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Industry experts discuss the current challenges and future of rice research in Southeast Asia

Manila, Philippines, 19 October 2023 — Leaders representing different sectors in Southeast Asia discussed how rice research needs to evolve to cater to the needs of an ever-growing population in the region at the 6th International Rice Congress.

Neighboring regions such as Africa experience a surge in demand for rice as people’s preferences and dietary requirements change. However, Africa is not a rice-growing region and many areas are not primed for rice production. Thus, African countries continuously import rice from Asia, which in turn puts pressure on Asian countries to produce more rice for export and to keep up with the domestic demand.

Similarly, a decrease in rice demand is projected as populations shift their lifestyles based on their socio-economic status. In ten years, another shift in dietary preferences is foreseen as 10% or more of the population from lower-income households become members of the middle class who typically consume less rice.

Aside from shifting demands, Asia also faces the burden of a dwindling labor force, particularly in the agricultural sector. Many people opt to work in urban areas, usually leaving women and the youth to tend to the rice fields. The biggest emerging concerns from not having enough human resources to till the land, plant, harvest, and process rice for consumption are 1) accommodating the needs of a population that grows at least 1% every year, and 2) how to do it sustainably, without straining the environment.

Dr. Suthad Setboonsarng, former chair of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) Board of Trustees, led an IRC 2023 panel discussion that featured experts and leaders of various government agencies and corporations in Southeast Asia who presented their envisioned future of rice research.

The aim was to help the rice sector identify gaps that need to be filled to achieve a provisionary and sustainable rice supply, provide a blueprint for IRRI’s research, and help the institution leverage the partnerships it has forged in Asia to achieve its mission.

There are three major trends in rice production in Vietnam: 1) increase in land area for rice growing, which is deemed unsustainable, 2) a dwindling youth participation in rice production, and, 3) the rising cost of production, according to Dr. Bui Ba Bong, former deputy minister of Agriculture and Rural Development, Vietnam.

These, along with other trends, pose a threat to the future of rice production in Vietnam and impact rice-importing countries. He called for prioritizing increased productivity with lowered production costs.

Dr. Leocadio Sebastian, the Undersecretary for Rice Industry Development of the Philippine Department of Agriculture, said the challenges of getting the technologies to the hands of rice farmers cause highly variable yields. Innovations are important because they help farmers sustain their yields and incomes despite a worsening climate landscape.

He reiterated that technologies like direct-seeded rice and digital technology for precision agriculture need to be scaled further as well as the importance of investing in rice research because it is a public good that almost all people in the country consume.

Dr. Chay Bounphanousay, Director General of NAFRI-MAF of Lao People’s Democratic Republic, narrated the challenges that they encountered in rice production. Lao PDR experiences weather conditions adverse to rice growing and, although the country is on track to fulfill the domestic demand for rice, it is yet to achieve its target of producing rice for export. One of the more distinct challenges Lao farmers face is the difficulty in raising capital to finance their farms. Credit cooperatives are also scarce, and they have no access to international markets.

Aside from the challenges each country and sector faces, farming practices and consumer management that have been effective were also discussed.

Stressing the value of utilizing new technologies to increase productivity with lower inputs, His Excellency Suon Serey, the Undersecretary of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, Kingdom of Cambodia, talked about how rice farmers in the country changed their views from transplanting to direct seeding and the use of high yielding varieties to further improve their incomes.

According to Norliza Hussin, Deputy Director of the Singapore Food Agency, the country built a system of managing consumer expectations in times of supply disruptions. The government utilizes media and social media to make timely announcements and create ways to reduce its effect. Consumers are also encouraged to be flexible and adaptable to other varieties of rice and advised to switch to nutritious rice alternatives. A comprehensive key performance indicator for the rice sector with the right set of metrics to guide future policies was proposed.

To achieve this, countries need to continuously collaborate with research institutions like IRRI toward the development of recommendations that are tailor-fit and evolve according to the identified needs of each country.

Another proposition was shifting the focus from producers to consumers. There is a need to revisit the cost structure of rice production given the aforementioned trend of decreasing rice consumption. However, farmers also need to be empowered through higher profits for the hard work they do to put food on our table.

Dr. Bui Ba Bong also called for the establishment of an Asian Rice Platform to increase collaboration in the region,  a suggestion that was supported by other members of the panel.