Sustained food security depends on improving the lives of farmers - IRRI chief

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IRRI Director General Bob Zeigler at the World Economic Forum

Makati, Philippines - The plight of farmsteads and farm labor and how this will affect efforts to secure the world's food supply was a key issue discussed during the World Economic Forum (WEF) on East Asia that is ongoing this week at the Philippine capital. Robert Zeigler, director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), called on governments and the private sector to join hands to ensure that farming families share in the benefits of inclusive growth.

Zeigler helped focus discussions on food security and agriculture on farmers and how they can be supported better to produce the world’s food, amid increasing incentives to leave farming—not least of all losses and uncertainties posed by the changing climate.

Rice, the crop staple depended on by half of humanity for food and livelihood, is most vulnerable to climate change because of the sheer amount of water needed to grow it. Increased and off-season flooding and drought events, and salt intrusion in fertile deltas across Asia, have added to the pageant of problems that are keeping rice researchers on their toes.

As with other crops, producing rice suffers declining interest from smallholder farmers who feel that growing a crop is now too much of a risk especially when they find that they can no longer read the sky.

“Climate change hastens the deterioration of rice-growing areas and of the condition of the poorest farmers, who already till unfavorable land to begin with,” said Zeigler. “This also means, though, that with each successful targeted intervention, the poorest of the world’s farmers stand to benefit the most.”

During the WEF panel discussion, Agricultural Transformation in East Asia, in which Zeigler was a speaker, he said that the benefits of interventions for farmers, such as those that IRRI has brought to millions of farmers across Asia and Africa, are being further enhanced with the use of communication technology and satellite imagery.

Zeigler added that rice farmers will benefit from better access to information that will help them make better decisions on the farm, which will, in turn, make them “better credit risks.”

“Policy changes must happen to enable farmers, even landless ones, participate much more effectively in the market,” he said, adding that, for this to happen, there has to be a ‘level playing field’ for all.

“The situation is that prices are distorted, trade is distorted, and all of these make for a distorted rice price,” he said. “What has to come first are transparent policies for farmers, a level playing field across national markets, and no more closeted subsidies.”

“What we are trying to do here is, essentially, grow and transform the rural sector,” explains Zeigler.

The World Economic Forum on East Asia placed agriculture front and center by launching, in collaboration with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Secretariat, the Grow Asia initiative one day in advance of the official meetings. The special event was attended by around 150 representatives of farmers’ associations, national governments, the private sector, agriculture research organizations, and multilateral development banks, among others. During the closing session of the Grow Asia Agriculture Forum moderated by Zeigler, Steve Groff, vice president of the Asian Development Bank, said that an investment in agriculture results in the highest rate of return in poverty reduction, compared to other sectors.

IRRI has a whole arsenal of rice production knowledge and interventions sharpened by more than five decades of research that includes climate-smart rice varieties, good crop management practices for specific conditions, postharvest practices that reduce losses from non-optimal storage, and many others shared with stakeholders across the rice value chain.

Many IRRI-developed varieties and practices have made a huge impact on farmers’ lives, especially smallholder and hugely disadvantaged ones across Asia and Africa, helping secure for them many a season’s harvest.

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