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Big boosts in rice and beans

Latin America’s rice and bean production has grown with “extraordinary speed” in recent decades, bringing benefits for the millions of low-income consumers in the region who depend on this nutritious dietary duo, according to the author of a recent report by the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT).

Increased production of these crops has also enabled small farmers to sell to national urban markets and even internationally, as far away as Japan, according to Art van Schoonhoven, director of genetic resources research for the Colombia-based center.

The region’s rice production doubled between 1966 and 1995, says the report. Bean production grew by 25 percent between 1983–85 and 1993–95, and in some areas yields increased by as much as 110 percent. The gains resulted from the development of improved varieties of the two crops and successful efforts to put them in the hands of the region’s farmers.

In the case of rice, national research programs across Latin America have released an average of 10 new lowland varieties annually. Of the 300 new varieties, nearly 40 percent have come from crosses made at CIAT. These modern “semidwarf” varieties today account for virtually all of the region’s rice production, making Latin America nearly self-sufficient in this staple commodity.

The report stressed that the gains in rice production were largely the result of achieving higher yields, not by putting more land into production. The area planted to rice rose modestly, from 5.8 million hectares in the mid-1960s to 6.7 million hectares in 1995.

As a result of this increased productivity, the price of rice has dropped by about 50 percent in real terms over the past three decades. About 60 percent of the benefits have gone to the consumer and 40 percent to the producer, said CIAT. Cheaper rice has been particularly beneficial to poor consumers, since low-income people spend half of their total income on food, and 15 percent of these expenditures go to rice.

Rice supplies Latin Americans with more calories than wheat, maize, cassava and potatoes, and 70 percent of rice consumers live in cities. Today Latin America has about eight million hectares planted to rice, and it produces nearly half of the world’s output.

Small farmer crop. While rice is typically grown on large farms, beans are the quintessential crop of the small farmers who work marginal lands.

Latin America’s national agricultural programs have released about 180 new bean varieties, according to the CIAT report. Most of these were based on experimental lines developed at CIAT. The new seed is planted on at least 40 percent of the region’s bean-growing area.

As in the case of rice, increases in bean production have been made largely through increasing yields, not by putting more area under cultivation. The 25 percent increase of the past decade was achieved with a rise of only 2 percent in area planted, according to CIAT.

Despite the gains in these two key staples, Schoonhoven warns that production must increase still more if Latin America is to continue to feed its burgeoning urban population and reduce rural poverty.

“Expanding economic opportunities in areas already under cultivation is critical for reducing human pressure on the region’s forests, biodiversity and fresh water,” he said.

The Colombia-based CIAT is one of three international agricultural research facilities located in Latin America that have received funding from the IDB.

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