Killing fields: the global push for hybrid rice continues
The seed industry will do whatever it takes to stop farmers saving seeds. The only way it can make big money from seeds is to force farmers to buy from seed companies every year. With rice, one of the world’s most important crops, it is no wonder that there is a relentless push for a hybrid variety that is essentially sterile.  Suicide seeds, so to speak. Of course, the seed industry wants people to believe that there are other reasons behind the push for hybrid rice. They talk of higher yields and big profits for farmers. But if you look at the situation in the fields, none of that turns out to be true.
In 2005, GRAIN released a report  documenting the dismal performance of hybrid rice in Asia. Despite the promises of higher yields, hybrid rice was largely a fiasco in the field. The only country that was said to be reaping success from it was China, the birthplace of the hybrid rice “miracle”. Because what was happening in China seemed to be different, we decided to go there in 2006 to hear from the farmers on the ground.  Their stories confirmed our suspicions about the country’s reported successes. A wide gap existed between the yield projections made by scientists in the laboratory and farmers’ experiences in the field. Some farmers reported no increase at all in yields and, in areas where there were rises, they were modest and owed much to the liberal use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and steady irrigation. The Chinese peasants we met told us that after three decades of hybrid rice development they were as poor as ever.
In some Asian countries where farmers are still growing hybrid rice, it is often only because of government programmes that heavily subsidise it or, as in the case of China and Burma, that leave farmers no other option. Even the World Bank, a long-time supporter of hybrid rice through its funding of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), has begun to see how such programmes “distort” rice farming. In a report published earlier this year, it slammed the Philippine government’s subsidy on hybrid rice as a major waste of public resources.  Yet governments continue unperturbed with their ambitious projects to promote hybrid rice. In Asia and Africa, it is hailed as key to meeting the millennium development goal of food security. Packed within broad co-operation agreements that include oil exploration or agrofuel production, it is also seen as an important component of addressing the impending energy crisis. Developing countries are not the only ones rolling out the carpet for hybrid rice. Field trials are under way in Spain and Italy,  and in other European countries through Medrice, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s (FAO) Inter-Regional Co-operative Research Network on Rice in the Mediterranean Climate Areas.
The threat continues …
The ghost of the Green Revolution’s high yielding varieties (HYVs) might have long faded from collective memory, but the fear of famine remains for many as unsettling as a poltergeist. On IRRI’s website, there is a little counter constantly calculating the ratio between global population (always increasing) and hectarage of arable land (always decreasing). It must frighten many people. Yet at any given point, one can do a simple mathematical computation and find that there would be more than enough land on which to grow rice, if important resources like land and seeds were equitably distributed. For itself, IRRI sits on a 300-hectare campus, houses 100,000 rice cultivars, and comes up with one or two hybrid rice lines once in a while that make no impact on farmers. When will this craziness stop?
The same can be said of hybrid rice itself. The main argument for developing hybrid rice has always been that the increased demand for food, especially given the rate at which global population is increasing, will have to be met with less land, less water, less labour, and less pesticide. It is, however, precisely in these conditions that hybrid rice performs worst, as is shown by the experience of almost every country that has tried to grow it. As we’ve also learned from different country programmes, the subsidies that governments pay, out of taxpayers’ money, just to get a hybrid rice programme up and running go more or less straight into the coffers of seed and agrochemicals companies. Yet governments still want to keep the money flowing for hybrid rice …
The threat that hybrid rice is posing to farmers’ agricultural biodiversity is no longer confined to genetic erosion. Many of the companies involved in this current hybrid rice explosion are also developing GM rice, and are involved in various incidents of contamination. They are taking control of the rapidly changing seed system. This undermines farmers’ livelihoods and food sovereignty, and eats at the very core of sustainable farming.