Thursday, May 1, 2008

No to FIELDS of hybrid rice

Hybrid does not necessarily mean more and better.

During this time when a global food crisis is upon us and the world’s impoverished population has to deal with food scarcity, a variety of solutions have been thrust upon us. But questions regarding the soundness of some of these solutions have to be raised.

The presidential fiat on the implementation of FIELDS has to face questions coming from civil society groups, among them, Centro Saka, concerned and alarmed over the aggressive promotion of hybrid rice. Centro Saka is a policy research and advocacy non-government organization. It is the secretariat to the National Rice Farmers Council, a loose coalition of small farmers organization nationwide formed in 2003 during the National Rice Farmers Summit.

FIELDS stands for fertilizers, irrigation and other infrastructure, extension and education, loans, dryers and post-harvest facilities and seeds.

While the multi-billion additional funding for rice and several other crops is a welcome development, Centro Saka disagrees with how the government plans to spend it. The FIELDS package shows that the government intends to increase the hectarage devoted to hybrid rice production, with an allocation of P2.7 billion until 2010.

“We find this difficult to understand given the poor performance of the hybrid rice program and the many issues that have been raised against it over the years,” said Centro Saka executive director Omi Royandoyan and National Rice Farmers Council president Jimmy Tadeo.

Cetro Saka says that as it is currently designed, the P43.7 billion package of intervention measures will merely perpetuate the misguided strategies that have turned the Philippines into the world’s biggest rice importer. In subsidizing hybrid rice, the Philippines would be subsidizing big seed companies like SL-Agrictech, including multinationals like Bayer and Monsanto, when the money could be used to support our own rice farmers. The design of the FIELDS interventions will actually make the rice program dependent on private companies with no accountability to the public.

Centro Saka says it straight: “Equally disturbing is hybrid rice's heavy reliance on chemical-based inputs to reach optimum yields. With the sky-rocketing prices of inorganic fertilizers which now stand at P1,700, hybrid rice production will only force rice farmers deeper into indebtedness, even as the big fertilizer companies reap windfalls of profit. All of this plus the damage to the environment that chemical-based farming, as shown in numerous studies, will certainly cause.”

When will we ever learn? Centro Saka asks. The present crisis is clear evidence that the old strategy of putting all eggs in one basket, i.e., dumping the lion’s share of resources into the expensive and flawed hybrid rice program was a huge mistake. In fact, Cetro Saka adds, the contribution of the hybrid rice, which has received billions of pesos in government support, pales in comparison with the over 50 percent contribution of good seeds which has been receiving practically no support from government. And yet all this talk of increasing funding for rice hybridization.

The government’s only rationale for insisting on hybrid rice is the supposed higher yield advantage when compared with traditional and other inbred varieties. But this is not really the case. In the field, farmer-selected and bred seeds have been shown to be comparative if not superior to hybrid rice which has an average yield of less than 7 metric tons per hectare.

Read this: “According to some studies, yields from good seeds and certified seeds can reach a maximum of 9 mt/ha and 10 mt/ha respectively. Using the latest rice hectarage of 4,272,000 hectares, we can assume that the country can produce as much as 38,448,000 million metric tons of palay or 29,904,000 metric tons of milled rice using only good seeds. This is even assuming a low milling recovery of only 60 percent.”

Here’s more. “Actual field experience with farmer developed varieties also show that yields of up to 7 mt/ha. are achievable using organic farming practices. This compares favorably to the less than 6 mt/ha. average yield for hybrid rice. Rice farmers who employed the system of rice intensification managed to produced yields reaching as high as 9 mt/ha. Moreover, the small rice farmers have been reporting milling recovery rates of 70 percent which is much higher than that registered by hybrid rice. What is even more notable is that the small rice farmers were able to achieve this level of production without government support. Strangely, government has not tapped the expertise of these organic rice farmers.”

So Centro Saka argues that by simply providing farmers with good quality seeds, specifically the traditional and farmer-developed varieties, promoting organic rice farming and constructing additional irrigation facilities, government could set the country on the road to self-sufficiency in food production. So it is best for government to abandon its current policy of relying on hybrid rice and importing rice as solutions to the food crisis. Instead, government should pursue the implementation of the Rice Master Plan that the small rice farmers have long been advocating.

That’s more than just food for thought.