Nerica - another trap for small farmers in Africa
Nerica rice varieties, a cross between African and Asian rice, are being hailed as a “miracle crop” that can bring Africa its long-promised green revolution in rice. A powerful coalition of governments, research institutes, private seed companies and donors are leading a major effort to spread Nerica seeds to all the continent’s rice fields. They claim that Nerica can boost yields and make Africa self-sufficient in rice production. But outside the laboratories, Nerica is not living up to the hype. Since the first Nerica varieties were introduced in 1996, experience has been mixed among farmers, with reports of a wide range of problems. Perhaps the most serious concern with Nerica is that it is being promoted within a larger drive to expand agribusiness in Africa, which threatens to wipe out the real basis for African food sovereignty-- Africa’s small farmers and their local seed systems.
Rice has a long and varied history in Africa. African farmers probably domesticated this grain at the same time as Asian farmers – about 3,000 years ago. African farmers developed the species Oryza glaberrima, while Asian farmers developed Oryza sativa. Oryza sativa was introduced to Africa about 500 years ago, however, and peasants there have adapted it to their rice production systems, developing many local varieties of the Asian species and turning Africa into an important secondary source of diversity.
Although rice quickly became the most important subsistence crop in much of Asia, production in sub-Saharan Africa was for a long time limited to certain regions. Even in these regions, the geography of rice was fragmented. In West Africa, for example, although rice has long been one of the main subsistence crops in Sierra Leone, Gambia and Guinea, it has been of only secondary importance in Benin and Nigeria, and only in recent decades. In Côte d’Ivoire, rice has always been a staple food for the Bété of Gagnoa but not for Ivorians in Bonoua and Ferkéssédougou, for example.
Rice is now, however, one of the most important subsistence crops in Africa. Since colonial times, African governments have consistently promoted rice as a staple food for their increasing urban populations. Domestic rice production has risen, but not enough to keep pace with demand. Production rose at an annual rate of 3.2 per cent between 1961 and 2005 in sub-Saharan Africa, while consumption rose by 4.5 per cent. According to the Africa Rice Centre (WARDA ), sub-Saharan Africa has gone from producing more rice than it needed (112 per cent of domestic consumption) in 1961 to importing 39 per cent of its consumption in 2006.  Today annual rice imports cost almost US$2 billion.
Box 1: Nerica, hybrids and GMOs
Inter-specific crosses between Oryza sativa and Oryza glaberrima typically fail because they tend to result in sterile offspring. In order to prevent this from happening, Nerica researchers took the offspring of the first crosses and backcrossed them with their Oryza sativa parent to restore fertility and, subsequently, to build up a seed stock.
Nerica is thus considered an inter-specific hybrid, but not a hybrid of the kind that is normally referred to as “hybrid seeds”. Such hybrid seeds are produced through a complicated technique that basically involves the crossing of two highly inbred parents to produce seeds that are uniform and that deteriorate significantly after the first year. Farmers who purchase hybrid seeds have to purchase new seeds every season.
Nerica is not a GMO either, since it does not involve any genetic modification, even though techniques of biotechnology, such as embryo rescue, have been used in the process.
Farmers’ organisations have been criticising this situation for years. They point out that the structural adjustment polices imposed on African countries by the international financial institutions in the 1980s undermined state support for agriculture and removed measures to prevent the dumping of cheap imported rice. They warned that, by turning their backs on local rice production and depending on imported food aid, governments were destroying the livelihoods of local rice farmers, enriching a small number of importers and leaving their populations vulnerable to swings in world prices. The current food crisis, in which the price of rice has practically doubled since 2002, has led African governments to reassess their dependence on imported rice and other staples. Nowadays everyone, including farmers, politicians and donors, seems to agree that something must be done to change the situation.
Some say that the rice crisis in Africa can be solved by boosting local production by increasing yields. They are convinced that the problem is essentially technical rather than political. In their eyes, traditional rice farming is inefficient and suffers from a lack of infrastructure, chemical inputs and, above all, high-yielding seeds, such as those that transformed rice production in Asia during the Green Revolution in the 1960s and 1970s. If previous attempts to transform rice growing in Africa along these lines failed, for them this was not because of the model of the choice of technologies, but because of a lack of high-yielding varieties adapted to African conditions. They believe they have now found the solution in the form of New Rice for Africa – acronym Nerica.