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Half the world food programme
Scientists endeavour to ensure food security for more than 3 billion people living on the planet through rice research - 07 Mar 10
Rice plant, courtesy of the IRRI
Half the world's population depend on rice for daily food

As a huge fan of rice, I felt a sense of panic last year when southeast Asian countries blocked exports of the grain because they estimated there wasn't enough of the crop to feed their own people.

I also felt a sense of confusion - all my mates who have trekked about in Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia always post photos of the ubiquitous paddy fields on their Facebook pages. Was an imminent world shortage of rice really on the cards and was that a prelude to more food crises?

But, as the supermarket shelves remained fully stocked, the sense of unease passed until recently. A mate works as a journalist in Bangkok and had an assignment to report on the insurgency in the Philippines (no, most people don't know there was one).

She ended up poking her nose around the International Rice Research Institute ( in Manila and picked up some really interesting science-climate change stuff. To put things into perspective, rice is the staple diet or half the world's population - about three million people - and not just a tasty accompaniment to your curry. So its importance can't be underestimated.

But growing the plants can cause environmental problems, as well as farmers and their crops being at the whim of severe weather patterns in southeast Asia, patterns now thought to be attributable to climate change. Scientists at the IRRI are investigating the potential of tens of thousands of rice genes to produce a plant that could cope with increasing temperatures, as well as how to better manage the agricultural ecosystem to improve plant resilience and reduce the impact that rice farming has on global warming (the field are documented producers of methane, a very potent "greenhouse" gas).

The donor-base funding the institute is quite considerable, ranging from the usual suspects of western governments, to the World Bank and Bill Gates. But it struck me that the UK government does little to keep its own farmers and farming policy in check when considering the fallout from climate change. Another friend perhaps reflects the nation's feeling when he says he can't worry about something that probably won't happen in his lifetime. He thinks we should focus all our efforts into solving the "here and now" ills of the world.

The current ailments in southeast Asia are the direct result of climate change though - increasingly frequent and forceful monsoons, typhoons, tropical storms and floods are already threatening not only food supplies but the social fabric of these societies. It's easy for the wealthy nations, still largely unaffected by climate change, to put their hands in their pockets for some loose change to throw at a problem occurring on the other side of the world. But it's harder to practice what you preach and make changes that perhaps benefit nobody in your own backyard but humanity as a whole.