Rice yield is increasing but the rate of increase has slowed down in recent years in a worrying development for Bangladesh, said Matthew Morell, director general of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).
The growth rate of rice yield slowed to 1 percent in 2011-2017 from 2.8 percent in 2001-10.
“This needs to increase to ensure the staple for the growing population,” he told The Daily Star in an interview last week in Dhaka.
Continuous population growth is a major challenge for Bangladesh as it enforces tough choices in the form of making more land available for agriculture or urbanisation.
“Bangladesh is a country that does not have new frontiers to find new land, and you also have pressures on water availability and water quality.”
Over the last five and a half decades, the international agency helped Bangladesh develop more than 100 high-yielding varieties (HYVs) of rice by working with Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) and other state research agencies.
And cultivation of HYVs has resulted in increasing yield and enabled the nation to triple its annual production to about 3.50 crore tonnes from about 1 crore of the cereal just after independence, according to official data.
In fiscal 2016-17, the annual average yield of the staple food stood at 3.07 tonnes per hectares in contrast to 1.09 tonnes in 1970-71, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS).
In recent years, the yield of rice from each hectare hovered around the 3 tonne-mark.
The yield increase is linked to a number of factors, including the introduction of new varieties and improvement in farm management practices at farmer's level, Morell said.
Mechanisation of rice production and operating larger farm sizes are necessary to increase productivity.
Bangladesh has released several climate-smart rice varieties, three of which are drought-tolerant, six submergence-tolerant and 10 salinity-tolerant.
Cultivation of the varieties has reduced production loss from climatic stresses, significantly increased rice production in stress-prone areas and income of farmers, and improved food security, he said.
Asked about food safety concerns, Morell said: “We agree with the concern and we agree with the general desire to reduce unnecessary use of chemicals.”
IRRI promotes practices such as integrated pest management that minimise the use of synthetic pesticides.
“This has beneficial effect on rice agro ecosystem and human health and it also addresses food safety concerns.”
Rice, in general, is safe, but there are few things that need to be checked from time to time such as heavy metal and arsenic contamination and pesticide use.
“These are really very significant problems. We should be monitoring the rice crop to make sure there are not any issues that we need to be concerned about.”
For Bangladesh, it is cadmium and arsenic contamination that need to be checked from time to time. Arsenic is present in soil and water and cadmium in soil, so regular screening is needed.
IRRI is developing methods to detect to heavy metal presence in rice, Morell said.
It has established an IRRI South Asia Regional Centre in Varanasi, India. The centre's lab facilities can analyse rice grain quality and identify metal contamination in rice.
“Bangladesh can take advantage of this facility,” the IRRI chief said.
On the genetically-engineered Golden Rice, he said the variety has got approval from regulatory agencies from the US, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. It is currently going through the regulatory process in Bangladesh and in the Philippines.
In Bangladesh, the application was lodged to the National Committee of Biosafety in November, 2017.
“It's about 15 months. They are examining the dossier. So, we would hope that they will make their decision in the coming months.”
On concerns related to Golden Rice, he said the IRRI has very rigorous criteria for releasing the variety.
“This is why we went to go through the regulation process in the US, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. These are some of the toughest regulatory agencies in the world and Golden Rice met the criteria set by them.”
The variety can be made available to farmers the way other HYVs were.
IRRI said BRRI scientists are introducing the beta-carotene producing Golden Rice trait into the popular, high-yielding local inbred rice varieties (BRRI Dhan 29).
This means that farmers will be able to save their seeds for replanting in succeeding planting seasons, it added.
On the risks of cultivation of the crop here, Morell said: “It's a very well understood product and there is beta-carotene in many plants. This is something that occurs naturally in other plants. So, I do not see any particular risks here in Bangladesh.”
For policymakers, Morell said the science and technology are needed in many areas to help improve productivity.
“But it is no good if that knowledge stays in the laboratory. It needs to come out to the farmers. That's an important area for policymakers to think about.”