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Have You Eaten Rice Today?

“One more, rice, please!”

That call, which rings at dinner time in all restaurants and small eateries, best sums up the eating habits of the typical Filipino to whom eating is a matter of filling up. Viand, after all, is expensive while rice is not.

Since most people can’t fill up with ulam, they fill up with rice. One-half cup of rice can furnish 82 calories of energy, enough to give someone energy to walk for 26 minutes.

Although rice is basically a complex carbohydrate, its protein contains all eight of essential amino acids and complements the amino acids found in many other foods. Low in sodium and fat, with no cholesterol or gluten, it is a boon to weight conscious and those allergic to other grains. It is also low in fiber and easily digested.

“Rice is the principal food for over 60 percent of mankind,” points out the Laguna-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). It is particularly important in the Philippines where 8 out of every 10 people deemed a meal “proper” only if it had rice. To quote the words of the late columnist Doreen Fernandez: “If we did not have rice, our deepest comfort food, we would probably feel less Filipino.”

A meal without rice is not a Filipino meal at all. “For poor Filipinos, rice with a little amount of salt or a little amount of fish sauce will already make a meal (as no other),” commented Dr. Evelyn Mae Tecson-Mendoza, of the Institute of Plant Breeding of the University of the Philippines at Los Banos.

Today, more and more Filipinos eat rice as population continues to surge. And today, more than 90 million people inhabit the country which has only a total land area of 30 million hectares. Its current growth rate is posted at 2.36 percent.

“Whether population upsurge is tantamount to poverty or synonymous with a huge resource for the country’s industries is a continuing debate,” surmises Alicia G. Ilaga, director of Biotechnology Program Office of the Department of Agriculture (DA).

In an article this author wrote for the defunct Money Asia, the average rice consumption of Filipinos then was about 20,000 tons a day. (Today, the rice requirements must have almost doubled.)

The title of the piece was “Decreasing rice harvest: A crisis in the making.” That prophecy came to reality last year when a rice shortage happened. From P19, the price of a kilogram of rice rose to as high as P48.

Although the Philippines is basically an agricultural country, it has not been self-sufficient in rice. In fact, the country is currently the world’s major importer of rice. There are several reasons for this.

Yield growth and production for the last two decades have been minimal, and at times even stagnated or declined, resulting in increased importation.

Unknowingly, studies have shown that there is a 75 percent return on investment in rice production in the country. But the fact is, there is very little room for expansion in new areas for rice.

“Most of the increase in production will have to come from increased yields/productivity,” commented Simeon A.

Cuyson, executive director of CropLife Philippines, Inc. “The average rice landholding of slightly more than one hectare is uneconomic, so obviously some interventions are needed to improve efficiency, provide access to credit and marketing, and provide opportunities and the means to diversify the small farmers’ source of livelihood.”

One way to maximize rice production without cultivating more land is through biotechnology. Scientists define biotechnology as “any technique that uses living organisms to make or modify a product, to improve plants or animals, or to develop microorganisms for specific uses.”

In the Philippines, the agriculture department is very active in research and development in biotechnology to generate products that will benefit the populace. “The DA sees biotechnology as a tool to attain sufficiency in food – through maximizing limited resources and adapting to odd climatic conditions for greater impact,” says Ilaga.

“With limited agricultural lands available, biotechnology is utilized to guarantee increased yields and stability, improved nutritional quality, and increased value of traditional crops,” she adds.

Thanks to biotechnology, the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), for instance, has developed rice varieties that are now resistant to tungro and bacterial blight (both are blamed for 20 percent and 30 percent yield loss in rice, respectively). Two Tubigan varieties (7 and 11) have been reported to be resistant to the dreaded bacterial blight, a serious threat during wet season. Tubigan 7 yields 7.4 tons per hectare (t/ ha), nearly double the current national yield.

Using anther technology, a technique Used to generate genetic variability and shorten the breeding, period, PhilRice researchers have also developed an improved wagwag, a popular variety derived from a traditional lowland variety. From its six to seven months maturity, the improved wagwag can be harvested within 110 days. Production used to be 1 t/ha to 3 t/ha, but with improved wag-wag, the yield is already five tons per hectare.

Also in the pipeline is the development of golden rice which would help curb vitamin A deficiency among pregnant women and children in order for them to have nutrients that would fight blindness. The World Health Organization reported that dietary vitamin A deficiency causes some 250,000 to 500,000 children to go blind each year.

A prototype golden rice was developed in 1999 to provide the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A – in the form of beta-carotene – in 100-200 grams of rice, which corresponds to the daily rice consumption of children in rice-based societies.

Both IRRI and PhilRice are conducting trials on golden rice. Because of this, the Philippines could be the first country to commercialize the vitamin A-fortified rice by 2013, according to Dr. Randy A. Hautea, global coordinator and Southeast Asian director of the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications (ISAAA).

The ISAAA head said that golden rice will have about the same average yield as traditional varieties at “easily 6 tons” a hectare, but harvest may be more consistent because of the variety’s resistance to disease.

IRRI is also conducting trials on genetically modified (GM) rice that can give 50 percent more harvest while requiring less fertilizer and water. The said type of rice is seen as a long term solution to low yield in resource-scarce, poverty-stricken farms threatened by climate change.

In a statement, IRRI said the GM rice will have more efficient carbon dioxide capture with its enhanced capacity for photosynthesis, the process of using solar energy to capture carbon dioxide and converting it into growth-inducing carbohydrate in plants.

No one knows whether the world will one day be inhabited by 10, 15, or 20 billion people. What is known is that new technologies will be needed to produce much more rice on less land, with less labor, less water, and less pesticides. Rice production must be made sustainable as well as profitable for farmers so that they do not leave the land and join rapidly expanding, highly explosive communities of the urban poor.

As former IRRI director general Klaus Lampe puts it: “We cannot protect the environment, we cannot promote biodiversity, and we cannot provide sustainability without ensuring sufficient income earning opportunities and an adequate food supply.”

By Henrylito D. Tacio