Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Hybrid rice not the answer for M'sia
Sarojeni V Rengam
May 14, 08 1:07pm
It is laudable that the government has realised the importance of domestic self-sufficiency and security in rice and plans to boost domestic rice production. However, it is with much concern that it is intending to do so with hybrid rice.

Hybrid rice is the first generation (called the F1) crop grown from the cross of two distantly- related rice varieties. It is often touted as having higher productivity than natural local rice varieties, but its limitations are often undisclosed.

For one thing, hybrid rice performs only under very specific conditions and often requires high inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides as it is more susceptible to pests and disease especially in humid, tropical conditions, and even strong winds. If FI hybrid seeds are harvested and grown for successive seasons, the second generation plants will be non-uniform and unstable in character with the output being far below the F1 generation causing significant yield losses for the farmers.

This means that farmers (or the government in our case) will have to buy expensive new (F1) hybrid seeds every growing season. Hybrid rice also gives lower grain quality than premium inbred varieties.

Many small farmers in Asia who were either lured or forced into using hybrid rice by corporations and/or governments found that their input costs (namely, seeds, fertilisers, pesticides) rose to an unprofitable degree and very often, the hybrid varieties failed to produce the promised yields.

Our heritage

In fact comparative studies on hybrids have found that hybrid rice varieties failed to consistently out-perform local inbred varieties and even performed more poorly in some instances. Farmers in different parts of Asia have more often than not been reported as unimpressed and unhappy with the results and costs of using hybrid seeds. Thus, if our government is thinking of encouraging viable small-scale farming and achieving domestic food sovereignty, hybrid seeds are certainly not the answer. Furthermore, a study in Vietnam in 1999 warned that hybrid rice posed a great logistical challenge for seed supply systems to annually renew all seed supplies.

In fact, hybrid rice seeds have paved the way for intellectual property rights on seeds and set the stage for genetically engineered seeds; both promote the corporatisation of the rice seed. Asian governments should not forget that our local rice seeds are our heritage and they should not be owned by any private body or corporation nor should farmers be denied their right to save and use their seeds.

Reports state the hybrid rice variety Mardi proposes to grow is from China. Indeed, China is the birth place of hybrid rice, but its agronomic conditions are very different from Malaysia. High input and hybrid varieties have replaced thousands of its natural local rice varieties over the years. The country is also one of the biggest users and producers of pesticides in the world.

Local environmental groups are in fact advocating the return of ecological methods of farming and local rice varieties. Moreover, China has very little fertile arable land compared to its size, which is one of the main reasons it started resorting to technical solutions such as hybrid rice. But Malaysia has no such constraints.

'Poison package'

Secondly, it is with alarm that we learn that ‘the government would soon provide farmers with incentives such as fertilisers, seedlings and pesticides…’

Hasn’t our government learnt anything? Synthetic fertilisers deplete the soil and contribute to Greenhouse Gases (GHGs) while chemical pesticides are simply poisions. PAN has 25 years of experience and tonnes of evidence to show the dangerous effects of pesticides on humans and the environment. Pesticides have been closely linked to incidences of cancers, tumours, sterility, mal-development of fetuses and a host of diseases.

In fact, this ‘poison package’ of seeds, synthetic fertilisers and chemical pesticides is the legacy of the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ largely introduced by the International Rice Research Institute in the 1960s and which has been responsible for the poisoning of millions of poor farmers and agricultural workers, as well as the soil, water and air. Even Irri has acknowledged the harm to the environment that the Green Revolution has caused.

With this ‘poison package’, the Green Revolution also introduced the concept of so-called ‘modern agriculture’ ie monocultures, irrigation, and mechanisation. Irri created what it termed ‘high yielding varieties’ and pushed these as the answer to productivity problems.

Yet these high yielding varieties required large inputs of fertilisers and water, as well as pesticides as they were more susceptible to pests and disease. Sad to say, these ‘high yielding varieties’ – better called ‘high input varieties’ – replaced thousands of traditional local rice varieties. In Malaysia, a few of these high input varieties of rice dominate the rice-growing areas and from a bio-diversity-based agricultural viewpoint, this is a disaster.

The Green Revolution has also impoverished and driven out of existence thousands of small rice farmers by pushing up input costs, which have served to benefit large agro-chemical companies selling seeds, fertilisers and pesticides. In fact, it is this corporate/Green Revolution model of agriculture that is in no small part responsible for the food crisis today in addition to neo-liberal globalisation spurred by the WTO and the Agreement of Agriculture among other things. And here we are, proposing to perpetuate the same doomed package of agriculture that got us into this mess in the first place.

Rather than exploring costly, limited, and counter-productive measures like hybrid rice, Mardi would do better to explore more sustainable solutions like enhancing inbred-based seeds systems where farmers save, breed, and exchange seeds and practice safer, ecological methods of agriculture. The last thing it should be doing is to be giving out synthetic fertilisers and poisonous chemical pesticides to poor unsuspecting farmers! By promoting the corporate package, we are merely helping make agrochemical and seed companies richer at the expense of our own farmers, people, land, and food and national sovereignty.

No use panicking

The government should take heed of the latest IAASTD (International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development) report released earlier this year that states that small-scale farmers and agro-ecological methods provide the way forward to avert the current food crisis. We go further to state that small producers should be at the helm of food production in the country. What has happened to our small rice farmers? Why have they dwindled from 296,000 in 1999 to 155,961 in 2005, a decline of 47%? The government should do its utmost to encourage small-scale ecological rice farms and empower rural farmers by ensuring their participation in technological developments and plant breeding programmes.

There are many successful models in different parts of Asia that show the economic viability and sustainability of small ecological rice farms. An ecological rice farm is much higher in total productivity in terms of grain yield, rice straw, fodder, vegetables, fruit, fish, etc. which it sustains whereas a modern monoculture farm can produce nothing but a single crop. In fact, a small ecological farm can easily support the food needs of an entire family. The government should explore successful models such as that practised by ‘Masipag’ in the Philippines.

It is no use panicking and resorting to quick ‘techno-fix’ solutions that are simply going to throw the Malaysian consumer from the frying pan to the fire. It is high time our government realised that the western concepts of ‘science’, ‘technology’ and ‘development’ are seriously limited and ‘hi-tech’ does not automatically translate to ‘hi-good’. If Mardi or the Ministry of Agriculture wishes to have input on more sustainable solutions, we would be glad to dialogue with them. Our fact sheets on Hybrid Rice, Intellectual Property Rights and Rice, Golden Rice and Genetically Engineered Rice are currently available here.

In the meantime, we earnestly urge the government to abandon solutions relating to hybrid or worse, genetically-engineered rice varieties, and the fatal package of such seeds with synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, and seek bio-diversity-based ecological solutions with small farmers as well as policy reforms to strengthen such alternatives, for the well-being of Malaysian farmers and consumers.

SAROJENI V RENGAM is executive director of the Pesticide Action Network Asia and the Pacific (PAN- AP).

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