Food and Fertilizer Technology Center - publications

Jan. 01, 1970

The Propects for Rice Farming in Asia

Rice in Asia

Agricultural development in Asia for several decades has focussed on increasing the supply of staple foods, particularly rice, in order to eliminate food shortages. The technology based on chemical fertilizers and high-yielding varieties has generally been successful. Over the past few decades, rice production in Asia has increased much faster than the human population.

As a result, the situation has changed. In some Asian countries there is now a domestic rice surplus, and there is a need to find an appropriate balance between supply and demand. Rice production policies must be changed, but what form the new policies should take is far from clear. Some of the Asian countries where a rice surplus is being produced are also those which are under the greatest pressure from powerful trading partners to permit the entry of imported rice.

Their industrial development has been so rapid that they still have a large proportion of their populations living in the countryside on small family farms, where rice is the most important crop and household incomes are relatively low. Farmers in countries such as Japan and Korea are already in economic difficulties because of the small size of their farms, and because the domestic production of many crops exceeds the market demand. These countries are very reluctant to disadvantage their farmers even further by importing cheap rice from abroad. There is also the question of food security, a major concern for every country in the world.

To rely on imported rice would mean that national governments of Asia would have less control over the basic food supply, and would be more vulnerable to political pressures from abroad. All those involved in Asian rice farming are also aware that taking rice fields out of production for any length of time tends to be a one-way process. Rice fields and their irrigation systems require constant maintenance if they are to remain productive. If paddy fields are taken out of rice production completely and converted to other uses, it might not be easy to resume rice cultivation if the situation changes at some time in the future.

For countries which still have a rice deficit, some reorientation of policies is also necessary. To a large extent, the main constraint to increased production is an economic one. The high-input agriculture which has brought such high yields over the past few decades requires substantial investment into fertilizer, pesticides and irrigation, together with a good level of management.

Low-income farmers often cannot afford to adopt this technology, and in any case may benefit more from technology which emphasizes on-farm resources and low risks, rather than maximum yields. Variations in production between countries are related to the amount of fertilizer used in rice production. For countries which are trying to increase rice production and maintain rice self sufficiency, there is the difficult question of whether to help farmers practice high-input agriculture by offering supportive programs such as fertilizer subsidies, improved irrigation, a guaranteed purchase price etc., or whether alternative policies might be more effective.

High-input rice production in its present form has another problem which affects both countries with a rice surplus and those with a deficit - the problem of sustainability in the long term. In areas where intensive rice production has been practiced for some time, there is a slow but alarming fall in yield. It is clear that any rice policies in Asia will have to take into account the long-term productivity of the resource base, as well as many other factors.

Economic Contribution of Rice

Economic data presented at the seminar made it clear that rice makes its greatest economic contribution at low income levels. Rice in Japan contributes only 0.1% of GDP, but in Bangladesh it contributes 23.7%, and in Laos 32.4% of GDP. In most Asian countries where per capita incomes are less than US$500, rice accounts for at least 20-30% of GDP. However even in Japan, rice contributes nearly a quarter of the human calorie intake.

On a global scale, the overall rice demand is slackening off. With higher incomes, Asian consumers are tending to eat a lower proportion of staple cereal foods, and more fruits, vegetables and animal protein. However, there are still some rice producing areas with a food deficit, and the population of rice consumers is growing at a rate of 2% per annum.

Asian rice farmers are also coming under pressure from imports. Low-income countries import rice when they have to, but rely mainly on the domestic supply. It is the high-income countries like Japan which are under strong pressure to import rice. The small contribution made by rice to the GDP of high-income countries like Japan might make their continued resistance to trade liberalization seem rather surprising. However, it is difficult for Asian farmers to find alternative crops. Another important point is the cultural and symbolic importance of rice in Asian cultures. Rice is not just a crop: it symbolizes life itself, and rice production is the basis of rural and historical tradition. Farmers resisting rice imports thus often have considerable support from urban consumers, who might have been expected to support cheaper rice.

The importance of rice as a staple food in Asian culture, and the symbolic value attached to it, is reflected in way that daily greetings in Asian languages (Good morning etc.) often mean literally "Have you eaten rice?". This deep emotional commitment to rice is made all the stronger in many Asian countries because many of those who are now in middle age or older have bitter memories of food shortages.

World Trade in Rice

Only 5% of world rice production is traded internationally. Nearly all the world's rice is consumed in the country where it is produced. This is in sharp contrast to the world's wheat crop, 20% of which is sold on the international market. Most of the rice sold for export is indica rather than japonica, and nearly all of it is produced by a few large producers, led by USA and Thailand. Countries importing rice tend to import relatively small amounts (none of them more than a million tons) to make up temporary shortfalls in the domestic supply. Thus there are a small number of large-scale exporters, and a large number of small-scale importers. Rice prices on the world market are very unstable compared to those of wheat or corn. Its unique place as the staple food in so many countries means that price is inelastic (i.e. when prices rise, demand does not show a corresponding fall). Rice production is also vulnerable to climatic fluctuations, since half of Asia's rice crop is rainfed and depends on seasonal monsoons. This instability of world rice prices and the very limited range of exporters are a strong disincentive for Asian countries which are now self-sufficient in rice to open their domestic markets and become dependant on imports.

Subsidies for Rice Production

In the years immediately before WTO, the re was a trend for the level of protection and government support for rice production to be declining in low-income countries, but to be rising in high-income countries. Many low-income countries were reducing the level of fertilizer subsidies, partly to encourage less wasteful fertilizer use, and partly to relieve government budgets of a crushing financial burden.

Government subsidies for rice production in high-income countries mainly took the form of price supports. Although the precise type of support program differed from country to country, the amount of funding involved can be standardized for comparative purposes by being translated into the Producer Subsidy Equivalent (PSE). In Japan in 1993, the PSE was 88% of the rice price, compared to 45% in USA and 28% in Taiwan ROC. Now the situation has changed under WTO, which limits price supports and other types of subsidy.

Rice Quality

Rice is not a uniform commodity but is highly differentiated. The two main classes are japonica and indica, but Asian consumers are also highly selective as to flavor, aroma and eating quality.

Quality is important even when incomes are low. As incomes rise, consumers become increasingly willing to pay higher prices for high-quality varieties (these tend to be more expensive because yields per hectare tend to be rather low). If in fact quality is more important than price to Asian consumers, local farmers are likely to benefit. They are better informed than overseas producers about the details of local preferences, and can match these with a range of local varieties.

Sustainability of Rice Production

In the traditional system of rice production which used organic fertilizers, rice could be cultivated continuously without any impairment of fertility. In fact, the fertility of paddy fields tended to increase over time. Under modern high-input production systems, since the middle of the 1980s farmers and scientists have noticed a decline in fertilizer efficiency, particularly in areas where rice has been intensively cultivated for some time. Some of the best examples of this slow decline in yield have been seen on experiment stations where rice has been cultivated intensively since the 1960s.

The decline is not a result of genetic erosion over time, since seeds taken from plots with this problem gave a higher yield on plots with a shorter cultivation history. If modern experiment stations cannot maintain productivity under the best scientific management, ordinary farmers are unlikely to be able to do so. Several possible reasons for this degradation of the resource base have been suggested: changes in the N supplying capacity of the soil, possibly because of repeated applications of rice straw which has a high carbon content; a build-up of soil pests such as nematodes specific to rice from continuous monocropping; deterioration from water-logging of soil given intensive irrigation, etc. Whatever the reason(s), this decrease in fertilizer efficiency means that current yields cannot be maintained without increasing inputs. The best solution seems to be a more diversified cropping system, in which production of rice is alternated with that of other crops.

Policies for Rice Farming

Asian countries can be divided into three with respect to their rice policies.

Group 1

The first group includes those countries which are self-sufficient in rice, such as Japan, Taiwan ROC and Korea. All are industrialized, with relatively high incomes. perhaps in these countries there could be a reduction in direct government intervention in the rice market, since free trade should promote the more efficient use of resources.

There should be an emphasis on rice quality, including rice grown by non-chemical methods. Research into profitable methods of organic farming should be promoted. The present land ownership system which limits the size of land holdings to about a hectare should be revised to allow for the formation of larger farms operated by full-time farmers.

Group II

The second group includes countries which produce enough rice to meet domestic needs and where rice is a major potential source of export earnings (Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia etc.). In these lower income countries with good export prospects, a world rice glut and falling prices should be averted by crop diversification. Rice quality should be promoted, to give exports an advantage in a competitive world market. More mechanization is needed to compensate for rising labor costs, and greater efficiency in marketing and postharvest operations. Food policies should try to remove the tendency of consumers with higher incomes to eat less rice and more imported cereals, particularly wheat.

Group III

The third group includes countries which are trying to maintain rice self-sufficiency, often in the face of rapid population growth (Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, eastern India etc. ). An important step is improving the infrastructure, including irrigation facilities. This involves not only the construction of new irrigation systems, but the repair of older ones which have deteriorated because not enough money has been spent on maintenance. Increased production should be sought by making more efficient use of available water and inputs. For example, deep placement can increase the effectiveness of fertilizer, and it has been found that good crops of rice can be grown in paddy fields with saturated soil but little or no standing water. Many improved rice varieties have increased resistance to pests and diseases, and need less pesticide. Research should be promoted to shift the yield frontier, not only to give a direct increase in production, but to make possible a more diversified cropping system.


We are all becoming concerned with the long-term effects of human economic activity, and the need for sustainable systems which conserve resources for the generations of the future. Intensive rice monoculture does not seem to be sustainable in the long term. Efficient systems of intensive rice cultivation should incorporate "break crops" which should interrupt successive rice crops. Proper use of chemical and organic fertilizer will help sustain the productivity of paddy fields.

An important point in terms of sustainablility is that paddy fields as an ecosystem help preserve the environment by conserving water resources. It has been estimated that in Taiwan ROC, replenishment of 70% of the underground water depends on paddy fields.

It is clear that rice policies in different countries must depend on the stage of economic development. All Asian rice producing nations share a common need to maintain domestic rice production, food security and profitable farming. In those countries which are being forced to open at least a percentage of their rice market to imports, producers may be best protected by policies which emphasize rice quality, including organic farming methods as well as flavor. This will promote the development of a domestic rice market of diverse and distinctive rice varieties which fetch high prices and are distinguished more by their quality than by their agronomic characters. It will be more difficult for overseas producers to compete successfully in a market of this kind.

Countries still aiming at increased rice production, whether for domestic consumption or for export, should develop more diversified cropping systems which alternate rice with other crops. This will not only raise farm incomes, but help maintain the long-term productivity of paddy fields.

FFTC International Seminar

Recent Trends and Future Prospects of Rice Farming in Asia

Location: Seoul, Korea

Date: May 24-30, 1993

No. Participating Countries: 9 ( Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Philippines, Republic of China, Thailand, Vietnam, USA,)

No. Papers: 18

No. Participants: 26 plus observers

Co-sponsor: National Agricultural Cooperative Federation, (NACF) Korea

List of Papers

1. Rice economy in Asia: Recent progress and emerging trends

- Mahabub Hossain

2. Technical and political options for sustaining rice productivity

- Prabhu L. Pingali

3. Economy liberalization and rice policy adjustment in Taiwan

- Hsi-Huang Chen

4. Sustainability of rice farming in Japan

- Takeshi Miyazaki

5. Japan rice farming in transition : Constraints and technological breakthroughs

- Nobumasa Takahashi

6. New agricultural policy and core farmers for rice farming in Japan

- Kazuo Morozumi

7. Rice farming development and productivity in Indonesia: Trends and determinants

- Effendi Pasandaran

8. Constraints and prospects of the Malaysian rice economy

- Mohd. Ghazali Mohayidin

9. National paddy and rice board (LPN) and its roles in rice marketing and distribution in Malaysia

- Boon-Ka Lim

10. Current status and future plans for rice research in Thailand

- Prasoot Sittisuang

11. Rice extension in Thailand

- Praderm Chumjai

12. Rice farming in the Philippines: Trends and prospects in production

- Arnulfo G. Garcia

13. Review of Philippine government policy on rice- Roque-Serrano Segferdo

14. Rice production in Arkansas

- John F. Robinson

15. Rice farming in Vietnam: Past performance, the present, and future trends

- Doan Van Dien

16. Sustainability of rice farming in Korea

- Jung-Keun Park

17. Implications of current rice trade issues for Korean agriculture

- Young-Kon Koh

18. Government decisions concerning the purchase price of rice in Korea

- Ho-Seop Yoon

Index of Images

  • Figure 1 Reaping Rice by Hand

    Figure 1 Reaping Rice by Hand

  • Figure 2 Threshing Rice in Small Mechanical Thresher

    Figure 2 Threshing Rice in Small Mechanical Thresher

  • Figure 3 Collecting Bags of Harvested Rice

    Figure 3 Collecting Bags of Harvested Rice

  • Figure 4 Organic Rice Farmer Shows Healthy Roots of Rice Plant

    Figure 4 Organic Rice Farmer Shows Healthy Roots of Rice Plant

  • Figure 5 Ducks Kept by Rice Farmer to Keep His Crop Free of Weeds. They Are Let into the Field about One Month after the Rice Is Transplanted.

    Figure 5 Ducks Kept by Rice Farmer to Keep His Crop Free of Weeds. They Are Let into the Field about One Month after the Rice Is Transplanted.

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