Biofuel quest, climate, urban flight endangering key staple

by Eric Johnston

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havoc with rice crops,” Zeigler said in an interview last month.

Rice is a staple in more than 100 countries and provides 20 percent of the calories humans consume. About 90 percent of the land used to grow rice is in Asia, with India, China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar and the Philippines accounting for 80 percent of the total.

Recent meteorological data show the mercury rising, raising concerns about Japan’s rice crop. A Yomiuri Weekly report in September noted that in parts of Kyushu, the average daily temperature for early August has risen 4 to 6 degrees since 1980.

Zeigler’s institute, known as IRRI, was founded in 1960 with money from the Rockefeller and Ford foundations. Its purpose was to become a modern research center on rice with the aim of preventing famines in Asia. Zeigler was in Japan to accept the sixth annual Iue Asia Pacific Research Prize, which was established by the Asia Pacific Forum Awaji Conference Japan, in Hyogo Prefecture, in 2000.

The institute is devoted to the research and development of the world’s estimated 110,000 known rice varieties in its gene bank as well as providing assistance to rice farmers and consumers, especially in low-income countries.

This includes developing new rice strains, including the controversial, genetically modified Golden Rice, which is more resistant to extreme heat and drought, as well as higher concentrations of saltwater. IRRI is one of the leading advocates of Golden Rice. The strain contains beta-carotene, which is converted to vitamin A upon consumption.

Nearly 125 million children worldwide suffer from a vitamin A deficiency, which causes blindness in nearly half a million children annually, according to the World Health Organization.

Many of these children live in countries where vitamin A deficient rice is the main food. Golden Rice was developed to address this deficiency, but it has proved controversial among opponents of genetically modified foods.

The first varieties that appeared in 2000 and 2001 did not contain sufficient levels of beta-carotene and were the subject of much criticism. Recent IRRI research shows the latest varieties of Golden Rice have up to 36 micrograms per gram of beta-carotene, more than a 20-fold increase from the original grains.

“While bio-availability trials are still under way,” Zeigler said, “this level of beta-carotene almost certainly will yield very significant levels of vitamin A when consumed.”

In the meantime, some parts of Asia are facing falling crops of traditionally grown rice. India, which used to export about 5 million tons of rice annually, is now having problems meeting its annual domestic demand. The Vietnamese government recently announced it was banning rice exports until 2008 to ensure an adequate domestic supply.

Part of the declining cultivation can be blamed on global warming, but according to Zeigler the freakish weather patterns resulting from global warming are the toughest challenge.

“Our biggest concern is not actually climate change per se, but the extreme weather events that result from it. Floods and typhoons, especially in parts of India and Bangladesh, mean seawater with a high salt content floods the deltas where rice, which needs to be irrigated with fresh water, is grown,” he said.

Rice farmers also need stable and predictable weather and rainfall patterns. Just a few degrees in temperature can make a huge difference in the yield.

“Higher nighttime temperatures are a concern. Research at IRRI has shown that a 1-degree temperature rise during the night means a 10 percent yield drop,” Zeigler said.

The rush by many parts of Asia, especially China and Malaysia, to turn this basic food source for all into biofuel for cars the rising middle classes covet is also putting a strain on land and resources and causing rice shortages.

IRRI is counseling caution over mass biofuel production, warning that Asia’s rush to embrace biofuel needs to be weighed carefully with regional food security.

But perhaps one of the biggest challenges traditional rice farming faces is that today’s sons and daughters of rice farmers are much less willing to stay on the farm, opting instead for less back-breaking work and better pay in major cities. Nor are scientists and governments as keen on rice research as they once were.

This is an area in which Japan, Zeigler feels, can play a special role.

“A major challenge we face is to make rice research sexy again, like it was back in the 1970s when many people saw it as the key to reducing hunger and poverty. With Japan’s help, we can do that again,” he said.