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High Yielding Rice Varieties Spark 30-Year Rise In Production And Benefits For The Poor

Despite drought conditions in two of India's major rice-producing states, government officials in New Delhi are struggling with a problem that a only generation ago would have seemed like a dream come true-bumper crops and the possibility of a 5 million ton surplus. Sparked by high yielding varieties, India's farmers recently harvested the country's largest rice crop in history-88 million tons, nearly 20 percent of the world total.

A new study by Yale University economist Robert Evenson and a team of 15 international collaborators, has confirmed what India's farmers and government officials already know: widespread use of improved rice varieties since the 1960s has reduced food prices for the poor and prevented millions of cases of childhood malnutrition. The study points out that without the development of the high yielding varieties, prices for developing country consumers would likely be as much as 40 percent higher than they are today. The report also notes that the new varieties have reduced costly food imports by almost 8 percent and have eliminated the need to convert millions of hectares of forestland to agricultural uses as would have otherwise been required had yields remained at 1960 levels.

Although critics say that use of high yielding varieties has led to genetic uniformity, Evenson and his colleagues note that the availability of high yielding varieties has prompted many of the world's poorest countries to invest in plant breeding programs and produce varieties suited to local environments and markets. The new plant types have also prompted massive government investments in agricultural infrastructure such as irrigation and fertilizer delivery systems.

Supporting these efforts, Evenson notes, is an organization of scientists located in more than 60 countries who test the most up-to-date genetic material available to agricultural science. Over the past 25 years, it has helped the world's developing nations to evaluate and exchange more than 21,000 breeding lines and release more than 500 new varieties. The organization is known to plant breeders as INGER, the International Network for the Genetic Evaluation of Rice.

While most people think of rice only in terms of Asia, economists note that significant production increases have also taken place in Latin America. Over the past 35 years, rice production in the region has doubled, leading most Latin American countries to self-sufficiency. According to scientists at International Center for Tropical Agriculture, modern varieties now account for 80 percent of Latin America's rice production.

While scientists consider the breeding of improved varieties to be fundamental to agricultural development and diversification, until now, there has been no comprehensive measurement of the impact of new rice varieties, especially in the developing world. "These study results reaffirm the continuing value of research to increase rice yields and to breeding plants adapted to high-stress environments and resistance to disease and insects," Evenson says. In an earlier study, Evenson calculated the net worth of the varieties released through INGER to be about $725 million per year.

INGER is coordinated by scientists at the world-renowned International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. According to IRRI economists, average rice yields in South and Southeast Asia rose by more than 83 percent from the mid-1960s to the mid-1990s. Improved yields were offset, however, by an 85 percent increase in population. During the same period production rose 120 percent while the land planted to rice increased only 21 percent.

"Farmers will have to produce 40 to 50 percent more rice with improved quality to meet consumer demand in 2025," says Ronald Cantrell, IRRI's director general. To help meet that goal Asian farmers may soon begin planting a new type of rice that could raise global output 15 percent by 2004. IRRI has worked to perfect the new rice plant type since 1990 using conventional breeding techniques. Each of the new plants has six to ten productive stems that can hold upwards of 250 grains. Conventional varieties have just 14 to 15 productive stems that only hold about 100 grains. The new plant type should be suitable for 80 percent of India's rice growing area and about half of China's. India and China account for more than 50 percent of the world's total rice production.

For a country such as Indonesia, the availability of higher yielding varieties can't come too soon. According to a recent news report, the Indonesian government plans to open up 2 million hectares of new paddy fields. Indonesia's 210 million people consume an annual average of 135 kilograms (297 pounds) of rice per person. Officials fear that if production fails to meet demand, the country may be in danger of becoming the world's largest rice importer.

That's a lesson that government leaders in Africa are watching closely. While many people don't think of Africa as a rice-consuming area, the crop's popularity has grown considerably over the past thirty years. Throughout the continent, rice is taking on an increasingly important role as population grows and as government tries to stimulate economic growth. Regrettably, the high yield varieties developed for Asia did not produce good results under African conditions. As a result, major investments are now being made to produce plant types that can be grown successfully under African conditions. If Asia's experience is anything to go by, it's an investment that will likely pay high dividends.


This backgrounder is the first in a series by Future Harvest on the impact of improved crop varieties produced for developing countries.

Future Harvest ( is a nonprofit organization that builds awareness and support for food and environmental research for a world with less poverty, a healthier human family, well-nourished children, and a better environment. Future Harvest supports research, promotes partnerships, and sponsors projects that bring the results of research to rural communities, farmers, and families in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Future Harvest is an initiative of 16 food and environmental research centers which receive funding from the 58 governments, private foundations, and international and regional organizations known as the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR).

The study referred to, "Crop Genetic Improvement and Agricultural Development" by R.E. Evenson, May 2000, was conducted on behalf of the Impact Assessment and Evaluation Group of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research and is currently available in draft form. The final edition will be published in September 2000. For a copy email Cooperating scientists in the study include M. Hossain, D. Gollin, N. Johnson, D. Pachico, T. Dalton, P. Heisey, P. Pingall, M. Morris, V. Manyong, C. Bantilan, U. Deb, A. Aw-Hassan and T. Walker.

Future Harvest gratefully acknowledges the editors of PlanetRice, an interactive website for the rice industry, which provided some of the material contained in this report. For more information see

Dated  : 01 August 2000

Copyright 2000 Future Harvest All Rights Reserved.