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Rice productivity


Productivity in global rice environments

Rice is grown in more than a hundred countries, with a total harvested area of approximately 158 million hectares, producing more than 700 million tons annually (470 million tons of milled rice). Nearly 640 million tons of rice are grown in Asia, representing 90% of global production. Sub-Saharan Africa produces about 19 million tons and Latin America some 25 million tons. In Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, almost all rice is grown on small farms of 0.5−3 ha.

Yields range from less than 1 t/ha under very poor rainfed conditions to more than 10 t/ha in intensive temperate irrigated systems. Small, and in many areas shrinking, farm sizes account for the low incomes of rice farm families. Rice grows in a wide range of environments and is productive in many situations where other crops would fail. 

The highest rice yields have traditionally been obtained from plantings in high-latitude areas that have long day length and where intensive farming techniques are practiced, or in low-latitude desert areas that have very high solar energy. Southwestern Australia, Hokkaido in Japan, Spain, Italy, northern California, and the Nile Delta provide the best examples. 

Global rice production and consumption 

global-rice-productionMore than anywhere else in the world, rice dominates overall crop production (measured by the share of crop area harvested of rice) and overall food consumption (measured by the share of rice in total caloric intake) in rice-producing Asia

The world’s largest rice producers by far are China and India. Although its area harvested is lower than India’s, China’s rice production is greater due to higher yields because nearly all of China’s rice area is irrigated, whereas less than half of India’s rice area is irrigated. After China and India, the next largest rice producers are IndonesiaBangladesh, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Thailand. These seven countries all had average production in 2006-08 of more than 30 million tons of paddy and together account for more than 80% of world production.

Despite Asia’s dominance in rice production and consumption, rice is also very important in other parts of the world. In Africa, for example, rice has been the main staple food – defined as the food, among the three main crops, that supplies the largest amount of calories – for at least 50 years in parts of western Africa and for some countries in the Indian Ocean. In these countries, the share of calories from rice has generally not increased substantially over time. In other African countries, however, rice has displaced other staple foods because of the availability of affordable imports from Asia and rice’s easier preparation, which is especially important in urban areas. On balance, in Africa, production has grown rapidly, but rice consumption has grown even faster, with the balance being met by increasing quantities of imports. Western Africa is the main producing subregion, accounting for more than 40% of African production in 2006-08. In terms of individual countries, the leading producers of paddy (2006-08) are Egypt (7.0 million t), Nigeria (3.8 million t), and Madagascar (3.2 million t). 

In Latin America and the Caribbean, rice was a preferred pioneer crop in the first half of the 20th century in the savannas of Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Uruguay, and Venezuela, and in forest margins throughout the region. Today, rice is the most important source of calories in many Latin American countries, including Ecuador and Peru, Costa Rica and Panama, Guyana and Suriname, and the Caribbean nations of Cuba, Dominican Republic, and Haiti. It is less dominant in consumption than in Asia, however, because of the importance of wheat, maize, and beans in regional diets. Brazil is by far the largest producer, and it accounts for nearly half (46% in 2006-08) of paddy production in the region. After Brazil (11.6 million t), the largest producers are Peru and Colombia (2.5 million t each in 2006-08), followed by Ecuador (1.6 million t). 

Elsewhere, the most important production centers are in the United States (California and the southern states near the Mississippi River), which produced 9.0 million t of paddy on average in 2006-08. The leading European producers are Italy, Spain, and Russia. Australia used to be an important producer, but its output has declined substantially in recent years because of recurring drought. Rice consumption in the Pacific islands has increased rapidly over the past two decades. Rice, which is all imported apart from a small amount grown in Papua New Guinea, is displacing traditional starchy root crops as a major staple due to changing tastes, ease of storage and preparation, and sometimes cost.

Yield improvement practices

high-yieldingDevelopment of high-yielding varieties: The Green Revolution

The ‘Green Revolution’ is the name given to the dramatic increase in cereal crop yields through modern agricultural inputs – irrigation, fertilizers, improved seeds, and pesticides – in the 1960s. For rice, the revolution began with the release by IRRI of the high- yielding semidwarf variety IR8 in 1966. The world average rice yield in 1960, the product of thousands of years of experience, was about 2 t/ha. Astonishingly, in only 40 more years, as the Green Revolution spread, it doubled, reaching 4 t/ha in 2000. The rice varieties and technologies developed during the Green Revolution have increased yields in some areas to 6–10 t/ha. 

Widespread hunger and malnutrition, especially in Asia, made it clear that production of wheat and rice needed to increase to avoid famine. 

The crisis led directly to the establishment of IRRI in 1960 and later its sister institutions in the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) system.

Fine-tuning the technologies

Irrigation and fertilizer helped raise cereal yields, but their full impact was realized only after the development of high-yielding varieties (HYVs). These semi-dwarf rice varieties were more responsive to plant nutrients and had shorter and stiffer straw that would not fall over under the weight of heavier heads of grain. They also could mature more quickly and were insensitive to daylight length, thereby permitting more crops to be grown each year on the same land. 

The first of these HYVs, named IR8, was released in 1966. Adoption of HYVs occurred quickly and about 40% of the total cereal area in Asia was planted to modern varieties by 1980. This increased to about 80% of the cropped area by 2000. 

Although many of the initial HYV rice varieties dramatically raised yields, they were susceptible to pests and diseases and had cooking traits that were less appealing to consumers. Continuing investments in agricultural research led to the eventual development of second- and third-generation varieties that successfully combined high yield potential with good pest and disease resistance and preferred consumption traits. 

technologiesPolicy framework

Although the Green Revolution was mainly a technology revolution, it required strong public support and policies to develop the technologies, build the required infrastructure, ensure that markets, finance, and input systems worked and that farmers had enough knowledge and economic incentive to adopt the new practices. Public interventions were especially crucial in Asia for ensuring that small farmers were not left behind, and without which the Green Revolution would have been much less pro- poor. On average, Asian countries were spending 15.4% of their total government spending on agriculture by 1972 and they doubled the real value of their agricultural expenditure by 1985. 

Governments also shored up farm credit systems, subsidized key inputs – especially fertilizer, power, and water – and intervened in markets to ensure that farmers received adequate prices each year to make the technologies profitable. Many governments used their interventions to ensure that small farms did not get left behind. Substantial empirical evidence at the time showed that small farms were the more efficient producers in Asia and land reform and small farm development programs were implemented to create and support large numbers of small farms. Small farm–led agricultural growth proved to be not only more efficient but also more pro-poor, a win-win proposition for growth and poverty reduction.

Impact of the Green Revolution 

The Green Revolution not only increased yields, it also reduced the production costs per kg of cereal harvested. This enabled a win-win outcome in which cereal prices could decline to the benefit of consumers even while farmers and agricultural workers increased their earnings. 

However, the relationship between the Green Revolution and poverty alleviation is complex, and this has led to a large and contentious debate in the literature. Village and household studies conducted soon after the release of Green Revolution technologies raised concern that large farms were the main beneficiaries of the technologies and that poor farmers were either unaffected or made worse off. 

However, some studies have found favorable longer-term impacts on inequality.

Production, area, and yield trends over time

Global rice production more than tripled between 1961 and 2010, with a compound growth rate of 2.24% per year (2.21% in rice- producing Asia). Most of the increase in rice production was due to higher yields, which increased at an annual average rate of 1.74%, compared with an annual average growth rate of 0.49% for area harvested. In absolute terms, paddy yields increased at an annual average rate of 51.1 kg/ha per year, although this rate of increase has declined in both percentage and absolute terms. 

The recent slowdown in rice area and yield growth

production-challengesCereal yields have continued to rise on average across Asia since the Green Revolution era, but annual growth rates are slowing. Moreover, total factor productivity has been declining, meaning that farmers now have to use higher amounts of inputs to obtain the same yields as before. Fortunately, as the figure shows, population growth in rice-producing Asia has been steadily declining for even longer. Since population growth has been the main source of rice demand growth, this trend helped to keep rice prices in check for a time. But, since the mid-1990s, population growth has exceeded rice yield growth and the gap has been growing steadily larger, creating a significant imbalance between supply and demand. This trend is evident for Asia as a whole, but also separately for East Asia, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Stagnation in area harvested further contributed to the problem, and prices eventually began to rise. Indeed, world market rice prices rose steadily by a cumulative 67% between April 2001 and September 2007, even before the world price crisis. 

There are several possible reasons for the slowdown in rice yield growth and production: displacement of cereals on better lands by more profitable crops such as groundnuts, diminishing returns to modern varieties when irrigation and fertilizer use are already high, and the fact that cereal prices have fallen relative to input costs, making additional intensification less profitable. There is also concern that pest and disease resistance to modern pesticides now slows yield growth, and that breeders have largely exploited the yield potential of major Green Revolution crops. 

Environmental problems that have arisen in different areas include excessive and inappropriate use of fertilizers and pesticides that pollute waterways and kill beneficial insects and other wildlife, irrigation practices that lead to salt buildup and eventual abandonment of some of the best farming lands, increasing water scarcities in major river basins, and retreating groundwater levels in areas where more water is being pumped for irrigation than can be replenished. Some of these outcomes were inevitable as millions of largely illiterate farmers began to use modern inputs for the first time, but the problem was exacerbated by inadequate extension and training, an absence of effective regulation of water use and quality, and input pricing and subsidy policies that made modern inputs too cheap and encouraged their excessive use.

Production challenges 

Global rice consumption remains strong, driven by both population and economic growth in many Asian and African countries. But, in some developing Asian nations, including India, Vietnam, and Indonesia, per capita consumption in recent years has started to decline at a rather slow pace with rising income. In other middle- to low-income Asian countries, including the Philippines, Myanmar, Cambodia, Bangladesh, and Laos, rice consumption per capita continues to rise over time. 

Despite this variation in the Asian per capita rice consumption trend, it is widely expected that per capita consumption in a majority of Asian countries will start or continue to decline in the future with rising income as people diversify their diets. But there are exceptions, such as India with its large population of ovo-vegetarians, where rice consumption patterns may not change dramatically even as income rises and a rapid increase in urbanization influences food habits. 


Outside Asia, where rice is not a staple yet, per capita consumption continues to grow. This is particularly true for most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where high population growth with changing consumer preferences is causing rapid expansion in rice consumption. In the least developed countries such as Nigeria, Tanzania, and Niger, people are moving away from tubers and cassava to rice as their income rises. Similar strong consumption growth has been evident among Middle Eastern countries with almost doubling of rice consumption in the last two decades and even more rapid increases in some Pacific island countries. Along with strong population growth, the rapid rise in per capita consumption also contributed to such rapid growth in rice demand. Rice consumption also continues to grow in Latin America and the Caribbean region with a 40% increase in the last two decades as a combination of both population growth and the steady rise in per capita consumption. Even in developed countries/regions, such as the United States and the European Union, per capita consumption continues to grow, partly because of switching from protein to more fibers in the diet and also immigration from Asian countries. 

Using the population projections from the United Nations and income projections from the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI), global rice demand is estimated to rise from 439 million tons (milled rice) in 2010 to 496 million tons in 2020 and further increase to 555 million tons in 2035. This is an overall increase of 26% in the next 25 years, but the rate of growth will decline from 13% for the first 10 years to 12% in the next 15 years as population growth drops and people diversify from rice to other foods. Among the various rice-consuming regions, Asian rice consumption is projected to account for 67% of the total increase, rising from 388 million tons in 2010 to 465 million tons in 2035 despite a continuing decline in per capita consumption in China and India. In addition, 30 million tons more rice will be needed by Africa, an increase of 130% from 2010 rice consumption. In the Americas, total rice consumption is projected to rise by 33% over the next 25 years. 

With further area expansion likely to be slow, global rice yields must rise faster than in the recent past if world market prices are to be stabilized at affordable levels for the billions of consumers. Globally, farmers need to produce at least 8–10 million tons more paddy rice each year—an annual increase of 1.2–1.5% over the coming decade, equivalent to an average yield increase of 0.6 t/ha during the next decade. Over the longer run, global rice consumption growth is expected to slow down but yields will have to continue to grow faster than at present because of pressure on rice lands in the developing world from urbanization, climate change, and competition from other, high-value agriculture. Rice yield growth of 1.0–1.2% annually beyond 2020 will be needed to feed the still-growing world and keep prices affordable.

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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