Indonesia reaps rewards from cooperation in rice research

Author // Dr. Robert S. Zeigler Categories // Bob's blog

This blog was first published in The Jakarta Post, 3 October 2011.

It’s no surprise for any person living in Asia to hear that the average Asian eats rice every day and frequently at every meal.

Rice is such an integral part of life its consumption is often taken for granted — not just as a staple food but as a driver of national food security, regional political stability, economic growth, and its potential to elevate whole communities out of poverty.

But when rice prices rise, people start to pay attention, because higher rice prices directly impact individuals and their families.

Higher rice prices reduce people’s capacity to purchase other essential foods and they have less money to spend on health care, housing, and other basics.

Alternatively, when rice prices are affordable, people have much greater potential to meet their basic needs and then onward to invest in other areas like micro-business and education.

Indonesia is the world’s third-largest rice producer in the world, a notable achievement for a country with a relatively small land area compared to the nations ranking one and two — China and India respectively.

Yet Indonesia has not consistently met its own demand for rice, meaning that in some years it imports rice to meet local demand.

Rice breeding - having a billion dollar impact.

With its strong influence on economic and political stability, rice is the dominant agricultural commodity in Indonesia and the region and efforts to sustain rice production are a high priority.

Rice self-sufficiency is high on the agenda of the Indonesian government. The country has come a long way in increasing both its overall production, and, importantly, how much rice is produced in a given area of land — rice yields.

In September, the Australian Center for International Agriculture (ACIAR) released a report looking at the impact and value of rice breeding work of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) between 1985 and 2009 in three key rice-growing countries: Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.

The report identified that Indonesia had the highest gains in rice yields — an indicator of how efficient rice production is — of 13.0 percent over this time.

Indonesia’s average rice yields are now at an all time high of around 5.1 tons per hectare (2010), topping the world average of around 4.3 tons per hectare.

In 2010, annual domestic supply (production) of unmilled rice in Indonesia was 66.4 millions tons from a harvest area of 13.3 million hectares, but rice production still fell below the target of 66.8 million tons.

Indonesia is so close to rice self-sufficiency, making now the perfect time to invest in rice research to elevate the nation to achieve this target.

To become self sufficient in rice Indonesia has to continue its excellent work in developing new rice varieties specifically suited to the country, increase rice’s capacity to cope with the impacts of climate change, and find ever more environmentally sustainable ways to grow rice.

The astonishing rice yield increases the country has achieved in the last two decades are a tribute to a nation committed to undertaking rice research matched to farmers’ and consumers’ needs.

Indonesia has taken the top research and the top rice varieties from IRRI and further developed them for local use. Importantly, it has taken forward these technologies and ensured that farmers get access to and use them.

The most popular variety of rice currently grown in Indonesia is Ciherang — occupying around 60 percent of rice production land. Ciherang was bred by Indonesian rice scientists using IRRI breeding material that they selected at our research station in the Philippines.

They would have taken this material back to Indonesia tested it locally then made selections based on local performance.

Ciherang is an excellent example of how rice breeding benefits flow to Indonesia. Of the annual average US$1.46 billion benefits that are the result of IRRI’s investment in rice breeding in the three Southeast Asian a countries of ACIAR’s report, about 44 percent flow to Indonesia.

This compares to 38 percent to southern Vietnam, and 14 percent to the Philippines. The report notes Indonesia’s increasing capacity to take advantage of IRRI’s breeding material and adapt it locally.

More recently, new varieties also bred from IRRI breeding material have been released in Indonesia including a flood tolerant rice variety.

This continuous pipeline of new rice varieties is critical to meet new demands such as adapting to a changing climate and outbreaks of pests like brown planthoppers.

Brown planthoppers devastated parts of Java’s rice crop in 2009 and Indonesian farmers have voiced their desire to have brown planthopper resistant rice varieties.

Addressing issues like brown planthoppers, not just through breeding, but through smarter pest management will also help to retain and boost yields as challenges are faced.

Our recent “Action plan to reduce planthopper damage to rice crops in Asia” calls for steps, such as stopping the use of outbreak-causing pesticides in rice, to reduce the incidence of pest damage in rice.

Indonesia has shown leadership in the past in improving pest management and can step up again to implement latest best practice in this area.

In addition, IRRI has also been working closely with our Indonesian colleagues, especially the Indonesian Agency for Agricultural Research and Development (IAARD), to provide rice farmers with personalized advice through their mobile phone on the best fertilizer use for their rice crop.

Indonesian rice farmers will soon be able to call a phone number to receive this service referred to as “Nutrient Manager for Rice Mobile”, which aims to increase yield and profits for farmers.

ACIAR’s report notes that their evaluation of IRRI’s impact in Indonesia only accounts for IRRI’s rice breeding work and that should the other areas of activities have been included, the impact and value of benefits would have been much more.

We have been working with Indonesia since 1971 through our collaboration with IAARD and the various centers within its portfolio such as the Indonesian Center for Rice Research.

Based on ACIAR’s findings, we anticipate Indonesia will continue to see even more benefits from our collaboration to help increase rice production in an environmentally sustainable way.


About the Author

Dr. Robert S. Zeigler

Dr. Robert S. Zeigler

Dr. Robert "Bob" Zeigler is an internationally respected plant pathologist with more than 30 years of experience in agricultural research in the developing world. He is the first Director General Emeritus of IRRI.

Read his profile | more blog articles.