Friday, March 28, 2008

Rice prices and soil conservation

Food prices in both global and domestic markets have been rising steeply lately. In 2007, world food prices have risen by almost 40%. Here in the Philippines, rice import value has increased from $474/ton in January to $708/ton this month, an increase of almost 50% in just 2 months! And these are rice imported from our neighbors in the region, mainly Thailand and Vietnam.

The volume of rice importation has also been increasing. In other years, average importation was around 1 million MT a year. In 2007, rice import was 1.8 million MT, and this year, projected imports will be around 2.2 million MT, about ¾ of which to be sourced from Vietnam.

High domestic demand for rice is largely a result of the country’s high population growth. If each of the 1.8 million new people every year (net of death and migration) is consuming 0.2 kilo of rice a day (roughly 4 cups equivalent), then consumption in one year is around 73 kilos per person, or 131,400 MT a year – this will be the annual increase in rice consumption on top of the previous year’s total demand.

There is big pressure to increase rice supply to stabilize prices. And there are three important steps to achieve this: One, increase hectarage by converting more forest land or land planted with other crops to rice land. Two, use more science and modern technology to expand rice yield on the same rice land area. And three, do both.

Expanding rice land hectarage (currently around 4.2 million hectares nationwide) is a bit difficult as many rice lands are actually being converted to residential or commercial land, while forest land continues to shrink. The demand for land for other crops, from vegetables to fruits to cash crops, even for biofuels, is also expanding. So, only option #2 is the least costly and the most appropriate.

The adoption of modern - often genetically-modified (GM) - rice varieties is one of the most practical things to do. Average rice yield must rise from the current 3.7 MT/ha to 4 MT/ha and up. And since the price of many commercial fertilizers is also rising, as they are petroleum-based, the use of organic fertilizers will be relied upon more and more.

Using short-duration rice varieties – harvestable in 90 days, unlike most varieties that need 120 days or more – is another option. It is possible to have up to 3 harvests in one year for some farms (with good irrigation) and still have at least 2 months of either a fallow period to allow the soil to rest, or produce some short-duration vegetables like legumes, to allow the soil to recuperate.

The importance of soil conservation to produce more yield per hectare or more harvests per year on fixed agricultural land is thus becoming more pronounced, both nationally and internationally.

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