Politics of Poverty

Will the 4th International Rice Congress include what smallholder farmers need?

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Loc Thi Su (right) and Dao Thi Bon are visiting their rice field in Na Tap village, Dong Thinh commune, Dinh Hoa district, Thai Nguyen province, Vietnam. Photo: Chau Doan / Oxfam America

High-tech and costly new “solutions” for mass rice production won’t achieve sustainable agriculture for all.

Le Nguyet Minh is the Global Agriculture Advisor at Oxfam.

There are over 800 million children, women and men hungry out there. It is a cruel irony that majority of them live in Asia, where rice production is in surplus and where technology has been embraced in the 21st century.

The 4th International Rice Congress coming up in Bangkok next week is a global gathering meant to ensure sustainable, equitable growth of “rice for the world.” Focusing on the world’s latest advances in rice research and technologies, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) claims the Congress is the only major global event that brings together all aspects of the international rice industry that feeds half of the world.

The International Rice Congress brings rice researchers who tend to focus on conventional rice growing practices. But at Oxfam we’ve seen that alternative agro-ecological rice-growing practices such as System of Rice Intensification (SRI) have not been adequately evaluated, understood, and promoted among this global community.

According to SRI International Network and Resources Center at Cornell University, some ten million farmers (out of at least one billion persons engaged in growing rice) practice most or all SRI methods over 3.4 million hectares. The value of this increased paddy production is estimated at $862.5 million.

Nonetheless, the emergence of SRI outside the conventional research system has not produced information resulting in institutional support to optimize and expand wide SRI adoption. The lack of adequate information flow between practitioners directly involved with SRI, scientists, and policy makers further amplifies the challenge.

One of the conveners of the Congress, the International Rice Research Institute, is part of the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers, known as CGIAR, which was born in the Green Revolution with a mandate to develop agricultural innovations that prevent famine. It has been cited that one dollar invested in CGIAR research results in as much as nine dollars in increased productivity in developing countries. In Asia, CGIAR research reported to yield US$10.8 billion a year for rice. But I wonder what portion of this benefit has reached the millions of smallholder farmers growing rice?

Mrs. Nguyen Thi Bun standing in front of an SRI field in Vietnam. Photo: Le Nguyet Minh/Oxfam America.

SRI methods are immediately accessible to poor smallholder farmers, who are not waiting for handouts. Mrs. Nguyen Thi Bun, a 74 year old farmer who survived two wars in Vietnam, has become an active promoter of System of Rice Intensification (SRI). She said:

I have practiced SRI for 6 crops. The burden lessens while yield and income gradually increase. I wish farmers in other communities to be brave and strong in trying new ideas and innovations. It will help to overcome our difficulties.”  

It is more important than ever to reinforce the efforts of farmers such as Mrs. Bun. Ban Ki Moon’s Climate Summit last month and Oxfam’s study Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices underscored that climate change threatens people’s ability to grow and access food by undermining their livelihoods and destabilizing prices, and that this must be linked in the minds of policymakers. Extreme weather events such as droughts and floods could result in the world market price of rice increasing by 22 per cent if there were nationwide drought in India or extensive flooding across South East Asia. Rice-importing countries like Nigeria could see domestic price spikes of up to 43 per cent on top of longer-term global price increases.

My hope is that the 4th International Rice Congress will not just highlight science and new technologies for the mass production of rice. Support for smallholder farmers can take many forms, but small rice farmers are likely to benefit most from investments that acknowledge their limited assets, help them adapt to the challenges of climate change, and tap into and enhance their knowledge. Investment in agro-ecological practices such as SRI that support smallholder farmers, rather than high-tech fixes and costly inputs, is what will achieve food security and truly sustainable agriculture for us all.

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