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Grain damage


April 2, 2000 / The Guardian

The¬†middle of a busy intersection in Manila in 40C heat could be the worst place in the world to hold a protest. Blocked by police from reaching the presidential palace, and blanketed by an evil fog of traffic fumes, a few hundred Filipinos from peasant farms and NGO movements lie in the middle of the road – a “die-in”, they say, to symbolise their struggle for land reform and food.

Inside the palace, as guests of President Estrada, the International Rice Research Institute is holding its 40th anniversary of “scientific effort combating poverty and hunger around the world”. It is the object of the protesters’ scorn.

The IRRI has some of the world’s leading rice scientists, and was the organisation that developed high-yielding crops for the “green revolution” of the 1960s and 1970s. But it is deeply unpopular these days at the grassroots. Rafael Mariano, leader of the powerful KMP peasant movement, charges the IRRI with locking rice farmers into dependency on the market. “Rice is a political crop,” he says. “He who controls the production and distribution of rice has an invaluable weapon to control the whole of Asia.”

The local NGO, Masipag Farmer-Scientist Alliance, takes the charge further, saying that the expensive chemical inputs required by the IRRI’s rice varieties have forced farmers into a cycle of debt, and over the years depleted the soil, poisoned workers and caused massive loss of on-farm diversity. They argue that the costs of these inputs actually outweigh the outputs of increased yields.

Gurdev Khush, head of IRRI’s plant breeding, genetics and biochemistry division, predicts that the current world rice output of 590m tonnes will have to increase by 50%, using less land and less water, to feed Asia’s growing population over the coming decades. He is working on developing a high-yielding “super rice” that could improve yields by 50% to meet that need through conventional breeding.

But the great debate in the Philippines these past two weeks has been over GM rice. The IRRI’s director general, Ronald Cantrell, believes that GM is the way forward, and stated that “for the [developed] countries to say ‘no’ to biotechnology is criminal”. The institute begins its first GM rice field trials in the next few months.

The previous week, the world’s leading rice biotechnologists had gathered at the IRRI Filipino HQ for a conference. It was here that Maurice Ku, of Washington State University, announced that he had developed a GM rice that could boost yields by 35% by inserting maize genes. Ku said the yields of the new GM rice approach targets the IRRI says are needed to feed the rising population in Asia over the next 20 years.

But the news had not filtered out into the paddy fields. Leopoldo Guilaran has been farming three acres of rice and corn on the Philippine island of Negros for over 20 years. When told about the new rice, he said: “We don’t need this unproven genetic engineering technology or these seeds. The average production of a rice field here is 2.2 tonnes per hectare. Increasing that up to only 3.5 tonnes per hectare would make the Philippines self-sufficient in rice.

“But what keeps the farmers poor is that they don’t have land or access to capital. A farmer’s monthly wages barely cover half a month’s living expenses.”

The IRRI agrees that land reform is vital, but says it is unlikely and, therefore, GM is the best option. But where the scientists see GM as a technological issue, the Filipino farmers see it as life or death. Millions of farmers in the Philippines are tenant farmers and, on average, they hand over 60-70% of their harvest to their landlord as rent. The landlord offers credit to the tenant to buy the required seed and chemical inputs from him and he buys the rice from the tenant.

Guilaran, speaking for other farmers at Masipag, says: “Even if the scientists invented a rice that could yield 20 tonnes per hectare, it wouldn’t make a difference to the farmer who grows it. If he doesn’t own the land it grows on, he still won’t be able to afford to feed his family.”

The Ibon Foundation, a Filipino indigenous rights group, says that, as a result of the landlords and contract growing system, many of the peasant farmers face cycles of crippling debt and poverty. Often the destitute farmers turn to armed struggles for land. There are currently 80 pockets around the country.

Emmanual Yap, leader of Masipag, fears that GM rice will create the same cycle of dependency, control and environmental depletion. He says: “A rice seed engineered to increase yields, even using increased photosynthesis efficiency, will still require more from the soil and thus require bought inputs. It’s a simple input-output equation.”

The GM companies prefer to talk about developing “high value” crops, which usually refers to rice seed that only reproduces if the farmer applies a chemical bought from the company. For rice farmers, who currently save and replant their seed, this is their worst fear about GM.

Yap says: “They [the companies] will face a big challenge by the Filipino farmers. Rice is basic food- it is their life. This will really trigger off a protest from people, because it will marginalise the small farmers even more.”