Africa Could Grow More Rice — New Study Shows How

Currently, domestic rice production in Africa meets about 60% of the continent’s demand. That import dependence places Africa in a vulnerable position. Courtesy | Alencar Zanon

Africa’s rice sector has major opportunities to increase its yield gains through improved agronomic practices while avoiding massive land conversion, a study by international scientists including a Husker co-investigator finds. The production advances can be important in meeting Africa’s projected food needs and reducing dependence on imports, the researchers concluded.

Rice demand in Africa is projected to more than double over the next 25 years due to population growth and increased rice consumption. At present, Africa imports nearly 40% of its rice.

“Nearly 15 million hectares of rice are waiting for yield improvement in Africa, but no yield gain can be achieved without better agronomy,” said Patricio Grassini, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln professor of agronomy who coordinated the team working on the research study, “Intensifying rice production to reduce imports and land conversion in Africa,” published in Nature Communications.

Agronomic practices involving improved land development, soil and plant nutrition, weed control and water management, as well as moderate cropland expansion, “could give the region a more optimistic future,” said Kazuki Saito, a former researcher at the Africa Rice Center who is currently at the International Rice Research Institute, who also contributed to the research.

The research project received support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation through the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research Excellence in Agronomy 2030 (incubation phase).

The research, conducted by researchers from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, Huazhong Agricultural University, Africa Rice Center, and Wageningen University and Research, shows that current average rice yield in Africa is very low in relation to other parts of the world, indicating a substantial opportunity to enhance African rice production.

By employing a process-based crop simulation modeling approach combined with extensive on-the-ground data collection, the research team found that the average yield for Africa’s rice sector represents less than half the yield that could be achieved with improved agronomic practices.

Currently, domestic rice production in Africa meets about 60% of the continent’s demand. That import dependence places Africa in a vulnerable position. Without a substantial increase in rice yields, meeting future rice demand will require more rice imports, as well as conversion of wildlife habitat to agricultural use.

“Africa’s heavy reliance on imports not only poses a significant threat to food security, but also leaves the continent susceptible to external supply and price shocks, as has happened recently when India imposed bans on rice exports,” said Martin van Ittersum, a professor of agronomy at Wageningen University.

Africa’s rice imports represent about a third of the rice traded on the global market, said Shen Yuan, a professor of agronomy at Huazhong Agricultural University and lead author of the article.

Boosting African rice yields as outlined in the study can go far in “meeting the future rice demand of 150 million tons by 2050 without increases in current rice exports while reducing the pressure to convert land for rice cultivation,” said Shaobing Peng, a professor of agronomy at Huazhong Agricultural University who also contributed to the study.

The process-based crop simulation modeling approach used in the study “is a powerful tool to evaluate and determine opportunities for crop improvement” and has practical relevance for producers in Nebraska and nationwide, said Derek McLean, dean of the Agricultural Research Division at Nebraska.

“This study is an excellent example of our global presence and collaborative nature of researchers at UNL,” McLean said. “Supporting crop improvement, food security and agriculture stability throughout the world is good for Nebraska and will eventually catalyze opportunities for our producers.” Informed decision-making is key for crop improvement, McLean said, and the technology in this study “provides the key information needed to identify opportunities on a large scale.”

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