Brunei Darussalam is ramping up efforts to increase its rice harvest – seen as core to its policy of strengthening food security – turning to newly developed high-yield grains and improved technology to raise production, though it will be some years before the Sultanate comes close to its goal of meeting most of its domestic needs with home-grown crops.
Rice is one of the staples of the local cuisine, though it is challenging to supply. Between Brunei Darussalam’s rising population, an increasing number of rural workers seeking employment in urban areas and limited suitable land available for rice growing, the gap between production and demand has been widening. To meet local demand, the Sultanate relies on imports, with well over 95% of rice consumed being shipped in from overseas. In early September, in fact, Thailand’s prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, visited Brunei Darussalam and reported that the Sultanate was keen to buy more jasmine rice from Thailand.
But Brunei Darussalam would prefer to see fewer imports and more home-grown production: the global food crisis of 2007-08 saw the Sultanate, along with many other grain importers, caught short, with the state having to increase subsidies and pay over the odds on the international market to ensure demand was met. This crisis prompted the government to set the ambitious target of achieving 60% self sufficiency in rice production by 2015, which, if achieved, would be a major step up from the 3.12% recorded in 2007, when more than 31,000 tonnes of rice had to be imported.
To assist local growers, the state has been providing free insecticides and fungicides, technical support, training in modern cultivation techniques and funding incentives. However, despite the best efforts of farmers and the state, the Sultanate fell far short of its mid-term goal of meeting 20% of its rice requirements by the end of 2010, with a combination of adverse weather conditions, including heavy flooding, and insufficient amount of land developed for paddy farming among the main causes for the shortfall.
Though the Department of Agriculture and Agrifood (DAA), the Sultanate’s lead agency in the campaign to boost rice production, has unveiled plans to increase the area under cultivation for padi from 1300 ha to around 5000 ha, a 285% jump, progress in identifying and preparing suitable sites has been slow. Having to put in place the extensive infrastructure required for rice growing, including water supplies and transport access, the DAA has been constrained by the need to protect Brunei’s delicate ecological balance.
According to Jamaluddin Yusoff, the DAA’s head of management and finance, proposals to cultivate new areas are being subjected to environmental impact assessment, which involves political, social and economic considerations.
“It is still progressing, but opening up new land isn’t an easy matter,” he said during the 31st ASEAN Food Security Reserve Board (AFSRB) meeting in mid-July. “We have to maintain our rainforest and our jungles as well, and take into consideration the social effect to the local communities.”
While the DAA may be running behind schedule on its plans to open up new fields for cultivation, it is optimistic that it can greatly increase output from existing plots through advanced seed technology.
In late July, the DAA announced it was in the process of acquiring the rights to two strains of rice that would be used to produce a special hybrid variety of the grain ideally suited to Brunei Darussalam’s conditions.
The new hybrid strain, developed in cooperation with Singapore-based firm SunLand Agri-Tech, will have a strong resistance to pests and disease, can be cultivated in areas with restricted access to water and have above average yields, according to the DAA’s acting director, Hjh Aidah Mohd Hanifah.
“With the acquisition of these rights, the department can plant and produce this hybrid variety without the need to pay any royalties to SunLand Agri-Tech,” Hjh Aidah told local media. “This will benefit the department in the long run since the department will not need to keep on importing and buying the seeds of the hybrid.”
Under its agreement with SunLand Agri-Tech, DAA staff will receive training in the best techniques for planting and cultivating the new rice variety and in developing more advanced hybrid strains.
The Sultanate has high hopes for its new national rice strain. Trials last year showed that some of the hybrid varieties tested gave yields of four to 14 tonnes per hectare, up to three times the average production.
Brunei Darussalam’s drive to increase its rice production is timely, with a recent report by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) predicting a sharp drop in global rice stockpiles, with the forecast 2m tonne surplus over the coming few years set to fall to just 200,000 tonnes by the end of the decade. In its report, issued in mid-July, the FAO said its projections were based on normal weather patterns and that the dwindling surplus could be further eaten into by any extreme climate conditions such as drought or flooding.
If farmers can even come close to achieving the increase in productivity that the advocates of the new hybrid rice strain believe is possible, the Sultanate will go a long way towards staving off another round of shortages and higher prices, and help boost the nation’s food security.