A few years ago, hybrid rice looked like just another pipe dream. Despite the fanfare about through-the-roof yields, three decades of subsidies and research had failed miserably to bring hybrid rice into mass production outside of China. But the potential profits from the technology are huge. Hybrid rice seeds cannot be saved from the harvest, so farmers have to buy new seed every year. In this sense, hybrid rice is the key to building a corporate-controlled rice market, something that hardly exists in comparison with a crop like maize. Interest in the development of hybrid rice has thus never subsided and, in reality it has always been silently moving forward. Now, with the world in a major rice crisis, hybrid rice is being presented as the logical solution to boost national production the world over. The consequences of such a sudden and largescale shift from conventional rice to corporate-friendly hybrids would be devastating for small farmers -- and the future of world rice production. 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." Télécharger ici (WMV) Similar scenarios are playing out much further from China's borders. On April 30, 2008, France's TF1 television news reported on a Chinese effort to outsource rice production to Africa (see video above). The news report investigated a 10,000 hectare project in Cameroon, managed by a Chinese company, which, through an agreement with the Cameroonian government, is producing rice for export to China. During the 2006 Africa-China Summit, China agreed to establish 10 agricultural centres on the African continent and delegations of Chinese rice experts and businessmen have already been in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Mozambique to begin projects for the production of Chinese hybrid rice varieties. This year China's Chongqing Seed Corp announced that it had selected 300 hectares of land for production of its hybrid rice in Tanzania, beginning next year. The company says it will be contracting out production to local farmers and exporting the harvest to China. Chongqing began similar projects in Nigeria and Laos a couple years ago, but already it says it will be shelving the Laos project. "The system there doesn't have any leverage over farmers, so labour is not very efficient. But we can't send Chinese workers to plant there [Laos]," the company's deputy general manager Huang Zhonglun told Reuters. "They charge a lot for land rent, and there's no irrigation infrastructure so we have to rely on the rainy season." Other foreign hybrid rice ventures by Chinese companies include Suntime International's 5,000 hectare project in Cuba and a 1,050 hectare project in Mexico. The China Daily reports that a company from Heilongjiang has a 42,000 hectare hybrid rice project in the Far East of Russia.Some Chinese officials do question the wisdom of this outsourcing policy. "It is not realistic to grow grains overseas, particularly in Africa or South America," says Xie Guoli, deputy director of the agricultural trade promotion center at the Ministry of Agriculture. "There are so many people starving in Africa, can you ship the grains back to China?" China, however, is not alone in its outsourcing ambitions. On May 11, the Financial Times reports that the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government and other private entities have bought as much as 800,000 hectares of land in Pakistan, primarily for the production of wheat and rice to be exported to the UAE. Vietnam is beginning to look to Africa for the outsourcing of rice production too-- to make up for the 500,000 hectares in rice lands it has lost since 2001 to urbanisation and industrial development. A team of Vietnamese scientists led by Professor Vo Tong Xuan, rector of An Giang University, has been in Sierra Leone since at least 2007 to test the productivity of 50 Vietnamese varieties. Later this year, 20 Vietnamese farmers from the Mekong Delta will go to Sierra Leone to train local farmers on Vietnamese rice farming techniques. According to the website of the Government of Sierra Leone, 300,000 to 1 million hectares of land have been reserved for this "co-operation" project with Vietnam.Xuan, who is also the senior advisor to one of Vietnam's leading rice companies, Minh Cat Tan Company Ltd., says that, under the project, a stock company will be set up that will also look to replicate the model in other countries. He says that Vietnam is expected to become Sierra Leone’s main supplier of rice seeds in the future. Who supplies what seed is the big question in all the current talk about getting "quality" seed to farmers to increase production to fend off the growing food crisis. How much of this seed is going to be imported? Will they be GMOs? Traditional materials? Hybrids? The glaring difference between hybrid and conventional rice is that hybrid rice seeds are supplied almost exclusively by private seed companies. The whole logic of hybrids is none other than to make the business profitable for corporations. As if proof were needed of this, the door to a public hybrid rice seed supply was slammed shut last month when IRRI, which runs the only significant public hybrid rice breeding programme outside of China, announced the formation of its Hybrid Rice Research and Development Consortium. The Consortium will bring together private seed companies to bid on the exclusive rights to IRRI's hybrid lines. The stage is thus set for a small number of multinational seed companies to take control of the global hybrid rice seed supply, just as they have with most of the world's other major crops.With the food crisis and this renewed push for hybrid rice, the world is moving to an entirely new situation where large parts of its rice land will be planted with seeds sold by private seed companies and, in many cases, imported from zones of cheap hybrid rice seed production, notably China and India. And this shift to hybrid rice seeds is facilitating a shift to corporate farming, with companies either pursuing vertically-integrated contract production or taking direct control over land and farming, with the collusion of governments.One lesson that should be learned from this rice crisis is that dependence breeds disaster. Those countries suffering most from the current rice crisis are those that abandoned local rice production and became dependent on imports. Today, four billion people are struggling to get enough food to eat because they cannot pay the price for rice, along with other basic staples, that the global market imposes on them. Meanwhile the corporations that have inserted themselves into a position of control in the global food system are reaping record profits. With the food crisis providing a red carpet to push hybrid rice, dependency will be created at an even more fundamental level: the seed, the most basic element of food production. It is a recipe for another food crisis: not one based on access to food, but access to the means to produce food.