Science - January 6, 2012

Rice production in Southeast Asia can keep up with population growth

Rice farmers in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia are able to grow enough rice in the years to come to feed the growing population in Southeast Asia, provided they learn from farmers with high yields. In the Philippines, however, more rigorous measures are needed, report production ecologists in the European Journal of Agronomy this month.

Padi fields in Vietnam
Rice production in Southeast Asia has to be increased greatly in the coming decades to keep up with the population growth in this part of the world. This is only possible if the yield per hectare increases, but is this productivity increase feasible? A research team with Wageningen alumnus Alice Laborte and Wageningen agronomist Martin van Ittersum go through the sums.
The researchers juxtapose the current rice production in four Asian countries and the maximum attainable harvest in order to calculate the 'yield gap' between actual and potential rice production. This gives a value of between 2 and 5 tonnes of rice per hectare, or a quarter to more than half of the maximum attainable yield. They also calculated the output of the most productive farmers in each area. The difference between the average production and the output from the best farmers is 1.2 to 2.6 tonnes of rice per hectare.
If every rice farmer in Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia were to produce as much as the most productive farmers, there would be enough rice in 2050 for these three major countries in Southeast Asia. This would imply that rice farmers with existing varieties and techniques are able to raise their yields. A prerequisite for this is that all farmers must have access to the needed knowhow and production tools, says Van Ittersum. He calls for programmes to be directed at enabling farmers to learn from one another and from researchers. Farmers with the highest yields are usually better educated and use fertilizers and labour more efficiently.
Such a policy, however, is not adequate in the Philippines, conclude the researchers. With the current rice varieties and production techniques, rice production in this archipelago will increase by only 18 percent in the coming decades, insufficient to cater to the population growth. As such, structural changes are needed there, such as new technology, varieties, better transfer of knowhow and another market organization. The Philippines, like Indonesia, is already importing rice, while Thailand and Vietnam are rice exporters.