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Latin America and the Caribbean

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Rice is a staple food crop in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). The region’s per capita annual consumption increased from about 9 kg of milled rice in 1924-28 to about 30 kg in 2008-10.

Rice consumption is concentrated in the tropical countries of the region, which had a total population of 582 million in 2010.

Tropical Latin Americans consume an average of 37 kg of milled rice yearly—equal to about 1.3 cups of cooked rice daily.

After sugar, rice is their single most important source of daily calories, supplying 11.5% of daily caloric intake.

In Ecuador, Guyana, Haiti, Panama, and Peru, rice provides 20% more calories than any other crop. Rice is also a leading source of protein for the poorest 20% of the tropical population, supplying more per capita than beans, beef, or milk. Rice is income elastic in the region: consumers tend to increase consumption as their incomes rise. Rice is preferred by the poor because it is cheap, nutritious, appealing, easy to prepare, and easy to store and transport.

From 1967 to 1995, increasingly efficient production, triggered by the adoption of modern semidwarf varieties that were more input-sensitive, caused the real price of rice to decline by 50%. However, during the last decade, the price of rice has become highly variable.

Rice is particularly important from the standpoints of growth and equity. Poverty in LAC is extensive: in 2010, 30.4% of the total population was poor and 12.8% desperately poor. Most of the poor live in urban areas; they spend about 15% of their income on white rice. Their well-being is therefore affected by the amount, quality, security of supply, and price of the rice they eat.

Pushed by large debt burdens, fiscal and trade imbalances, and high inflation rates during the 1970s and 1980s, most of the region’s countries have developed self-sufficiency policies for rice production to maintain low and stable prices for urban consumers.

Source of agricultural development

Rice was a leading pioneer crop for area expansion and colonization until the 1980s, when the trend in agriculture reverted to more intensive practices as a result of more open trade practices and the need to increase efficiency and competitiveness. During 2000-10, rice production in LAC expanded annually at 2.8%, fueled by a 2.1% annual growth in yield, while the cultivated area expanded annually at 0.3%. The area under irrigated rice has continued to grow steadily but there has been a decline in the area under upland rice. Higher yields are the result of the shift to irrigation as well as the continuous release of improved varieties.

Such growth in production has provided many opportunities for reactivating local rural economies. By the mid-1990s, local feed and food industries were using nearly 4 million t of rice by-products per year.

Urbanization and economic liberalization are forcing the integration of regional rice markets and agribusiness. Demand for healthy, diversified, rice-based convenience foods is increasing. Most countries do not rely on rice imports to meet domestic needs. In 2010, 3.7% of the world’s rice production and 3.5% of the cultivated area were in LAC. From 1966 to 2008, rice production increased from 9.8 million t to 26.2 million t. In the mid-1990s, 6.7 million ha in Latin America were under rice. Of these, 3.1 million ha were upland, 1.1 million ha rainfed lowland rice, and 2.5 million ha irrigated rice.

About one million farmers in the region depend on rice as their main source of energy, employment, and income. Of these, about 0.8 million are resource-poor smallholders, planting less than 3 ha. They cultivate rice manually, producing only 6% of the total rice output in LAC. The other 0.2 million rice growers produce 94% of the rice on larger (15–50 ha on average) mechanized farms.

Geographical features of rice cultivation in Latin America

More than two-thirds of Latin America’s arable lands are in lowland ecosystems. Rice is well adapted to the wet soils common in lowlands. Opportunities exist for lowland rice expansion in the vast wetlands of Brazil (with a potential of 24 million ha), the Andean countries (Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela), the River Plate Basin (Argentina, Paraguay, and Uruguay), Guyana, and Central America.

Another ecosystem with potential is the high-rainfall savannas, with aerobic upland acid soils, found in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Guyana, Suriname, and Venezuela. Rice is more tolerant of acidity than are other grain crops. New technologies (more input-responsive rice varieties) and production systems (upland rice-pasture cultivation) can encourage the establishment of improved pastures and relieve pressure for food production from more fragile environments.

Rice grown under irrigation provides 59% of total rice production on just 37% of the total rice area, with average yields of 5.0 t/ha. For rainfed lowland rice, the corresponding figures are 22%, 16%, and 3.9 t/ha, respectively; and for upland rice, 19%, 46%, and 1.3 t/ha, respectively. Brazil accounts for 65% of all the rice area in LAC. Brazil produces 52% of all irrigated rice, 38% of all rainfed rice, and 92% of all upland rice in the region. The rice area in Brazil is 62% upland, grown on acid soils, whereas, outside Brazil, most rice is irrigated on richer soils.

In contrast with other rice-growing regions in the world, rice cultivation on larger farms in tropical Latin America and the Caribbean is predominantly mechanized. Direct seeding and purchased inputs are used across ecosystems. These features fit fairly well with the characteristics of the region—abundant flat land and scarce labor—and enhance its comparative advantage in efficient rice production compared with more labor-intensive cultivation systems elsewhere in the world.

A direct-seeded culture

In contrast to Asia, where rice is commonly transplanted, rice in Latin America is mostly direct-seeded, a practice that developed because of increasing labor costs. The Asian transplanting system is used on only 6% of the region’s total rice area.

About two-thirds of irrigated rice has been developed by diverting water from streams, rivers, and wells. The new short-duration varieties, developed regionally, and capital inputs and water have helped farmers deal successfully with weed populations and with the more demanding water, fertilizer, and pest management needs for direct-seeded rice.

Research challenges

One problem common to LAC and other regions is the stagnation of crop yield potential. In many places, significant yield gaps exist, which can be exploited through better agronomic practices. Diseases and pests are other problems, tackled with excessive applications of agrochemicals. To help overcome these problems, rice scientists have been working on (1) developing higher-yielding rice varieties using advanced techniques with conventional plant breeding, (2) investigating methods that allow faster breeding processes, and (3) reducing production costs and environmental hazards through genetically resistant varieties and better crop management practices to achieve higher efficiency in the use of inputs. The last factor encourages farmers to maintain or increase their cultivated area, despite low rice prices, and to reduce agrochemical use.

Research and development in Latin America

Nearly 100 publicly funded agricultural research and development institutions work on rice in LAC. Each follows one of four models: (1) as part of a research department in the Ministry of Agriculture, (2) as part of a decentralized agricultural research institute, (3) as an association with a rice development project, or (4) as a decentralized rice research institute. Rice research is also carried out by farmers’ organizations, private companies, universities, and regional institutions, their opportunities having increased since the internationalization of most countries in the region during the 1990s. Helping researchers to benefit from collaboration and to improve their capacity are networks such as INGER (International Network for Genetic Evaluation of Rice), FLAR (Fondo Latinoamericano de Arroz de Riego), and CRIDNet (Caribbean Rice Industry Development Network). From 1975 to 1995, 250 rice varieties were released in the region. About 70% of these varieties were introduced to the countries through INGER. A further 152 varieties were released during 1996-2012, of which 43 were released by FLAR. The high return to international and national rice research in LAC is equivalent to an annual interest rate of 69%. This is extremely attractive, compared with the interest rate of about 10% earned on commercial investments.

If you want to learn more, please read the Rice Almanac. You can purchase it on Kindle or download for free as a PDF.

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