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Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Southeast Asian Nations Endorse Rice Action Plan

The world’s biggest rice-exporting and -importing nations have collectively endorsed a new Rice Action Plan targeting many of the problems that triggered this year’s rice price crisis.

At a meeting of the ten-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi on October 24, 2008, ministers of agriculture unanimously endorsed a seven-point action plan presented by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). ASEAN includes two of the world’s largest rice exporters, Thailand and Vietnam, and several importing nations as well.

The endorsement came at the 30th annual meeting of the ASEAN Ministers of Agriculture and Forestry (AMAF). It was presented as part of a comprehensive food security strategy being developed for the region, home to more than 500 million rice consumers, including some of Asia’s poorest.

“The message is very clear,” IRRI’s director general, Robert S. Zeigler, said. “We have the scientific expertise, knowledge, and partnerships to grow the rice Asia needs and now—with this endorsement by these nations—we have strong political support. The only thing missing are the financial resources needed to implement this.”

Dr. Zeigler told the ministers that IRRI needs an additional US$15 million a year for the next ten years to adequately support the ASEAN Rice Action Plan. “At a time of trillion-dollar bailouts for the global financial sector, $15 million a year is barely the annual bonus of a former Wall Street executive,” Dr. Zeigler said.

The Rice Action Plan was developed by IRRI earlier this year during the rice price crisis in consultation with its partners around the region. It includes the following measures:

1. Bring about an agronomic revolution to reduce existing yield gaps.
Depending on production conditions, an unexploited yield gap of 1–2 t/ha currently exists in most farmers’ fields in the rice-growing areas of Asia. This yield gap can be reduced through the integrated use of stress-resistant varieties and better crop management practices. This requires funding support to programs aimed at improving farmers’ skills in practices such as land preparation, water and nutrient management, and the control of various pests, diseases, and weeds.

2. Accelerate the delivery of new postharvest technologies to reduce losses.
Postharvest includes the storing, drying, and processing of rice. Considerable losses occur in terms of both the quantity and quality of rice during postharvest operations because of the use of old and inefficient practices. The active promotion of exciting new technologies that are currently available for on-farm storage and drying will reduce losses considerably.

3. Accelerate the introduction and adoption of higher-yielding rice varieties.
New rice varieties are available today that can increase production, but farmers are not using them because the systems that introduce new varieties are under-resourced. Enhancing germplasm exchange, variety testing, and release pipelines can make current high-yielding stress-resistant varieties and hybrids more widely available to farmers in irrigated and rainfed lowland areas of Asia.

4. Strengthen and upgrade breeding pipelines for developing new varieties and hybrids.
Funding for the development of new rice varieties has declined steadily over the past decade or more. This must be reversed in order to develop the next generations of new rice varieties that will be required for productivity growth in sustainable agriculture. Several opportunities are available to accelerate the development of new rice varieties and hybrids with higher yield, better grain quality, and increased tolerance of abiotic stresses and with multiple resistances to insects and diseases through new molecular breeding approaches.

5. Accelerate research on the world’s thousands of rice varieties so scientists can use the vast reservoir of untapped genetic resources they contain.
Working with IRRI, the world’s nations have spent decades carefully collecting thousands of rice varieties. More than 100,000 rice types are now being carefully managed and used at IRRI and in Asian nations. However, only a small fraction of these vital genetic resources has been characterized in detail or used widely. New molecular methods have now opened the door for revealing the valuable genetic characteristics in each variety.

6. Develop a new generation of rice scientists and researchers for the public and private sectors.
Part of the current rice crisis reflects the lack of investment in science, including human capital investment. The education and training of young scientists and researchers are also vital concerns for the rice industry. Asia urgently needs to train a new generation of rice scientists and researchers to enable the region to exploit the latest developments in modern science more effectively.

7. Provide rice policy support.
Conducive policy environments are needed to achieve the fuller use of technology for rapid production growth in an efficient, equitable, and sustainable manner. Rice production is being affected by several dynamic economic factors and their potential impact can be manipulated through suitable policy reforms. The identification of policy constraints, the generation of alternative policy options, and policy advocacy are therefore essential.

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