Wednesday, 20 February 2008

New Green Revolution May Solve Rice Shortage in Asia

A Cambodian girl cleans mud from the rice near their ox-cart at a rice field in Kandal province, some 20 kilometers (13 miles) north Phnom Penh, Cambodia (July 6, 2007 file photo)

By Claudia Blume
Hong Kong
19 February 2008

Asia has built much of its success on cheap, plentiful rice. But the supply of the region's most important food crop is declining steadily, and prices are going up - putting a strain on the region's poor. However, rice researchers say the situation is not hopeless, as Claudia Blume reports from VOA's Asia News Center in Hong Kong.

Improved seeds and farm technology, better irrigation, and fertilizers led to the so-called green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. At that time, rice yields went up dramatically in Asia, and prices dropped. Economists say lower prices for rice, the staple food of most Asians, was one of the drivers of the continent's economic growth in the past decades.

But experts warn the era of cheap, plentiful rice is coming to an end. Robert Zeigler is a plant pathologist at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

"If you look at prices, if you look at global stocks, if you look at yield trends, if you look at what important rice producing and consuming countries are doing, such as India, which basically blocked its exports, I would say the indications are that we are entering an era of much tighter rice supplies. There is no doubt about it, and if supplies are tight, then prices will go up," Zeigler said.

Zeigler says there are several reasons for the worsening rice shortage in Asia. Consumption has gone up while crops have been destroyed by more frequent typhoons, flooding and droughts.
Farming areas are shrinking, as they are being used to build industrial or recreational areas.

Zeigler says if the region does not address the problem, poverty will increase.

But he is optimistic that another green revolution is possible.

"We have experienced revolutions in molecular biology, in genetics, in computational power and communications that will allow us to make what would have been ten years ago unimaginable advances in plant improvement and crop improvement. So, I am convinced that if we invest our resources wisely, if we have the proper policy environment, we can create a next green revolution," Zeigler said.

The Rice Research Institute, where Zeigler works, has already developed a new variety of rice that can survive in flooded paddy fields.

Zeigler says there are scientific solutions to solve challenges such as the impact of climate change on rice production. But, he adds that governments and private donors in Asia should invest more in research. He says the rice institute is mainly funded by Western donors, rather than Asian. In January, for example, U.S. billionaire Bill Gates donated almost $20 million to support research on stress-tolerant rice crops for poor farmers.

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