Sustainable Energy

Grain of truth: Making rice greener

Anmar Frangoul | Special to
The importance of rice science

Rice is one of the world's most important staples, with billions of people basing their meals around it. But as the world's population grows, the amount of resources needed to produce the food is growing as well.

Demand for crops such as rice, wheat and maize is set to increase by 33 percent by 2050, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations.

According to the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), it takes between 1,000 and 3,000 liters of water to produce just one kilo of rice. While this compares favorably with the 13,000 to 15,000 liters needed to produce one kilo of grain-fed beef, rice still has an impact on the environment.


The FAO says that, along with the stagnation of cereal yields and depletion of natural resources, climate change is threatening food security.

Founded more than 50 years ago and based in the Philippines, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) is a research organisation looking to slash poverty and global hunger through "rice science."

"When the decision was made to found IRRI as the first international agricultural research center, the world was facing famine," V. Bruce J. Tolentino, the IRRI's deputy director general for communication and partnerships, told CNBC's Sustainable Energy.

"To supply the world with the food… (it) needed, we needed to be able to push productivity, and that's been the end goal and mission of IRRI ever since," Tolentino went on to add.

The power of science

Climate change is likely to have an impact on rice production, according to IRRI. Those who farm rice are often some of the poorest agricultural workers, and their livelihoods are threatened by environmental changes.

Climate change impacts including an increase in sea levels, flooding, salinity, increased CO2 levels, higher temperature, scarcity of water and pests, diseases and weeds could all hit crop yields.

At IRRI a key aim is to gain an in depth understanding of the genetic diversity of rice in order to assist producers facing challenges from climate change as well as diseases and pests. To date, more than 40,000 rice genes have been mapped.

The importance of rice that is hardy and high yielding is only set to increase.

"The varieties that survive the drought and flooding, they enable farmers not only to at least keep that season's worth of income and survive that season, but they also encourage farmers to invest more in other ways to increase the productivity," Sarah Beebout, a senior scientist at IRRI's soil chemistry, crop and environmental sciences division, said.