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An ambitious project that aims to measure the environmental impacts of producing rice in South-East Asia was announced last week (2 June) in Vietnam.

In a collaboration between the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, scientists will devise a series of indicators to assess the sustainability of rice production.

The indicators relate to production, biodiversity, pollution, land degradation and water, and will allow nations to compare and improve the way they produce rice.

Just looking at rice productivity in different Asian nations has already generated some interesting results, an IRRI spokesperson told SciDev.Net.

Thailand, for instance, produces just 2.3 tonnes of rice per hectare compared with 4.2 tonnes in Vietnam. This suggests that there is considerable potential for Thailand to increase its yields, said the spokesperson.

But beyond these initial findings, much work on the indicators remains to be done.

K. L. Heong, a Malaysian researcher who is leading the project, says the productivity index will ultimately measure how much rice is produced per hectare and how much is spent on producing it.

This could show policymakers whether their farmers are spending more or less to produce the same amount of rice as in neighbouring countries.

Significant differences between nations could trigger studies into the underlying reasons, such as overuse of pesticides.

Nguu Nguyen of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's International Rice Commission applauds the initiative, adding that the organisation had backed the development of such indicators at a workshop in March.

IRRI says the proposal has attracted more attention than anticipated. In particular, some bilateral aid agencies have expressed an interest in the biodiversity indicator.

Researchers have been trying to devise ways of measuring biodiversity and how it is affected by human activities for many years (see Can we halt the loss of biodiversity?).

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