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
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 (www.irri.org)
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.