Global rice production has increased enormously over the past few decades, improving the world’s food security. At the same time, the gains in production and resulting boost to the supply of rice have made the commodity much cheaper and ultimately less profitable, particularly for small farmers.
Thanks to more efficient machines and farming methods, better irrigation systems and new, more resilient and higher yielding varieties of rice, the major players — including China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar and Japan — now produce more of the primary staple with less cost in time and effort.
Production has increased substantially by almost 100m tonnes in the last decade. This production of raw rice translates into roughly 498m tonnes of milled rice.
Innovative Chinese technology is now boosting rice production in the country’s north-western and eastern regions. The Chinese-developed programme introduced in these regions in 2006 has shown improvement in yields, and the control of dangerous weeds, crop diseases, destructive insects and climate effects.
It was announced in November that one of the world’s most famous rice researchers, 86-year-old Yuan Longping, set a production record when one variety managed to produce 1,538 kilograms of rice per mu. One mu is equal to about 0.07 hectares.
Today, the global supply of rice is growing faster than demand.
Speaking to China Daily Asia Weekly, Thomas Voon, associate professor at Lingnan University’s department of economics in Hong Kong, said that rice production is now ‘open to mechanisation.’
“Besides, many types of high-yielding and disease resistant strains have been produced in recent decades. These are some of the reasons why rice prices have not gone up in tandem with some other commodities.”
Technology for rice plantation that saves water is one example of such a breakthrough. In 2012, the Japanese government, through a programme called the Rice-based and Market-oriented Agriculture Promotion Project (RiceMAPP), introduced a water-saving technology that made rice fields much more productive.
According to UN Water, a coordination platform for freshwater-related issues, agriculture is the world’s biggest water user, with irrigation accounting for 70pc of global water withdrawals.
The International Rice Research Institute estimates that 35 to 45pc of all water used in irrigation goes to rice farming — around 1,000 cubic kilometres per year.
Water has traditionally been the most expensive input in rice farming, and with increasing diseases and declining soil fertility, paddy farming is proving unsustainable.
New technologies are helping cut down on how much water goes into rice farming.
RiceMAPP’s research suggests that rice fields do not need to be flooded with water every day to give better yields. The program involves intermittent irrigation, where farmers are only required to irrigate their rice paddies for three days before taking a break of seven days.
To ensure an even flow of water into the farm, farmers are also trained to level their farms before planting seedlings. Rice seedlings are transplanted to the fields at three weeks instead of the usual five.
Farmers in various parts of Southeast Asia and Africa are also learning a new rice farming method called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), introduced by the National Irrigation Board of Kenya in partnership with AgSri, an agricultural innovation organisation from India.
Farmers have been working with SRI on ways to save water, but the system is also providing a new seed variety that ensures good-quality seedlings and increases the chances of higher yields.
Using the SRI methodology, farmers and agricultural engineers have reported using just 5kg of seed per acre, about a quarter of the seed used in traditional rice farming. There are around 2.5 acres in a hectare.
Another key difference is the method of planting. In traditional paddy farming, seeds are planted directly under water. Using the SRI method, seeds are placed on raised seedbeds, which are watered sparingly, thus saving water.
Also, the method is faster, which can lead to more crops. The new method requires between eight and 12 days for seed transplantation compared to the 21 days required under more traditional methods.
Joel Tanui, regional manager of the National Irrigation Board of Kenya, expects the new method will more than double production from 2 tonnes of rice per acre to more than 4 tonnes.
Not only is research into planting methods facilitating more production but rice researchers and farmers are increasingly open to working with more resilient varieties.
Rice-producing countries are looking into climate-smart varieties that adapt to unfavourable environments. Climate-smart rice is much more resilient.
These varieties can withstand the adverse effects and growing number of environmental threats, including drought, flooding and salinity, an increasing problem associated with rising sea levels.
A case in point is the Philippines, a big producer but also one of the country’s most vulnerable to climate change, according to Calixto Protacio, executive director of the Philippine Rice Research Institute.