Friday, April 8, 2016

Rice information system crucial to national action plan to reduce the impact of El Niño

A map from PRISM using satellite images shows all
cropland in Mindanao affected by drought attributed to El Niño.

MANILA, Philippines—Accurate, timely, and location-specific information on rice production is important in developing a national action plan to reduce the impact of El Niño and other events that can reduce rice productivity.

“The Philippines has been experiencing El Niño for the past year,” said Allan Umali, assistant secretary for administration of the Department of Agriculture (DA), on behalf of Agriculture Secretary Proceso Alcala. "But the agriculture sector is still expected to bring food to everyone's table," he said.

The El Niño–Southern Oscillation is a climate cycle in the Pacific Ocean with a global impact on weather patterns associated with droughts. The current El Niño, which started in 2015, was predicted to be  strongest since 1998 and much lower rainfall is expected until the first half of 2016 throughout Southeast Asia.  Although El Niño is predicted to wane, the United Nations expects harvests will continue to be affected not only in the Philippines but also in other parts of the world throughout the year.

Philippine policymakers have put together an action plan on helping affected farmers mitigate the impact of the recurring climatic events such as El Niño. Among the recommended strategies in the plan include growing drought-tolerant crops, adopting water-efficient techniques, performing cloud seeding, among other climate-smart technologies.

The Philippine Rice Information System (PRISM), a joint project of the DA and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), can also support strategic decision making and planning of interventions to boost rice production, targeting of productivity-enhancing technologies and programs, disaster preparedness and rapid response to emergency situations, among others.

Through remote sensing, crop modeling, cloud computing, and smartphone-based surveys, PRISM can combine data from satellite and the ground to give crucial information about rice. These include rice area, planting dates, yield estimates, areas affected by flood or drought, rice crop production situation, and extent of damages caused by pests.

“PRISM enables us to  determine the crop growth stage when a typhoon or drought strikes,” explained Dr. Alice Laborte, GIS and market research specialist at IRRI. “We can also ascertain  whether or not a particular area has been planted to rice during a specific season. And if not planted to rice, what specific problems may have contributed to this so that interventions can be made.”

Laborte reported that she and her team had  developed a proposal on early warning system for pests and diseases so that appropriate and timely interventions can be made when and where they are needed.

"For food self-sufficiency, I think PRISM will be a valuable tool because we can now pinpoint areas where development is needed,” said Dr. Calixto Protacio, executive director of the Philippine Rice Research Institute. “For example, we can see which communities have very low yields, map these out, and then target them or provide support to these communities. We have an average yield of 4.01 tons per hectare, but the others are just averaging maybe 1 ton. So it's as bad as that. So if we know where these are, then we can better target these communities and give them the support needed.”

Senator Cynthia Villar, chairperson of the Senate Committee on Agriculture and Food, has recently proposed a bill that would require local government units to allocate a portion of their budget to pay for information and communication technology applications that would enhance taking full advantage of the data provided by PRISM.

“Modern tools,  mechanization, and financial literacy could help make Philippine agriculture more productive and competitive,” Villar said.

“Around the world, innovations in agriculture are helping desperately poor communities and even water-scarce nations cope with the challenges they face," added Bruce Tolentino, deputy director general for communication and partnerships at IRRI. "These science-based innovations are helping to avoid famine, are reducing poverty, and are even promoting inclusive economic prosperity.”

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