Water waste – is Aussie rice worth the resources?

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Australia faces more prolonged droughts – so is growing resource-intensive rice in the country a waste of water? That’s the question three leading agricultural scientists debated atANU today.

The debate brought together Dr John Angus of CSIRO Canberra’s Division of Plant Industry and Dr Eric Craswell and Dr Barney Foran of the Fenner School of Environment and Society at ANU. It was moderated by Dr Michael Bourke of the University’s Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies.

The forum was the latest in the Resource Management in Asia-Pacific (RMAP) ‘Arguments’ series, that bring together leading academics to discuss issues of broad appeal aiming to generate public debate.

Dr Craswell said that governments need to show leadership, realise that the industry in Australia is unsustainable and ensure there is adequate assistance for farmers who could no longer grow rice.

“Rice requires more water than any other crop, and yields the lowest monetary return per unit of irrigation water used. The scarcity of water in Australia leads to the question: Should the production of rice be left to countries where the monsoon season is so wet that no other crop will grow? If governments showed leadership and provided assistance to the affected regional communities with restructuring and retraining, the bitter pill would not be so hard to swallow,” he said.

Dr Angus said that rice farmers are highly adaptable and that in the Riverina the crop was highly water-efficient: “Of all the annual crops that can be grown in the Riverina, rice gives the highest water efficiency. High profitability and the ability to expand or contract production in response to water supply are the strengths of rice in Australia,” he said.

Dr Bourke said that it was important to have a discussion about the viability of the Australian rice industry: “This debate is important and timely. Underlying the context of this debate is the broader situation of rapid change to the planet’s climate, economic growth, the scarcity of basic foods and increases in price and the significant consequences for the poorest and least powerful people in the world,” he said.

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Updated:  25 March 2013/ Responsible Officer:  Director, SCAPA/ Page Contact:  Director, SCAPA