Monday, March 7, 2011

Interview with Dr Marco Wopereis on Global Rice Science Partnership

1. Why is it so important to have a large global research project on rice?

Rice is the most important food crop of the developing world and the staple food of more than half of the world’s population, many of whom are also extremely vulnerable to high rice prices. Increasing rice prices will adversely affect poor and low-income households who spend a larger proportion of their revenue on staple food relative to high-income households. The availability and affordability of rice is therefore crucial to many people across the globe.

Research can help enhance rice productivity, reduce post-harvest losses and improve marketability of rice and rice-based products in many ways. The global rice science partnership (GRiSP) will enable us to be more efficient and effective. It streamlines current research for development activities in the CGIAR, aligns it with numerous partners and adds new activities of high priority, in areas where science is expected to make significant contributions. In a nutshell we will need to produce a lot more rice in the coming years (estimations by IRRI: 60 million tons by 2020 and 116 million tons by 2035) to feed the world’s population with less land, less water, and less labour, in production systems that are more resilient to climate change and also contribute less to greenhouse gas emissions.

There is a lot of documented evidence about the importance of rice research on poverty alleviation. Analysts in the World Bank’s Development Research Group have found that, comparing a common rate of productivity growth across commodities, productivity growth for rice has more than doubled the global poverty reduction potential of any other agricultural product.

We can gain a lot from working together across regions, because many issues need to be tackled in a similar manner, for example developing rice varieties better resistant to drought, heat, salinity etc. GRiSP will allow us to be more focused, better aligned, become faster and more impact oriented.

Many different types of research will be undertaken. We will look where possible at enhancing rice productivity per unit of land, water and/or labor through the development of improved agronomic practices and new and diversified rice-based cropping systems with farmers. We are embarking on a massive public x private sector effort on gene discovery and genotyping and phenotyping work. In Africa, special attention will be paid to rice value chain development and enhancing grain quality. In all regions we will pro-actively link our research results with national and regional rice development efforts to boost the development of the global rice sector and communicate with policy makers.

2. Yield growth rates for rice have slowed to less than 1 percent per year since 2000. How does this compare to other crops? Have they achieved better yield growth rates? And why has the growth in rice yields been so slow?

This is roughly the same for wheat because it also a ‘public sector’ crop; maize: yield growth rates have not declined that much (because of private sector investment)

The rice yield decline is partly caused by a decline in research investment over the last 15 years. Also in some cases rice farmers are starting to get close to the yield potential, or their yield potential has declined because of a less favourable environment (e.g. less water for rice).

3. What is the global landscape for rice research like? For example, is there a lot of research and funding for rice around the world or is it one of those crops that have been neglected?

You can’t say that rice is neglected, but it has been insufficiently funded given the importance of the crop. In general there has been a decline in rice research funding at the international level since the 1990s. GRiSP will hopefully change that. At the national level, some situations are positive, like in China, India. In many cases funding has stagnated or declined. Africa is in a terrible shape as far as rice research and extension capacity is concerned (except Egypt). The Africa Rice Congress held in Bamako in March 2010 called for a Marshall plan to address the situation. The private sector works only on hybrid rice.

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