EDITORIAL: Rice: A Star Among Staples

A story on rice in the May, 1994, issue of National Geographic magazine contains a litany of thought-provoking facts: Did you know, for example, that world rice harvests have doubled during the past 25 years, yet may need to increase by another 60% in the next quarter-century to meet demand? Or that only about 4% of all rice grown is exported from its country of production? Thailand is the world's greatest exporter, at 4.5 million tons, followed by the U.S. and Vietnam. Maybe you'd be interested to know that in Williams, California, an energy plant fueled by rice hulls provides electricity for 30,000 homes. So much about rice is fascinating, including the fact that more than 100,000 varieties of rice are known worldwide.

Why is rice the most popular food crop in the world? Here are a few reasons: tastes great, more filling, versatile in the cuisine, easy to prepare (milled rice, that is), generally affordable and culturally significant. It is nutritious, with some qualification: Brown (husked) rice contains more minerals, proteins and vitamins than white (milled) rice, which stores better. Rice is also adaptable to a broad range of growing conditions.

As the global population rises, world demand for rice is likely to increase. However, the way in which rice is produced begs serious questions about the regeneration of soil and water resources. The challenge we have is multifaceted: Grow more rice on less land using less labor, fewer (or no) synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, eliminate the burning of rice straw residues and conserve the biodiversity of rice. There are some success stories. For example, according to the World Resources Institute, the Indonesian government reduced pesticides subsidies and began to promote integrated pest management (IPM) in 1986. In 1989, they withdrew pesticide subsidies entirely. Today, farmers trained in IPM have reduced pesticide applications from 4.5 to 0.5 tons per season while rice yields have increased. This issue of the Ag-Sieve takes a look at several other issues associated with global rice production.

From the Philippines, a report on contamination of rice seed, not by synthetic chemicals or some biological disease, but that nemesis of farmers, weeds. To resolve this problem, the key issues are related as much to education and policy enforcement as to technology. Another story from the Philippines focuses on an old friend, composting. In this case, rather than being burned, rice straw becomes the primary compost material. From South America, a change in land use from strictly livestock production, to rice plus cattle, means greater economic returns per unit area of savanna, and a greater potential to curb deforestation by reducing the need to clear more land for food production. In West Africa, an increasing demand for rice has resulted in more irrigated land. This contributes to rising water tables which leads to soil salinization and poor soil structure; but solutions exist.

Some of the solutions to resource management problems associated with rice production are cited here. Others need to be highlighted by you, Ag-Sieve readers. Let us know what you know about rice, and we'll spread the word around the world, to anywhere rice is grown, almost everywhere.