July 15, 2004  (STAR) y Lilybeth G. Ison   -  The United Nations has declared 2004 as the International Year of Rice with the theme "Rice is Life."

First proposed by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and then endorsed and supported by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Philippines, the International Year of Rice celebrates not only the cultural and culinary importance of rice, but also seeks to highlight the major challenges still facing one of the world’s most vital industries, an industry that feeds almost three billion daily and employs hundreds of millions more.

Scientists and researchers with the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) have been active in creating rice varieties to meet the needs of people around the world. These include storage and maintenance of varieties by the IRRI that has saved a treasure-trove of biodiversity from extinction.

IRRI has developed a high-yielding, tropical rice plant that grows on dry, irrigated land. The new "aerobic rice" may one day reduce water requirements by 50 percent in rice planting in the dry areas of developing nations.

On the other hand, collaborative research on biofortication of rice for better nutrition hopes to improve the quality of life.

The Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical is engaged in a focused program of research that integrates advanced techniques with conventional plant breeding to broaden the genetic base of rice production, providing genes for useful traits that have not previously been available to the region’s rice growers.

The International Year of Rice (IYR) promotes improved production and access to this vital food crop, which feeds more than half the world’s population while providing income for millions of rice producers, processors and traders.

Development of sustainable rice-based systems will reduce hunger and poverty and contribute to environmental conservation and a better life for present and future generations.

The initiative for the IYR started in 1999, when IRRI – responding to its members’ growing concerns over the serious issues facing rice development – requested FAO’s collaboration in having an IYR declared. This led to Resolution 2/2001 of the 31st FAO Conference, which requested the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to declare the IYR.

The Philippines, co-sponsored by 43 countries, submitted this request to the 57th Session of UNGA, which declared 2004 the IYR on Dec. 16, 2002. The dedication of an International Year to a single crop was unprecedented in the history of UNGA. FAO was invited to facilitate IYR implementation in collaboration with other relevant organizations.

The theme "Rice is Life," reflects the importance of rice as a primary food source, and is drawn from an understanding that rice-based systems are essential for food security, poverty alleviation and improved livelihoods.

Rice is the staple food of over half of the world’s population. In Asia alone, more than two billion people obtain 60 to 70 percent of their energy intake from rice and its derivatives; it is the most rapidly growing food source in Africa and is of significant importance to food security in an increasing number of low-income food-deficit countries.

Rice-based production systems and their associated post-harvest operations employ nearly one billion people in rural areas of developing countries and about four-fifths of the world’s rice is grown by small-scale farmers in low-income countries. Efficient and productive rice-based systems are therefore essential to economic development and improved quality of life, particularly in rural areas.

There are about 840 million undernourished people, including more than 200 million children, in developing countries. Improving the productivity of rice systems would contribute to eradicating this unacceptable level of hunger.

However, rice production is facing serious constraints, including declining yield growth rates, natural resource depletion, labor shortages, gender issues, institutional limitations and environmental pollution.

Enhancing the sustainability and productivity of rice-based production systems, while protecting and conserving the environment, will require the commitment of many parts of civil society, as well as government and inter-governmental action.

The IYR offers an important opportunity to use a collective approach towards resolving the increasingly complex issues that affect the sustainable development of rice and rice-based production systems. This has important technical, political, economic and social dimensions, including enhancing the role of rice in meeting human needs.

Sustainable rice development requires genetic improvements for higher yield potential, e.g. hybrid rice; better crop management techniques; reduced post-harvest operations; and the development of integrated production systems. It also requires improved national capacity, through training and information exchange, and the national-level transfer of safety-tested new technologies to the field.

There is also the growing concern about the sustainability of global water resources. Water scarcity can be addressed by reducing the quantity of water required through developing new rice varieties or improved irrigation systems, or by recycling water through multiple uses. The cultivation of rice in low-water regimes will lead to changes in water and nutrient management, cropping patterns and tillage practices.

IYR can help improve understanding of the costs and benefits of water use in rice-based systems. Technological developments and management interventions will also be required.

In order to meet this overarching goal, the IYR strategy focuses on the following intermediary objectives – increasing public awareness of the contributions that rice-based systems make to food security, better nutrition, poverty alleviation and livelihood improvement; increasing public awareness of the diversity and complexity of rice-based production systems, and the challenges and opportunities for their sustainable development; promoting and providing technical support to ensure sustainable development of rice and rice-based systems at the global, regional, national and community levels; and promoting the conservation and enhancement of rice-based products in order to derive economic, social, cultural and health benefits for the world’s human population. – PNA

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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