Reviving Rice Production

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Brunei is looking at ways to boost production of one of its staple food crops, rice, seeking to encourage a return to the traditional industry while modernising the age-old sector.

Faced with rising demand that far outstrips any increase in local production, Brunei is almost completely reliant on imports to meet its rice needs, with domestic crops meeting less than 3% of local consumption.

While last year's harvest came in at 1,084 tonnes, well up on the 895 tonnes grown in 2006, this hardly takes the edge off Brunei's appetite for the grain.

Opening the new sitting of the Legislative Council on March 4, His Majesty the Sultan and Yang Di-Pertuan said one of the key objectives of the state was to alleviate poverty, reduce unemployment and boost both economic independence and self-sufficiency.

Significantly, the Sultan singled out strengthening the agriculture sector and in particular lifting rice production as one of the ways to achieve this goal, arguing that the council should make the issue a priority.

"For instance, have our paddy plantations achieved a developed level of standards? If the answer is yes, encouragement should be given to upgrade [the sector]. If it is not, guidance is crucial," he said.

The Sultan said the national objective is to meet the needs of the population while at the same time serving to boost the economy.

"The issue is, to what extent is our nation's agriculture growing?" he asked the council.

However, Brunei faces a number of challenges in its efforts to increase rice production. One of these is the small size of the country and the limited land available and suitable for farming. Of the Sultanate's 5765 square km only 1094 ha are currently used for growing rice. With much of the country either unsuitable for high intensity farming production or reserved as forests, there is little chance for the percentage of arable land to be increased.

Still, while Brunei's rice farmers may not be able to increase the area of land under cultivation, there is hope that yields will rise.

According to Hj Normah Suriyahayati, an official with Brunei's Department of Agriculture, rice harvests will steadily increase over the next five years, with the total rise in output predicted to be 7.1% by 2012-13.

Much of this improvement in crop yield will result from upgraded drainage and irrigation systems, as well as better techniques introduced into the industry, Hj Normah told local press on February 27.

It is hoped that domestic rice production will increase to meet 10% of the local market needs, up from the present 2.9%, he said.

Another cause for concern is the increasing diversification of Brunei's economy, with younger people opting for less physically demanding and more financially rewarding work.

"The younger generation are not interested in farming and agriculture, there is not much incentive from the government to encourage paddy farming," Hj Osman Hj Omar, the chairman of the National Paddy Co-operative Limited (KPKB), reported to local press on February 20.

In the meantime, local rice growers and the KPKB are looking at ways of farming better if not bigger, planning to introduce a new variety of rice, known as bibit, that will increase yields by 30%.

"Bibit, unlike the types of paddy grown here, will harvest three times a year," said Hj Osman. "It is suitable to Brunei soil and weather and should grow just as well here as it does in Kalimantan (the Indonesian portion of the island of Borneo)," he added.

Another way forward is to concentrate on the high-end of the market, focusing on quality rice strains to increase farmers' incomes rather than seeking to boost yields dramatically, Hj Normah said.

"Rice is a highly subsidised product in Brunei. We subsidise the end product of the paddy and we want to produce local rice as a niche product," he said.

Though those subsidies and other support to the rice industry do not pose a major drain on the state budget, with the value of the 2006 harvest put at $2.7m by the Department of Agriculture, improved productivity and commercialisation of the sector is likely to cut costs. Higher crop yields would also reduce Brunei's rice imports, which totaled 32,000 tonnes for a total cost of $25m in 2006, the last year for which full figures were released by the department.

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