Sustainable rice production: The way ahead

When Asia was on the verge of facing a famine that could have pushed millions of people to their death beds, a scientific breakthrough came to the rescue. It was a revolution against hunger—the Green Revolution—that changed the world. This revolution was largely based on the development of high-yielding rice varieties, such as IR8, along with the intensive use of inputs such as fertilizer, pesticide, and irrigation. This breakthrough helped save millions of lives and hence, saved the world from a potential historic shame. The story seems to be a fairytale; however, it was the result of a lot of hard work, dedication, and sacrifice from the scientific community and their tireless effort. More than fifty years have passed and still, news on hunger and malnutrition is not uncommon. Rice, being the staple food crop of a major part of the globe, holds high significance in meeting the dream of a world free from hunger and malnutrition.

Achieving this dream seems simple and easy as we have once accomplished it. All we need to do is replicate what we did some fifty years back. Sounds good! But is it really that simple? World population since then has steadily increased, the climate has changed, biodiversity has changed, in fact, almost everything has changed. So how can we expect to achieve a hunger-free world, going through the same path that we travelled 50 years back, when everything has changed? Climate is changing. Food and agriculture must too. The theme of World Food Day 2016 explains it well and holds true, but it covers only a fraction of reality. Almost everything has changed! Hence we need innovations in the global rice sector to meet the demand of the fast-changing world. Of course, again!

The past revolution largely focused on reducing hunger; however, innovations are needed so that both malnutrition and hunger are addressed. Two billion people in the world suffer from various forms of malnutrition, which is an underlying cause of death for 2.6 million children each year, a third of child deaths globally. In most of the cases, malnutrition remains unnoticed, which is what is commonly called hidden hunger. We need to come up with a solution of enriching our food grains with most of the nutrients that will ensure the mitigation of hidden hunger. Biofortification has evolved as an important technique in producing nutrient-enriched grains. Since rice is the staple food crop of most developing countries, fortifying the rice grain should gain due attention in mitigating malnutrition. In this direction, success has been achieved with the development of golden rice and other micronutrient-fortified rice. However, opposition from environmentalists and other policy issues have posed challenges to the process. Ensuring abundant production of nutritional rice grains will help in reducing hunger and malnutrition across the globe.

Another factor that demands to reformulate the global rice production sector is the increasing population. We need innovations and technological interventions to feed such a huge population. Considering the scarcity of resources as well as the high cost of inputs, efficiency-centric management should be emphasized for higher productivity. We may also go for expanding areas under rice cultivation in reclaimed degraded land areas. Improving rice yield in those areas where rice is often grown under sub-optimal conditions can help in boosting rice production. For example, enhancing rice production in coastal areas where there are problems, such as soil salinity and flooding, can add to the rice production of a country such as Bangladesh.

Another constraint that affects sustained rice production is climate change. Climate change has been found to alter the production potential of rice ecosystems due to frequent weather extremes during the crop growth period. There may be increased susceptibility to certain insects, pests, and disease. Hence, rice production needs to be adjusted according to the changing climate. Maintaining high rice production under changing climate conditions require a rice production system that adapts to global climate change as well as mitigates the effects of rice production on global warming. Developing rice varieties to withstand different biotic and abiotic stress holds promise to cope with the ill effects of a changing climate. An interdisciplinary research is a must for understanding the cause-effect relationship of climate change and hence developing a strategy to mitigate the climate change impacts on rice production.

The sustainability aspect was not properly taken care of during the Green Revolution period, which led to severe damage to the ecosystem as well as to human health. We should ensure the food security of our present generation without threatening the food security of future generations. Excess exploitation of ecosystem components such as land and water over the years reduces the inherent production potential of the system. Maintenance of production in such an exploited ecosystem will require high input costs and reduce factor productivity. This in turn reduces profit margin for the farmers, which will discourage farmers from rice cultivation. Hence we need to redefine the rice production system in such a way that it improves yield and nutritional quality of rice and ensures high profit to growers without compromising the ecosystem and human health.

In addition to ecological sustainability, the production system should ensure economic and social sustainability. As rice production serves as the livelihood option of millions of farmers, ensuring their profit should be given due importance by researchers and policymakers. Developing a farmer-friendly procurement and pricing policy will encourage the farming community. In addition to ensuring profit, innovations are needed in farm mechanization to make the working environment better, especially for farm women.

It is very clear that there are a lot of opportunities for innovation in the rice sector. We need climate-smart varieties, a sustainable production system, a proper marketing and distribution strategy, etc. These innovations will not only ensure global food security, but also help in bringing social equity, welfare, and inclusivity.

Note: The views and opinions on this essay are those of the author's and do not reflect those of the institute and its partners.

Subhashisa Praharaj

Subhashisa Praharaj is an Agronomy PhD scholar at the G.B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology in Pantnagar, India.