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[HANOI] Research into rice varieties is keeping the staple food affordable and helping to stave off hunger for millions in South-East Asia, an Australian government agency has reported.

Rice breeding by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), based in the Philippines, has enabled farmers to increase rice yields, with gains ranging from 1.8 per cent in northern Vietnam to 13 per cent in Indonesia, according to the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR), which invests in IRRI.

IRRI's rice breeding work from 1985 to 2009 has also helped farmers earn an additional US$1.46 billion a year from rice harvests in Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, says the ACIAR's report, released last month (29 September).

"Rice is a staple commodity for the poor in the region," Debbie Templeton, research programme manager at ACIAR, told SciDev.Net. "If there hadn't been an increase in the quantity of rice produced over time, the price of rice would have been a lot higher."

IRRI has produced rice varieties designed to withstand heavy flooding that have helped farmers in lowland regions cope with increased flooding brought on by climate change.

This year has seen the worst recorded flooding in parts of Thailand and the Philippines. Last week, the Philippines agriculture department reported that only a rice variant with a certain flood-resistant gene withstood the 14-hour flash flood brought about by the recent typhoons.

The ACIAR report says that farmers' net profits have increased by US$26 per hectare in northern Vietnam, US$52 in the Philippines, US$76 in Indonesia and US$127 in southern Vietnam as a result of improved IRRI rice varieties, representing high returns on ACIAR's investment.

Robert Zeigler, IRRI's director general, said that although global rice production may be reaching a plateau, "we are actively working to get it increasing again" by increasing production efficiency, developing hybrid varieties and transforming the photosynthetic machinery of rice through genetic engineering.

The latter practice has been strongly criticised by Greenpeace and other environmental organisations. Chito Medina, national coordinator for the Farmer-Scientist Partnership for Development in the Philippines, argued that IRRI's rice breeding does not benefit the majority of farmers in South-East Asia, who are "so poor that they cannot afford to buy the expensive inputs of chemical fertilisers and pesticides required by IRRI varieties".

But Zeigler said such criticism is "unfounded" as most IRRI rice varieties do not require costly insecticides and other inputs.

Although many farmers across South-East Asia still apply insecticides to their rice crops, he added, this is only because they are not aware of best practices.

Link to full report  [6.24MB]


See below for an IRRI video about its work and the report's findings: