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Vientiane, Laos – Another tough 12 months for Asia’s millions of poor rice growers passed by in 2006. But, in one of the region’s most important rice bowls – the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) – many of the age-old problems usually facing farmers such as pests, diseases, floods, and drought hit particularly hard.
In Vietnam, farmers watched as insects destroyed rice worth millions of dollars in one of the worst pest outbreaks in recent history, while in Thailand thousands of farmers saw their crops inundated by record flooding that also affected Cambodia and Laos.
While rice is the main thing the six nations of the region share – as well as the Mekong River - it’s also clear they share many of the same rice production problems and a coordinated approach to find solutions could make a big difference. So, for the first time in its 46-year history, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) has established a GMS office to coordinate efforts to help farmers in the region deal with production problems and improve their lives.
IRRI’s representative in Laos and its GMS coordinator, Gary Jahn, says the Institute will coordinate its research in the six nations through the new office. "Laos was selected as the location for the new IRRI GMS office for several important reasons, including because every major rice ecosystem is represented within the country’s borders," Dr. Jahn said. "Laos also has the greatest diversity of rice of any of the Mekong nations, and the largest collection of indigenous rice accessions."
"We’re very grateful to the government of Laos for agreeing to host the office and providing such excellent cooperation and support," he added.
There have been tremendous gains in rice production in the GMS in the past two decades. The most notable examples are Cambodia and Laos, where rice production has doubled. Yet, despite these advances, much more still needs to be done. Population growth is leading to more deforestation as natural lands are converted to farmland.
"To meet the needs of the growing GMS population, by 2027 average irrigated rice yields must increase by 60 percent and rainfed yields by 100 percent," said Dr. Robert Zeigler, the director general of IRRI. Although this would be a major challenge, it is possible, and IRRI has done it before – in the 1970s, the Green Revolution raised rice yields in India by 30 percent and bought India the vital time to curb its population growth without suffering a recurrence of the devastating famines of the 1940s.
"Working with the national research programs of the GMS, we have developed a research strategy to reduce crop losses from floods, drought, and pests, while improving the yield potential and management efficiency of the most popular rice varieties," he said. IRRI’s most recent success in this area was the discovery of a gene that enables rice to survive complete submergence for 2 weeks. The gene is being introduced to several popular rice varieties, including a variety of Lao sticky rice.
"It’s estimated that such innovations could save 20,000 to 70,000 hectares of rice annually in Laos alone," Dr. Zeigler added. "Projects of this nature are in the common interest of all GMS nations, and by working together we’ll achieve better results faster."
Dr. Zeigler and the Lao Minister for Agriculture and Forestry Sitaheng Rasphone signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) for the establishment of the new GMS office in Vientiane on 12 January. The MOU stipulates IRRI’s framework for regional cooperation and complements the Institute’s strong bilateral relationship with Laos.
"It will channel our combined efforts and leverage additional resources to meet four national goals in Laos: to improve the export potential of Lao rice, increase Lao rice production to 3.3 million tons by 2010, increase forested area by replacing shifting rice production with sustainable practices, and alleviate poverty among rice growers," Dr. Jahn said. "These goals will be achieved by helping farmers to help themselves with new rice varieties that tolerate drought, floods, pests, and diseases."
The MOU also fully recognizes the existing commitment of IRRI to rice research in the GMS. To this end, IRRI and the national agricultural research systems of the six GMS nations will formulate an agreed strategy for rice research collaboration and technology transfer to improve food security, reduce poverty, improve livelihoods, and protect the environment of the subregion.
The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is the world’s leading rice research and training center. Based in the Philippines and with offices in 10 other Asian countries, it is an autonomous, nonprofit institution focused on improving the well-being of present and future generations of rice farmers and consumers, particularly those with low incomes, while preserving natural resources. IRRI is one of 15 centers funded through the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an association of public and private donor agencies. Please visit the CGIAR website (http://www.cgiar.org) for more information.
For information, please contact:
Duncan Macintosh, IRRI, DAPO Box 7777, Metro Manila, Philippines; tel +63-2-580-5600; fax: +63-2-580-5699; email firstname.lastname@example.org.