With around three billion people eating rice every day, almost 11 percent of the planet's arable surface is planted with this vital grain. In many cases, it is the very poorest people who depend on rice while at the same time trying to survive in some of the world's most fragile ecosystems.
In its latest annual report-entitled "Rice Research: The Way Forward" and launched to coincide with World Environment Day on June 5-IRRI calls for greater recognition of the importance of this delicate balancing act.
"We firmly believe it is possible to feed three billion people in a safe and sustainable way without damaging the environment or destroying traditional practices," said IRRI Director General Ronald Cantrell. "But it hasn't been easy, and it's going to get even tougher."
There are many challenges facing the rice industry, each of which could potentially have a huge impact on the environment. These include:
* Global warming: Rice production will be both affected by and, in a small way, affect global warming. Rice paddies are a minor source of the greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. But more
importantly, even a small increase in temperature could have serious consequences for rice yields.
* Water: Using traditional methods, producing one kilogram of rice can take up to 5,000 liters of water. As competing demands for limited water resources grow, this reliance on large quantities of water is increasingly unrealistic in many countries, and so other ways to grow rice must be found.
* Soil: Rice growing soils are arguably among the world's most vital natural resource. In many parts of Asia, rice production has already intensified to the point where scientists are concerned about the ability of the soil to meet future crop demands.
* Pesticides: In most rice-producing nations, farmers continue to use excessive amounts of pesticides. However, recent successes in China and Vietnam have shown clearly that production levels can be maintained using far fewer applications.
"As the rice industry faces up to these challenges, one of the most important issues is to recognize the rice farm as a sustainable, balanced ecosystem in its own right," Dr. Cantrell explained. "When you realize that with rice you're talking about billions of people and huge areas of land, you start to see what a major impact even one of these problems can have on the environment.
"Because of this, it's clear we need to start thinking about the rice farms of the world as a type of international park, not just commercial production zones or food factories," Dr. Cantrell added. "In many countries, rice farming has been conducted for generations in the same areas. If looked at
globally, such farms cover 146 million hectares, or about 11 percent of the world's arable area. These rice ecosystems are just like the oceans and great forests of the planet, as they sweep across national borders and represent the largest single land use focused on feeding the world."
To access an electronic version of IRRI's new annual report, entitled "Rice Research: The Way Forward" please click on this address: <http://www.cgiar.org/irri/AR2001/Forward.htm> All the material in the report-text and photos-may be freely reproduced, as long as IRRI is credited. Printed copies of the annual report can also be obtained by writing to the address given below.
IRRI is the world's leading international rice research and training center. Based in the Philippines and with offices in 11 other countries, it is an autonomous, nonprofit institution focused on improving the well-being of present and future generations of rice farmers and consumers, particularly those with low incomes, while preserving natural resources. IRRI is one of 16 Future Harvest centers funded by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an association of public and private donor agencies.
For more information, visit the websites of CGIAR (www.cgiar.org <http://www.cgiar.org/>) or Future Harvest (www.futureharvest.org <http://www.futureharvest.org/>). Future Harvest is a nonprofit organization that builds awareness and supports food and environmental research for a world with less poverty, a healthier human family, well-nourished children, and a better environment. Future Harvest supports research, promotes partnerships, and sponsors projects that bring the results of agricultural
research to rural communities, farmers, and families in Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
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For additional information, contact Duncan Macintosh, IRRI, DAPO Box 7777,
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