The food crisis and the hybrid rice surge
Posted: 12 May 2008
Last week the Philippines Department of Agriculture signed an agreement with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) that is supposed to boost rice productivity and achieve rice self-sufficiency in the country by 2010. A cornerstone of this programme is a $216 million project for the production and distribution of subsidised hybrid and certified seeds (which comes out of the budget of the government's larger FIELDS initiative). The target is to triple the number of hectares under hybrid rice cultivation to 900,000 hectares by the 2009-2010 season.
“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. "The package is no different from those that have turned us into the world’s biggest rice importer. By subsidizing hybrid rice, we are subsidizing big seed companies like SL-Agritech, Bayer and Monsanto, when we should be using that money to support our own rice farmers. FIELDS will actually make us dependent on private companies that are not accountable to the public," they added.
The main beneficiary of the various hybrid rice schemes that the Philippines has pursued over the past decade is SL Agritech, owned by Filipino-Chinese businessman Henry Lim (see side photo). In 2006, SL Agritech accounted for 65% of the hybrid rice seeds supplied under the country's hybrid rice programme-- earning the company over $4 million, according to some farmers' organisations. Lim argues that farmers can become millionaires by converting to hybrid rice. “Better earnings will allow rice farmers to expand their areas and also become millionaires,” he told the Manila Times.
The few studies that have been done on the experience of hybrid rice in the Philippines paint a very different picture. Official statistics from 2003 for one town in Isabela Province, northwest of the country, show that for every hectare of hybrid rice that yielded above the national average for conventional inbred varieties, currently pegged at 4.2 mt/ha, seven hectares of the same variety yielded miserably below it. More recently, in 2007, the World Bank concluded that the Philippines' hybrid rice programmes have not produced "much net social benefit," noting a farmer drop-out rate from the programme of 50 to 99 percent. The Bank said that the conventional varieties were more "socially profitable" than the hybrids.
With the current rice crisis, the stakes are now much higher for the government's rice policy. Choosing to plow forward with IRRI on a hybrid rice programme that has so far failed is a huge gamble. But it is one that other governments are also being persuaded to take.
Indonesia, for instance, says it will spend $651 million this year to provide farmers with rice seeds, including high-yielding hybrid varieties, to boost production. Last year the government launched a programme to distribute 2,000 tons of free hybrid rice seed to farmers to be planted on over 135,000 ha of prime rice land, even though local studies did not find that hybrid rice improved production and an initial pilot programme produced disastrous results for participating farmers. (CNN recently produced a video report on hybrid rice in Indonesia, here).
This renewed drive for hybrid rice is in many ways fueled by China. On the one hand, China is focusing on hybrid rice as a way to develop its own multinational seed corporations. Much of the hybrid rice seed sold in Asia is imported from Chinese companies. The Indonesian government admits that over half of its seed needs for its hybrid rice programme will be imported from China. Bangladesh and Pakistan import the majority of their hybrid rice seeds from China, as does Burma. Vietnam has invested heavily in developing a national hybrid rice seed industry, but it too imports most of its hybrid rice seeds from China.
The Chinese seed companies not only have access to the varieties developed over decades by China's public breeding programmes, but China also provides the right climatic conditions and a cheap labour force necessary for making hybrid rice seed production economical. The giant multinational seed companies, like Syngenta and Bayer, are thus ramping up their investments in the Chinese seed industry, even though, under Chinese law they are restricted to a 49% stake. In 2007, the world's fourth largest seed company, Vilmorin/Limagrain of France, took a 46.5% stake in China's largest hybrid rice seed company, Yuan Longping Hi-tech Agriculture.
But for China, the hybrid rice gambit is not just about seeds. The Chinese government is interested in expanding its overall control of rice production beyond its borders, both to secure national rice supplies and to feed its growing teams of Chinese labourers working for national companies on mining, oil and infrastructure projects around the world. Beijing is currently considering a proposal drafted by the Ministry of Agriculture that would make supporting offshore land acquisition by Chinese agribusiness a central government policy.
Burma is one country that has been a focus for the outsourcing of hybrid rice production by Chinese business, with the support of the military junta. In an August 2007 exposé of the hybrid rice programme in Northern Burma, near the Chinese border, freelance journalist Clifford McCoy describes how four consecutive years of poor harvests with Chinese hybrid rice varieties have driven many ethnic-minority farmers into heavy debt or out of rice farming. "After successive bad harvests and lacking the funds to service their debts, many farmers have been forced to sell their land, in many instances to the same Chinese business people who sold them the seeds, fertilizers and pesticides," says Clifford. "Farmers who cannot afford to pay off their debts incurred from the now higher costs of growing [hybrid] rice often end up selling their land to the same Chinese companies that sell the farming inputs. The companies then frequently turn the land into commercial rice farms."
READ THE REST: http://www.grain.org/hybridrice/?lid=202