PHILIPPINES: Groups investigate latest hybrid rice fiasco

by GRAIN | 3 Apr 2009

In February this year, farmers in different parts of Nueva Ecija province, the country's major rice granary, reported abnormal growth in their rice crop. Early signs of flowering and eventual production of panicles with empty rice grains caused a number of farmers to panic and seek the attention of the national media. The story involves the use of SL8H, a rice hybrid produced by private seed company SL Agritech Corporation (SLAC) and distributed under the government's GMA rice programme. The farmers claimed that this was the first time that they have suffered such problems.

The Department of Agriculture, which had sent “quick response teams” to verify the incident, said the abnormal growth was a result of cold stress and strong wind, and not a problem due to the hybrid rice itself. It had offered the same explanation about five years ago, when a similar incident took place in the neighbouring province of Isabela, that time with Monsanto's Magilas hybrid rice variety.

Not content with the DA's explanations, the Resistance and Solidarity against Agrochem TNCs (RESIST) a broad coalition of Philippine-based organizations and individuals that promotes food security and social justice, organised a fact-finding mission in mid-March, that GRAIN accompanied. The groups talked with affected farmers in the towns of Sto Domingo and San Jose, who told of a different side of the story.

The sack of SL8H that farmers claim lacked basic information about the seeds

The farmers were told by local DA technicians and seed dealers that the SL8H seeds in question came from China. They refer to it as “red seed” because of a particular red colour coating that comes with its chemical treatment. Yet the seeds we examined, provided by a farmer with half a sack of seeds remaining, were not uniformly red and appeared to have been mixed with another hybrid variety. The farmers also confirmed that the sacks they bought, though still bearing the SLAC name, didn't have the customary “tag” that bears basic information, such as where and when the seeds were produced.

While national hybrid programmes in the Philippines and other countries, such as Indonesia and Vietam, emphasize self-sufficiency, local seed companies continue to import cheap hybrid rice seed from China, which is of questionable quality and is often poorly adapted to local conditions. SLAC has a long-standing partnership with Yuan Longping High-Tech Agriculture Co. Ltd., China's largest hybrid rice seed company, and there have always been questions about how much of the seeds SLAC sells in the Philippines are imported from China. Initial research done by SEARICE confirmed that SLAC indeed imported seeds from China last year. SLAC may have been mixing imported seeds from China with locally produced ones and selling them as SL8H, something that seed companies have been accused of doing with hybrid rice in other countries.

But this is not just about SLAC and the crass capitalism that goes with having practically monopolised the supply of rice hybrids in the country. The recent experience in Nueva Ecija once again underscores the problematical nature of having almost no government control on the quality of seeds that get distributed to farmers under the GMA hybrid rice commercialisation programme. Since the programme was launched, it has been limping along with this perennial poor seed quality issue. Even the government's own Commission on Audit raised this issue in their 2007 audit report, citing complaints of farmers in other rice producing areas in the country who had availed of the government-subsidized SL8H and experienced poor germination and dismal to zero yield.

Farmer in San Jose showing the panicle with empty grains

At the height of the panic in Nueva Ecija, farmers were complaining that there was no technical support from the government about how to deal with the situation, leading most of them to experiment on their own for solutions. If there was any support at all, it came late, and consisted of little more than a reminder to follow the instructions on the seed sacks. Many of the farmers we talked to said they tried increasing the amout of fertilisation beyond the usual amounts, others simply switched to a different variety. The farmers told us that there was a significant increase in the use of fertilisers to combat the problem, something which, if it persists, could have important consequences, such as an increase in acidity reducing overall soil health and increased susceptibility to pest and disease epidemics. The farmers said that hybrids were susceptible to stem borers and bacterial leaf blight, but they are lucky not to have yet been affected by outbreaks of brown plant hopper – which have hit other farms in the Philippines growing SL8H and which scientists have linked to the use of high-levels of fertilisers and the use of hybrid rice.

Although in the end some of the farmers said that their crops eventually “recovered”, the real winners here are the private seed and agrochemical companies that get to cash in – yield or no yield – from this government's so-called golden harvest programme. Although the DA keeps saying that farmers have the option to choose which hybrid varities to grow, in reality this is not happening. All of the farmers we talked to said that when it comes to the choice of seed, they are practically dependent on what is available from the local seed store or from local DA technicians, which, often are mainly SL varieties: SL8H which according to the farmers are now commonly sold as “Dinorado” (supposedly a traditional variety) and SL7H commonly sold as “Jasmine rice” (supposedly the a traditional Thai variety). So even if they want to try other hybrids (e.g. Bigante, Bioseed, Magilas, just to name a few) they still end up planting SL varieties.

Indeed in SLAC's financial report in the Securities and Exchange Commission, it listed the Department of Agriculture as its biggest market. According to SEARICE's initial research, total sales of hybrid seeds and agrochemicals sold by SLAC to DA in 2006 amounted to PhP 436,705,978 million (US$ 9.1 million) representing almost 99% of its total sales that year, and PhP 464,584,076 (US$ 9.7 million) in 2007.

SL8H seeds from China

Despite the recent fiasco with SL8H seeds, SLAC even received an ISO 9001:2001 certification from Moody's International. ISO 9001:2001 is an international standard that gives requirements for an organization’s Quality Management System. To top it all, the Philippines' Board of Investments has granted tax incentives and other perks to SLAC’s P120-million hybrid rice seed production project in Lupon, Davao Oriental. SLAC would lease farmlands under “farm management agreements” that has a lifespan of 1-3 years for seed production; to date it has reportedly secured 530 hectares of farmland while 800 hectares more are under negotiation. The company is planning to boost its seed exports to Indonesia and other countries.

We greatfully acknolwedge the following groups for research support on this piece: AGHAM, AMGL, KMP, MASIPAG, SEARICE, TFIP

Author: GRAIN
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