How Rice (You Heard Me) Can Save the World

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A farmer shows his paddy rice in central China's Hubei province. Photo: AP

Another blueprint for the Green Green Revolution was announced today at the 3rd International Rice Congress, and this time it’s all about — you guessed it — rice. Well, according to rice types anyway (the corn guys might have a different theory). But the scientists that unveiled the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP), a plan for revolutionizing the world’s rice crops, make a convincing case.

The thing you need to know about rice is that more than half the world relies on it every day. The other thing you need to know is that unlike other staple crops like corn, rice is still cultivated by millions of small-scale farmers. That means that both rice production and its consumption are two the biggest economic activities on the planet.

The fact that 90% of the world’s rice crop comes from Asia, home to some of largest swaths of poverty on earth, indicates that there is some major room for improvement in the way that rice is grown. And that’s exactly how the folks at GRiSP see it: they estimate their plans to improve rice production methods will lift 70 million people out of poverty in the next decade, and a total of 150 million out of poverty by 2035.

How? By focusing on improving the technology used to grow rice, both production costs and prices will fall, says Robert Zeigler, director of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), a GRiSP partner. “The major way that rice research can help lift people out of poverty is to reduce the price of rice,” says Zeigler. “The majority of the world’s poor depend on it. But if you just lower the price, you don’t want to condemn your farmers to poverty. So you need to lower production cost simultaneously.”

The fundamental change that Zeigler and his colleagues are working toward is increasing rice yields, which, after the improvements of the first Green Revolution, have plateaued. To do that, scientists are working to develop new rice varieties tailored to farmers’ particular environments (flood prone, drought prone, etc) and also trying to find a way to help “supercharge” the photosynthesis process in rice. At the same time, more basic changes are also needed – better efficiency in fertilizer use and water, and better pest and disease management.

The changes could also take a major load off the atmosphere. The report released today says that the suite of improvements would prevent the emission of greenhouse gases by some 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide, through improving land efficiency and avoided deforestation, as well as through reducing paddies’ methane emissions through changes in water use.

Sound like a silver bullet? Not quite, says Zeigler. “Complex problems require complex solutions.” If you look at the number of organizational acronyms involved in the implementation of GRiSP you’ll know this project falls under that umbrella. But perhaps their most complex task of all will be figuring out how to get an off-the-grid network of millions of small-scale farmers on board. “All of this we know how to do,” says Zeiger. “It’s a question of getting it into farmers hands.”