If Asia is to alleviate rural poverty and quell the instability it causes, publicly funded rice research needs revitalised donor support.
Terrorism and instability are taking hold in parts of Asia. Unrest in Indonesia and the Philippines in particular has killed thousands, most dramatically in the Bali bombings of 2002. Blaming a lack of funding for public rice research may seem a long bow to draw, but the link between rice production, poverty and stability is real.
The United Nations has declared 2004 the International Year of Rice in recognition of its economic, social, political and cultural importance as the daily staple of half of humanity. Rice directly or indirectly supports hundreds of millions of people, so improving farmers’ ability to grow rice efficiently and sustainably is essential for ensuring food security, alleviating poverty and improving the well-being of rural and urban populations alike. Millions of the world’s poorest acquire 60-70 percent of their calories from rice and spend up to 40 percent of their income on it.
A good example of how much helping rice farmers can accomplish is the tremendous success of the Australian government’s effort through AusAID to rehabilitate the Cambodian rice industry after Pol Pot. Australia’s work massively contributed to improving the lives of desperately poor Cambodians.
The International Food Policy Research Institute reports that, in 1999, every US$1 million invested in research for development conducted by the International Rice Research Institute, whose board I chair, lifted more than 15,000 rural poor in India, and 800 rural poor in China, above the poverty line. These poverty-reduction effects were even greater in previous years.
In the early days of the Green Revolution, up to the early 1980s, the rice-producing nations of Asia enjoyed annual rice yield increases of two point five percent and production gains of over three percent. However, between the middle of the 1980s and the late 1990s, the rate of annual yield increase was nearly halved, and the rate of production increase fell even further.
Many rural rice communities in Asia are growing increasingly restless, as productivity stagnation leaves them awaiting new technologies to make them more productive and competitive and so lift them out of poverty.
Nothing is more important to any country than its ability to feed itself. In Indonesia, for example, this means growing enough rice. But, if food security is one essential pillar of national security, another is rural development.
Poverty and a lack of opportunity – for education, livelihood or simply the chance to lead a happy, healthy life – foster instability. Desperate people forced to leave home in search of work may become susceptible to extremism. One of the Bali bombers had reportedly left his home village of Tenggulun, East Java, to seek work in Malaysia, where he was recruited by terrorists. A lack of opportunity in heavily agricultural Tenggulun has forced 20 percent of its working-age population to leave in search of employment – a story repeated time and again throughout rural Asia.
The abundant supply of rice and record low prices we enjoy today may not last. Regional population growth is now outstripping increases in rice production, and the rice industry in Asia is approaching a crisis in the supply of such essential resources as land, labour and water. Worse, many nations are having trouble developing sustainable ways to provide decent livelihoods for 100’s of millions of poor rice farmers and consumers.
The challenge ahead is enormous and comes at a time of collapsing support for public rice research. For more than four decades, the research system that develops and delivers knowledge and new technologies to Asia’s rice farmers has been funded – and influenced – mostly by the West. This effort having achieved visible success, many donors are now taking their resources elsewhere, such as Africa.
Meanwhile, recent scientific breakthroughs are equipping rice scientists and agricultural extension workers with new and exciting tools to help poor rice farmers, labourers and consumers. The recent sequencing of the rice genome is now providing more scientific knowledge of the rice plant than has been gathered in the 15,000 years of its cultivation. The development of more nutritious rice varieties promises to help combat the malnutrition that afflicts 100’s of millions of people who depend on rice for most of their calories. However, declining support is preventing the delivery of new technologies to farmers.
Asia is home to an estimated 200 million rice farmers. An investment of just 40 U.S. cents per farmer for each of the next 20 years would go a long way toward ensuring that they can earn a decent living sustainably supplying poor rice consumers with plentiful supplies of affordable, nutritious rice.