Between 2000 and 2010, global rice production has seen a rise of about 16 per cent, primarily due to improved farm techniques and better seeds. However, many experts believe the trend might plateau, raising prices of the commodity. Gurdev Khush, internationally renowned agronomy and plant genetics scientist and a recipient of World Food Prize in 1996, in an interview with Sanjeeb Mukherjee, says world rice acreage and production wouldn’t decline in the next few years. He, however, adds in the long run, it would be difficult to sustain the rise in production, as acreage is shrinking and water tables are being depleted. Edited excerpts:
What challenges does global rice production face?
Shrinking area devoted to rice, depleting water resources and the changing climate pose serious challenges to rice production. These would certainly affect rice production in the long run. To face these challenges, scientists must develop rice varieties with higher yield potential, which are more resilient to climate changes, resistant to flooding, drought, new diseases and insects that may evolve due to the changing climate.
Do you think the growth in global rice production would stop sometime soon?
I don’t believe growth in world rice production would stop soon. It would continue as a result of the new breakthroughs in science and management practices in the field of rice, as well as benign government policies. The area devoted to rice would continue to increase in Africa and Latin America. Asia would also see some increase.
After it lifted the ban on exports, India has emerged as a major player in the global rice market In the last few years. Do you think the trend would continue for some more years?
I firmly believe India would continue to export rice for at least the next ten years. Growth in India’s domestic demand would not increase due to the substitution of high-value foods, resulting from a rise in the middle-class population. In 10-15 years, the demand would actually start to decline, as the population starts to stabilise.
On an annual basis, how much rice would India continue to export in the next few years?
I believe India would continue to export two to three million tonnes of rice a year for several years.
How have trade barriers such as export bans by rice producers affected the world rice market?
Trade barriers and export bans have more than doubled rice prices in the international market. These have also affected prices in domestic markets. Poor rice consumers have been affected adversely in many countries.
India’s annual rice production faces challenges from flooding and water stress. How should the government tackle these factors?
The government must support research and extension programmes to develop technologies for mitigating the adverse effects of flooding and drought. It should also invest in development work to reduce the losses arising from stresses. Land management practices such as bunds and channelising of rivers to reduce flooding, along with the development of irrigation, would reduce the likelihood of droughts.
Of late, there has been a lot of stress on shifting India’s rice cultivation from the North to the East through programmes like Bringing Green Revolution to Eastern India. Do you think it is the right strategy?
It is the right strategy because there is immense scope to increase production in eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Odisha, West Bengal and Assam. The potential to produce rice in these states has not been exploited to the extent possible. There is considerable scope to increase the area under irrigation, owing to underground water aquifers, and increase cultivation area in the rabi season.
The impact of the golden rice’ programme on reducing vitamin A deficiency has been questioned. What do you think are the benefits this variety of rice offers and when can we expect it to the reach the mass market?
Golden rice would help alleviate vitamin A deficiency, particularly among the poor who derive most of their calories from rice, as rice lacks vitamin A. Most of the criticism golden rice faces is unjustified and comes from those who are opposed to the use of genetically modified organism (GMO) technology in crop improvement. Golden rice has undergone all the regulatory tests such as bio-availability, food and environmental safety. Its yield is the same as that of non-GMO rice. How soon it would reach the consumers would depend on the public perception about the use of GMOs. The opposition and scare mongering tactics of well endowed non-governmental organisations would be major hurdles to releasing golden rice for mass production and consumption.