World rice demand is expected to rise over the next 15-20 years, with hybrid grains anticipated to play a vital role in accommodating the world's possible food crisis in the future, forecast Friedrich Berschauer, chairman of the board of management of Bayer Crop Science AG.
"We expect the world's rice demand will increase by about 30% over the next 15-20 years, while plantation areas or arable lands are expected to diminish, the world's population is expanding, and demands for quality of food and clothing and energy consumption are expected to increase," said Dr Berschauer. "More importantly, climate change will cause more trouble to the agriculture sector."
World milled rice production will be 432 million tonnes in 2008-09 against demand of 429 million, compared with 427 million in 2007-08, according to US Department of Agriculture statistics.
Asia supplies up to 90% of rice production, while Thailand is the world's sixth-largest producer but the biggest exporter, shipping 60% of output abroad.
Foreseeing the world's rising rice demand, Germany-based Bayer Group has been expanding aggressively into its crop science business.
According to Dr Berschauer, Bayer aims to supply innovative high-yielding, disease-resistant rice varieties, as well as integrated solutions for the production of high-quality food, animal feeds, energy crops and natural fibres.
In 2007, Bayer spent up to 637 million, or 25% of its research and development budget, in its crop science subgroup.
In total, Bayer last year set aside 2.578 million for R&D compared with 2.279 billion in the previous year. In Asia Pacific, the R&D expenditure was 126 million.
Major areas of focus in R&D include not only conventional crop protection but also plant biotechnology. The main aim of research and development work in plant biotechnology is to improve agronomic characteristics and quality of crop plants, he said.
In Thailand, the company plans to invest 100 million baht between 2008 and 2012 on hybrid rice development. It expects hybrid rice seed under the Arize brand would be commercialised in 2011.
Bayer has already made available its Arize hybrid rice in several markets including India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam.
Bayer's rice-development centre in Suphan Buri would encourage hybrid breeding in climate conditions suitable for the needs of consumers, he said.
Currently, Charoen Pokphand Group, the country's largest agriculture company, is one of a handful of active players in hybrid rice technology.
CP Group began its hybrid rice project in the early 2000s and finished early this year. It is now able to offer commercial rice seeds in the market.
CP Group claims its hybrid rice - tested in a trial field in Uttaradit - can produce 1,520 kilogrammes per rai, compared with only 700 kg on average for other varieties in the province, while a trial field in Kamphaeng Phet yielded about 1,108 kg per rai.
Hybrid rice - a cross between two varieties - was initially developed in China in the 1970s. It is known for yields up to 20% higher than other varieties. Now hybrid rice is planted in many countries such as India and Vietnam.
Apart from the CP Group, developing hybrid rice in Thailand was carried out by the Department of Rice, then part of the Agriculture Department. The agency started developing hybrid rice in 1981 by using rice genes from China.
But the project has progressed slowly due to budget and manpower constraints.