With memories of the devastating global rice price crisis fresh in their minds, experts from Africa and beyond that met
recently in Mali haveÂ calledÂ for long_term commitment to scientific innovations and partnerships that are critical for enabling the continent to fulfill its huge potential as a rice producer and to sharply curtail its perilous dependence on rice imports.
The Africa Rice Center (AfricaRice), which is organizing the Africa Rice Congress 2010 in collaboration with the government of Mali, had been predicting the crisis for at least 2 years before it struck. The crisis created enormous hardship for poor consumers around the world and prompted riots in major African capitals.
In meetings with government ministers before and since then, Dr. Papa A. Seck, director general of AfricaRice, which is supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), has repeatedly underlined the dangers implicit in the regionâ€™s rapidly increasing rice consumption and lagging production.
In West Africa, for example, consumption rose by 4.5% yearly during 1961_2006, while production expanded at 3.2%. In Mozambique, the contrast has been even more marked, with consumption jumping by 15% yearly during 1990_2005 and production remaining stagnant. The resulting gap between Africaâ€™s rice supply and demand has saddled governments with huge import bills, ranging from US$4 to US$5 billion in 2008.
â€œPartly as a result of research and advocacy,â€ said Seck, â€œmany governments have begun to abandon the laissez faire reliance on markets that has failed Africaâ€™s rice farmers and consumers.â€ Instead, he explained, they are pursuing new policies and projects that give farmers better access to improved rice technologies.
Yet, the equation that brought about the crisis of 2008 appears fundamentally unchanged. In 2009, the region still imported nearly 40% of the rice it consumes, accounting for about a third of all rice traded in world markets, and prices remained volatile. â€œOnly sustained commitment to technological and policy change,â€ said Seck, â€œwill reduce Africaâ€™s exposure to severe and unpredictable supply and price shocks.â€
Major initiatives launched by AfricaRice in the wake of the crisis, with partners such as the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and with strong support from donors (including the Japanese and US governments), demonstrate what is possible. As a result of such efforts, rice production in sub_Saharan Africa rose by 18% in 2008.
Countries in West Africaâ€™s Sahel Region registered especially sharp increases in rice production, totaling 44% in 2007_2008. For the 2009_2010 crop season, FAO is projecting double_digit growth in production for several countries: Gambia (79%), Mozambique (40%), Benin (34%), Senegal (24%), Mali (21%), Ghana (20%), and Burkina_Faso (15%). Bold policy measures like those taken in Mali, including subsidies on seeds and fertilizers, were vital for success.
Many of the improved seeds promoted through the emergency projects were NERICA (New Rice for Africa) varieties. Developed by AfricaRice starting in the 1990s, the best of these varieties combine the stress tolerance of Oryza glaberrima, a rice species native to Africa, with the high yield potential of O. sativa, which originated in Asia and is grown around the world.
Some of the nearly 80 upland and lowland NERICA varieties available so far have been widely adopted in many countries. For example, two of them were sown to nearly 200,000 hectares in Nigeria during 2007, and to about 35,000 hectares in Uganda, enabling the country to cut its rice imports by half from 2002 to 2007.
Despite the award winning success of the upland NERICAs and the lowland NERICAs (which respectively earned their creators, Dr. Monty Jones, the 2004 World Food Prize and Dr. Moussa Sie, the 2006 Japan International Koshihikari Prize), Africaâ€™s rice scientists have neither the time nor the desire to rest on their laurels. Instead, they are exploring a number of new avenues in rice research, which they hope will contribute to at least a doubling of Africaâ€™s rice production within a decade after the price crisis of 2008.
â€œThe NERICA varieties are a huge successâ€”but breeding never stops!â€ said Dr. Marco Wopereis, deputy director general of AfricaRice. â€œItâ€™s good to know that we have new products in the pipeline.â€
Some of the new products Wopereis refers to will likely be derived using molecular breeding approach. AfricaRice scientists are already using this approach to introduce resistance to disease and other stresses into some of Africaâ€™s most popular rice varieties.
A continent_wide Rice Breeding Task Force will soon expand that work, while strengthening the breeding capacity of national research organizations, with support from the Japanese government and other donors. Molecular breeding offers a cost_effective alternative to genetic transformation of rice, for which the required facilities and national regulatory frameworks are lacking.
In other research, AfricaRice is going back to the origins of NERICA, with the aim of using more recent breeding procedures to create new varieties that better exploit the genetic potential of the indigenous African rice, including its strong ability to compete with weeds. This work reflects a growing recognition of the â€œneed to exploit the treasure trove that is in African rice germplasm,â€ as AfricaRice plant breeder MandÃ¨ Semon put it.
Toward that end, researchers have undertaken extensive evaluations of the Centerâ€™s 2,300 African rice samples, including O. glaberrima as well as O. barthii, a wild plant related to cultivated African rice.
To ensure that new rice varieties satisfy farmersâ€™ demands, AfricaRice continues to use a method called â€œparticipatory varietal selection,â€ in which farmers choose lines from a demonstration plot planted in their village. Having worked well throughout West and Central Africa in the development of NERICAs, this method remains essential for delivering to farmers the varieties they want and need. Equally important is the introduction of integrated crop management, through a method referred to as â€œparticipatory learning and action research,â€ which enables farmers to derive greater benefits from new rice varieties.