The enigma of Uruguayan rice

Rice crops in Uruguay.
Rice crops in Uruguay. The South American country has achieved rice yields equivalent to the most fertile zones of the United States.

When researchers from totally different continents met this year in Uruguay, they were looking to resolve one of the future’s great challenges: How to feed a growing world population that will reach 9 billion people in 2050.

The South American country has achieved rice yields comparable with what would be expected of the most fertile zones of the United States, thanks to a model that could contain vital lessons for other nations.
The advance is one of those high-impact innovations that will be discussed at next week’s international summit, the Global Conference on Agricultural Research for Development (GCARD).

“We estimate that in 2035 it will be necessary to produce 116 million tons more of polished or dry rice every year to satisfy global demand,” said Achim Dobermann, from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, to BBC Mundo. The current global production of dry rice (the kind that reaches the consumer) is close to 480 million tons.

Dobermann is one of the experts who recently visited plantations of rice in Uruguay, together with representatives from Africa, Asia and other regions.

“The advances in this country can offer lessons that could be adapted for other countries. We are looking at Uruguay in that context,” said Dobermann.

How has Uruguay achieved its high yields? And to what extent can this strategy serve for other nations as well?

Minimal state intervention

“Something that we found intriguing in the case of Uruguay is the minimal intervention of the State,” said Dobermann.

The area cultivated with rice constitutes 200,000 hectares, from which 95% of the harvest is destined for exportation; as a result the country has been forced to develop a competitive system that satisfies high standards of quality and performance.

“To give a simple figure, we produce 8,000 kilos of dry rice per hectare – a figure comparable to or even greater than what the southern U.S. or Australia could achieve and quite superior to the rest of the world,” said Álvaro Roel, president of Uruguay’s National Institute of Agricultural Research (INIA by its Spanish acronym) to BBC Mundo.

The prices are agreed upon in direct negotiations between the producers and the rice millers.

“The price for the rice that we receive as producers is the results of an annual negotiation between producers and the  three industrial mills that process 75% of the country’s rice,” explained Ernesto Stirling, president of the Rice Cultivators Association of Uruguay (ACA by its Spanish acronym).

“It is quite a rare system – nothing like it exists anywhere else in the world – and it grew out of the need to go out together and export to a very competitive and subsidized world.”

“Uruguay is maybe the only country in the world that doesn’t subsidize the rice producer,” he asserts.

Mosaic

Something that also caught the attention of Dobermann is the “systematic implementation of agronomic practices,” in such a way that a mosaic of innovations effectively gets to the cultivators.

The producers themselves finance some 50% of the INIA and receive technical guidance from various levels, from the technicians at INIA to the advisors of small groups of farmers and the engineers from the purchaser mills.

The State finances the other 50% of the research institute and plays a key role in the search for new markets.

The producers plant new seed every year. “Nowadays, the varieties they are planting are all generated in Uruguay in the INIA,” said Roel.

Varietal rice

The integrated system has allowed Uruguay to sell homogenous rice and to “be recognized for something that other countries can’t do: sell rice with varietal purity, which is to say, we can claim that a boat is shipping such and such a variety and you know that all the rice within that boat is the same,” said Roel.

For Dobermann, the Uruguayan system contains valuable lessons.

“In Asia and Africa we have smaller fields and poorer farmers, but the systematic implementation of better agronomic practices and ways to deliver them to the producers are elements that can be applied in other countries.

The Uruguayan rice model, along with other innovations, will be discussed at next week’s summit in the South American country.

“A few days ago the FAO indicated that there are close to 850 million people in the world every day who suffer from hunger. This is an additional call to action, as much for developed as it is for developing nations,” said Carlos Pérez del Castillo to BBC Mundo. Pérez del Castillo is the chair of the CGIAR Consortium board. CGIAR unites 15 international agricultural research centers including the Center for International Tropical Agriculture in Colombia and the International Potato Center in Peru.

The role of Latin America in the search for high-impact agricultural innovation could be central, as the region has been identified “as one of the only ones with the necessary natural resources available to significantly increase food production in the next decades.”

The region has also been innovative on the subject of institutional models for development. A public-private alliance, the Latin American Fund for Irrigated Rice (FLAR, by its Spanish acronym), has been in effect since 1995, supported by the resources provided by its members in 17 Latin American countries and with the intent of cooperative research. This south-south alliance makes rice producers less dependent on international agencies and more directly involved in sustaining their own development.

For Pérez del Castillo, “South-south cooperation is fundamental given that the solution to the food supply problem will come from emerging economies confronted with a developed world that is showing severe difficulties with maintaining its growth in the long term.”

***

Read the full Spanish-language article from BBC Mundo

Article by Alejandra Martins, reporter for BBC Mundo, 24 October 2012

English translation by Caity Peterson, social reporter for the GCARD2 conference

Photo courtesy of Neil Palmer, CIAT

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