025. Capturing value for small rice farmers - Under normal weather conditions, high and steady flows of income can be realized by small holder farmers if they are able to sell their products at a fair price and can


easily deliver their daily harvest to market at a minimal logistics cost. A well designed contract farming model and its successful implementation is one of the key success factors for generating income streams to small holder farmers in the region.

4. Action Areas and Recommendations
The overarching importance of small holders in Asia will not change, even with the changing environmental, economic, demographic and social landscape. Many large multinational and national companies are engaged in agricultural production, along the whole value chain, from providing inputs through processing and marketing outputs. The public sector must redefine its role in research and extension to focus on areas of comparative advantage and on innovative public-private partnerships that will enable both sectors to more efficiently develop new technologies and information, and deliver them to small holders in a more efficient manner than is currently the case. Governments and investors should support this process through policies and investments that provide the necessary, sustained support for public sector R&D as well as public-private sector partnerships, and stimulate and enable private sector investments. The research pipeline must be fortified to insure a steady supply of new technologies suitable for adoption by small holder rice farmers. Increased investments are required by both the public and private sectors in the following thematic areas: Harnessing genetic diversity to chart new productivity, quality, and health horizons. This research aims to uncover new traits in the rice genome—particularly traits related to water stress, because water is the main concern for future rice-cropping systems—and make them available to breeding programs worldwide. Accelerating the development, delivery, and adoption of improved rice germplasm. The deeper understanding of rices genetic diversity will allow international and regional breeding programs to speed up the development and delivery of improved and climate-resilient germplasm. The aim is to transform public-sector breeding programs to become better targeted to the demands of different stakeholders—farmers, consumers, processors, and the marketing sector Increasing the productivity, sustainability, and resilience of rice-based production systems. Advances in rice production and optimizing the environmental footprint of rice requires integrated solutions for managing production systems. Extracting more value from rice harvests through improved processing and market systems and new products. Research must find ways to increase harvest value and develop mechanisms to support and harmonize the activities of producers, processors, and marketers, while ensuring equitable benefits for poor farmers.


Fostering improved policies and technology targeting to enable improved rice production and marketing. A clear understanding is needed of the needs of farmers and other actors, particularly women for any research agenda to be relevant. Likewise, timely and freely available information on expected yields and market conditions for key commodities is needed. For these research streams to yield benefits for small holders, it will be essential to develop strong cooperation between the public and private sectors for agricultural development planning and implementation. This must include support to the private sector, and particularly SMEs, in developing and in applying innovative farming approaches. Finally, both the public and private sectors must targeting the poor and vulnerable through appropriate capacity building and financing strategies to enable them to participate effectively in the market.


Fig. 1. Number of people below the $1.25 per day (purchasing power parity) poverty line who live in areas dominated by different crops (2005 data).

Million people on <$1.25 per day 600 Latin America and the Caribbean 500 Sub-Saharan Africa East Asia 400 SouthEast Asia South Asia 300



he at an s yb e So m va Pu ls es R ic e ai ze M ill et gh u C as sa W M at Po t oe s

Note: Numbers are based on areas more than 10% covered by the dominant crop. Fig. 2. Global rice production increases needed to meet demand by 2035.
Million tons milled rice


Additional rice needed: 114 million tons by 2035




2010 global rice production

19 91 19 93 19 95 19 97 19 99 20 01 20 03 20 05 20 07 20 09 20 11 20 13 20 15 20 17 20 19 20 21 20 23 20 25 20 27 20 29 20 31 20 33 20 35




So r

Rest of world


Fig. 3. What the world needs to keep rice prices affordable at around $300 per ton

Tons per hectare (paddy yield)
4.9 4.8

Million tons (paddy production)
760 740

4.7 4.6 4.5 4.4 4.3 4.2 4.1 4.0 640 3.9 3.8 2010 2011 2012 2013 2014 2015 2016 2017 2018 2019 Projected production Current yield trend Production required for $300/ton Yield required for $300/ton 620 660 700 680 720

Notes: Red columns and lines: current rice production and yield growth rates, respectively; blue columns and lines: yield and production growth required to stabilize rice prices at $300 per ton). Simulation was done using the Arkansas global rice model.


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