Monday, 15 May 2000

The politics of hybrid rice

Food security or huge private profits?
By Gina Mission

In the town of Malaybalay, Bukidnon, a province in Northern Mindanao, a sign on the highway reads: "Dole Philippines (Rice)." Dole, the giant US transnational corporation, operates vast pineapple plantations on the island, but it has never shown any interest in rice. And neither has any other transnational operating in Mindanao. Until recently.

__"Why the sudden interest in rice breeding?" asked members of the Laguna-based Masipag, a partnership of farmers and scientists who develop their own seed varieties for nonprofit distribution to rural farmers.

__In the past, Filipino farmers generally relied on the natural ability of plants to reproduce. They saved seeds from newly harvested crops for planting in the next season. This practice prevented seed companies from making much profit not many farmers bought new seeds from them.

__The picture, however, has been slowly changing, said Masipag executive director Emmanuel Yap.

__Hybrid rice is produced by crossing two different rice varieties. The theory, Yap said, is that if you cross two varieties that are genetically distant from each other, the "offspring" will be "superior" to either parent, particularly in terms of yield. But this superior quality disappears after the first generation.

__"So it is pointless for farmers to save seeds produced from a hybrid crop," Yap explained. Thus, "this makes it very profitable (for commercial breeders) to go into the seed business, since farmers need to purchase new seeds to get the same high yield each season."

Dependence on pesticides

__The advent of hybrid varieties has created other problems for farmers. "It was the high-yielding varieties of the Green Revolution that [brought] pest and disease problems onto the farms of Asia, and pesticides soon followed," Yap said.

__The high susceptibility of hybrid rice to disease is likely to foster greater dependence on agrochemicals, he pointed out. This should explain why transnationals that dominate private hybrid rice research and development are also the world’s biggest pesticide and biotechnology companies.

__A paper, "Hybrid Rice in Asia: An Unfolding Threat," says: "Hybrid rice presents a tremendous opportunity for pesticide companies, which are reeling from market saturation in the North and anxious to expand sales in Asia. For similar reasons, it creates new markets for their proprietary genes." The paper was prepared by NGOs in Asia, including the Philippines' Masipag, Philippine Greens and the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas.

__The paper warned that hybrid rice could increase pressure for the deregulation of international trade in rice seeds, as shown by the export of hybrid rice developed by seed companies in India to Bangladesh and Burma.

__Such cross-border flows will discourage the development of national industries, the paper said. But not in the case of transnationals. "Transnational seed companies, with a presence in many countries, can achieve substantial cost savings through economies of scale by concentrating breeding in one or two countries," the paper said.

Food security

__Yap said that modern agricultural technologies, whether involving genetic engineering or hybridization, are promoted ostensibly as a means of feeding growing populations. Often, he said, warnings are aired that if these technologies are not adopted, people will starve and wars will break out over resources, especially in developing countries.

__Even the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in a slide-tape presentation, takes a similar tack in describing the organization's role in rice research and technology: "A bowl of rice…and a crucial part of life for half the world's people...and a crucial part of Asia's history and culture."

__It continues: "Today, the bowl today is full, at least for most of us. But by the year 2025, the picture may be different. By then, the earth will have to support 8.5 billion people. Almost half of these 8 billion people will depend on rice as their staple food. Keeping their rice bowls full will require the biggest production by an astounding 62 per cent over what was produced in 1995."

__But there is a way out, the IRRI said. "It's a tremendous challenge [of keeping the world's rice bowls full]...but also a tremendous opportunity. And we believe it can be done.’’

__The implication is that higher production can be achieved through hybrid rice varieties.

Not just a matter of yield

__Within this framework, supply comes off as the most pressing problem and yields turn into the singular target of agricultural development, Yap said. "But yield is an eminently political issue."

__If it were not a political issue, food security can be attained by just achieving yield targets. For instance, according to the Department of Agriculture, the Philippines needs to increase its average rice production by only 1.0 metric ton per hectare (mt/ha) to be self-sufficient. Data from IRRI show that the maximum attainable yield in the Philippines from 1991 to1993 was 6.30 mt/ha while the average yield stood at 2.05 mt/ha.

__But Yap said increasing harvests is not on the only challenge small farmers in the Philippines face. They have to produce much, much more than the suggested yields in order to have enough for their subsistence. This is because many of them do not own the land they till. Citing the case of Laguna, where nearly all farmers are tenants, he said that, on average, between 60 and 70 per cent of a farmer’s harvest is collected by the landlord as rent.

__"A farmer’s monthly earnings barely cover half of the month’s living expenses," he said. This situation, he added, has forced farmers to go into "double farming." That is, children go to work as domestic helpers while the parents get additional income from the informal economy (running small retail stores, for instance) or hire themselves out as construction workers while waiting for harvests.

__The authors of "Hybrid Rice in Asia" do not believe that the decision to pursue hybrid rice is simply a decision to increase production per se. "Fundamentally, it is a decision to try to boost the productivity of a particular group of farmers who can sustain a private seed industry," they said. "The most glaring drawback with hybrid rice is that it is simply not intended for small farmers, whose production systems need the most attention."

__Even Dr. S.S. Virmani of IRRI, in his paper "Advances in Hybrid Rice Technology in the Philippines," concedes: "This technology [hybrid rice] is not for farmers who are still struggling at the level of 2 or 3 tons [production]."

‘High tech’ equals high price

__Why is this so? Yap said small farmers struggling with low market prices and exorbitant rent cannot possibly afford to purchase the expensive hybrid seeds year after year. This problem, he added, is openly admitted by IRRI. "The cost of hybrid seed, being 10-15 times higher than that of ordinary seeds of rice, discourages poor farmers from taking advantage of hybrid technology," Virmani said. The hybrid technology is only "appropriate" for wealthy farmers on irrigated lowlands, Yap said.

__Ironically, Yap said that hybrid rice had shown only minimal impact in improving yields. "Significant increases in yield are rare, if not site-specific; there are no cost-effective methods for seed production; and studies show that hybrids require more pesticides because they are more susceptible to disease and pests," he said.

Cultural problems

__Hybrid rice may have created some cultural problems, too. The "Hybrid Rice in Asia" paper cited the experiences of communities where hybrid rice was introduced, through sales agents, government extension services, micro-credit agencies or contract farming.

__In Anibongon, Sta. Rita, Northern Samar, Barangay Captain Heracleo Cajefe established a demonstration hybrid rice field after attending training on hybrid rice seed production. Local farmers, impressed by his crop, asked for seeds and were surprised when he turned them down. His fellow villagers accused him of being greedy for breaking tradition and refusing to share rice seeds with them.

__The reason Cajefe turned down the villagers’ request was that he knew the seeds from his hybrid crop couldn’t be used for replanting, the paper explained. "There are bound to be significant social impacts, particularly where management practices have to change. Hybrid rice does away with the culture of exchanging and sharing seeds."

__Touching on yet another aspect, Yap said hybrid rice is not about feeding people. "Most people don’t even want to eat hybrid rice because it tastes bad. It only exacerbates problems of distribution and poverty by favoring wealthy farmers."

__Dr. Durga B. Chaudry of Plantek, Inc. admitted that much. Writing in "Vote of Thanks: Advances and Challenges in Hybrid Rice Technology in the Philippines," he said: "Hybrid technology, as such, addresses our concern for food security [only] very modestly."

__Yap said the real motivation for the development of hybrid rice is to "create a rice seed industry as a motor for the deeper industrialization of rice farming." To support his view, he cited the words of Romualdas G. Vildzius of Brigada Berde, an NGO funded by Shell oil company in the Philippines, also published in "Vote of Thanks." Vildzius said: "That really to us is the major incentive--to gently, slowly bring [the farmers] around to a more corporate farming viewpoint."

__For these reasons, "Hybrid Rice in Asia" concluded, equating hybrid rice with progress must be questioned.