7 Oct 2013

Academic says Solomon Islands climate not sufficient for rice revival

5:58 pm on 7 October 2013

An academic from the Australian National University says the economic and climatic conditions in Solomon Islands will hamper any relaunch of the rice industry.

Businessmen and members of the public in Solomon Islands hope rice cultivation can be revitalised.

The grain was grown in Solomon Islands during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, but the country now depends on imports which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.

A senior research fellow, Dr Mike Bourke told Beverley Tse about the small potential for a revival.

MIKE BOURKE: The basic issue is, essentially, economics. It's not quite economics as we understand in the Western sense. It's not how many dollars you get per hectare or per million dollars invested. It's how many dollars you get per person day of labour. And the grain, particularly rice, it grows well enough in the Solomons. The yields aren't brilliant. You're struggling to get terribly good yields because of the equator, but it grows well enough. But the real issue is you're getting very low returns on your labour, and you just can't compete with tree crops such as cocoa or even copra or palm, or with root crops, such as sweet potato and taro and yams and other root crops. So it's not just competitive against tree crops, which get reasonably good returns for very low labour inputs. Basically, you can import rice or other grains from overseas cheaper. The only way you can have a rice industry effectively is to subsidise it.

BEVERLEY TSE: Now, you've mentioned that some farmers have grown rice before, but yielded very small crops. But the Solomon Islands has a big land mass and also the conditions seem to be good for rice growing, so why has it only produced such a small amount of rice in the past?

MIKE BOURKE: So a couple of things here. You say conditions are good for rice. Much of the rice production in the world is actually irrigated, so in Java and Bali and Thailand - they're the big producers supporting tens of millions of people - that's the irrigated rice. But the best yields of rice are grown away from the equator with irrigation. So the highest yields in the world are typically found in Australia, in New South Wales, in Taiwan or California where the days are longer, as long as you've got irrigation and reasonably fertile soils. So conditions are average. They're not brilliantly good, but they're adequate. The other reason why it's not so good in the Solomons is because it's equatorial and there's no seasonal change to speak of. The difference between summer and winter is less than 1 degree centigrade. So there's nothing to break the build-up of insect pests in particular, and that' s what happened back in the industry in the '60s and the '70s the brown leafhopper built up - that was my understanding. And there's no seasonal break. Much of the Solomons is very wet, and this is generally not appreciated. The driest part of the Solomons is actually Henderson Airfield just near Honiara. The rainfall is about 1,800mm a year, which, for example, is roughly what you get in Townsville or Sydney or Brisbane, for example. But that's the driest part of the Solomons. In much of the archipelago the rainfall is well above 3,000mm, 4,000mm or even 5,000mm, 6,000mm, 8,000mm a year in places. So with a very high rainfall, no seasonal breaks, no real dry season, for most of the archipelago you just don't have a break from the pests and diseases.