Putting rice into Asians’ consciousness
By Gina Mission

Asians tend to take rice for granted.

n spite of the fact that they are the major rice consumers in the world, Asian countries, except for Japan, contribute very minimal monetary assistance to rice research and development. Over the years, data from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) have consistently shown that 90 per cent of the organization’s funds come from Western countries.

___This situation is all right, provided the funds keep coming in. But as University of the Philippines President Emil Javier wrote in a paper for the Asian Media and Rice Conference held in Thailand last December, "Financial support to rice research and development has steadily declined for the past 10 years." Western funds, according to Javier, are dwindling.

___The demand for rice, however, is steadily increasing. By IRRI’s estimate, between now and 2020, some 1.2 billion new rice consumers will be added in Asia. To feed these people will require an increase in rice production by one third from today’s 320 million tons to 420 million tons. This means that farmers will have to grow an extra 3.7 million tons of rice every year to supply the demand.

___Compounding the issue are the decreasing land and water resources used for growing rice which has caused a global decline in rice production. While the world population continues to increase, prime rice-growing fields as well as scarce water resources are increasingly being lost to urban and industrial expansion.

___Small-time farmers and landless rural people are forced to migrate to urban areas in search of other livelihoods. Those who choose to stay are left with no option but to till highly erodable and marginal lands, which, according to IRRI, is a practice that "exchanges short-term benefits for long-term environmental degradation."

___In the Philippines, droughts, typhoons, floods, insect pests and diseases annually wipe out a large proportion of in rice crop. Government agencies estimate that a total of 424,106 hectares of rice lands in the country will be adversely affected by La Niña. Worse, an average of 10,000 hectares of the country's 3.2 million hectares of rice fields are being converted into housing and business complexes every year. A hectare produces an average of 2.8 tons or 55 sacks of rice per year.

___And while the Philippine population is growing at 2.3 per cent every year, local rice production is increasing by only 1.3 per cent. To top it all, the total rice harvest decreased by a whopping 14 per cent in 1997.

___It is at this juncture that research and development of rice is all the more necessary. As rice production competes with other industries in the use of resources, scientists are racing against time to develop high-yielding rice varieties.

___As the Asia Rice Foundation says in its brochure: "Today, there is barely enough rice for everyone." In some places, it adds, "because of political and economic turmoil, there is not enough - and people are going hungry." If governments continue to neglect this looming food security problem, all rice-eating countries are headed for a regional food crisis.

___The Asia Rice Foundation (ARF) is a Thailand-based regional initiative by Asians and operated by Asians to coordinate the various efforts at meeting the challenge that all rice-eating countries have to face. Among its various goals, the organization will help fund research and promote international cooperation on all aspects of rice production, processing, marketing, and consumption; preserve Asia’s rice cultural heritage and encourage its appreciation; promote policies that provide a favorable environment for all rice sectors; and raise public awareness of the importance of rice and its critical link to economic development.

___Kwanchai Gomez, ARF executive director said, in an interview with CyberDyaryo, that at present, Asians have very minimal social consciousness on the importance of rice in their lives. "People eat rice but they hardly give any value to it," she stated. This is manifested, she said, in the kind of support that Asian countries give to rice research and development. Such lack of awareness is ironic, considering the heritage of rice in their culture which dates as far back as 10,000 years ago.

___"Our goal at ARF is to establish an endowment fund of $500 million from both the private and public sectors. When the endowment fund reaches $5 million, the net earnings will be used to finance programs on a continuing basis," explained Gomez. Grant recipients she added, will include individuals, national, regional, and international organizations in both the public and private sectors, including NGOs.

___With the rapid economic development enjoyed by some Asian countries in the late 80s and early 90s, Gomez pointed out that Western countries have suddenly started asking why they are funding these ‘economically prosperous countries’. Consequently, financial assistance declined. "They were asking, if Asians are that rich, why can’t they get the funds themselves?" the Western funders asked.

___"By establishing ARF, which is basically an Asian institution, we hope to entice Asian donors to contribute funds so the group can pursue its goals," Gomez said. But as she and other ARF officials would later discover, the task would not be easy.

___"The financial crisis is discouraging the private sector from giving contributions," she said, adding that there have been donors who expressed willingness to provide funding but later retracted due to the crisis.

___But they are hanging tough. "We expect that we will be able to get funding from the private sector in two or three years," she said. In the meantime, they are concentrating their efforts on a media campaign and education, with the goal of raising "rice consciousness" among Asians.

___"Hopefully, when people realize the importance of rice, they themselves will initiate protective measures as putting a stop to the wanton conversion of rice lands for industrial purposes. Even with such little act, we can help save rice from completely disappearing from our bowls," Gomez said.

CyberDyaryo | 1999.02.11