by Biotani and GRAINLast week a war of words erupted in the pages of the Jakarta Post over the Indonesia government's controversial programme to promote hybrid rice in the country. On one side, Riza Tjahjadi of the NGO Biotani Indonesia called on the government to stop the programme, warning that it would lead farmers into debt and dependency and could unleash a suicide phenomenon akin to that which struck farmers in India when Bt cotton was introduced on a large-scale. On the other side, Babay Chalimi, President of leading hybrid rice seed company Sumber Alam Sutra, dismissed Riza's concerns, saying that their hybrid rice varieties could yield 15 tonnes per hectare and would bring the country to self-sufficiency in rice. He scolded NGOs for criticising and not providing solutions.But if anyone has something to prove, it should be the backers of the programme. Already, with the programme only at the testing stage, problems are emerging. On October 6, 2007, staff from Biotani visited farmers from the village of Dusun Karang Duwet, about 25 km south of Yogyakarta City.One of the farmers groups there, Ngupoyo Bogo, which is known for the quality of its farming, was selected to receive subsidised hybrid rice seeds as part of the government's hybrid rice programme. In July the farmers were invited to participate in a meeting led by a local extension officer who told them that the rice could attain yields of 11 tonnes per hectare and promised to provide the necessary technical support. The farmers decided to devote seven precious hectares of their lands to the hybrid varieties and were supplied with seed of Sumber Alam Sutra's Bernas Super variety.The farmers had some difficulties following the technical guidelines when it came to transplanting the seedlings. With labour shortages in the area, some of the seedlings were transplanted 20 days after sowing as opposed to the 15 days recommended by the extension officer. Many farmers also ended up transplanting three seedlings into a single hole instead of just transplanting one. Yet, by and large, the advice of the extension officer was followed, and what happened next was completely unexpected.In the last week or so of September, about 50 to 60 days after sowing, their crop was abruptly ravaged by pests and diseases. Unfortunately many farmers in the area do not have knowledge about these pests and diseases and thus were reliant on what the extension officer would have to say. Thinking it might be a virus, the extension officer, suggested they dry the field. This did nothing. Then, on October 3 they were told to spray fungicide but this didn't have any effect either except that much of the standing crop died. The farmers, in the end, felt they had no choice but to uproot the crops. Later, Biotani staff identified black bug and leafroller/leaffolder in the farmers' fields."I am very ashamed," said Hardo, one of the farmers. "Why are farmers being tested like guinea pigs?" "The extension worker cannot even give the right solution," he said with indignation. "We are like a lottery as the government tests its variety."Another farmer, Kasim, questions the quality of the hybrid rice variety. "My wife had advised me not to grow hybrid rice since the market of this rice is still not clear," he told Biotani. He also said that his wife reminded him that the seeds of hybrid rice varieties are difficult to mill, and less tasty when cooked.Transplanting too deep into soil infested with black bug and leaf-roller. Insert: "Have a look ... This is a brown plant-hopper," hybrid rice farmer, Marsudi Raharjo, Village of Dusun Karang Duwet.Both the government and the seed industry are well aware of the susceptibility of hybrid rice to diseases and pests. In the decrees authorising the 31 hybrid rice varieties approved for commercialisation in the country, all are listed as having, to various degrees, susceptibility to brown planthopper, tungro, and bacterial leaf blight.In an interview with Biotani, a representative of the state-owned company, Sang Hyang Seri, which is the local supplier for SL Agritech's notorious varieties, acknowledged the difficulties in planting Chinese hybrid rice varieties in a tropical country like Indonesia. "Without mastering technology and applying special protection, farmers may get disappointed," he said. He told Biotani that in the province of Central Jawa farmers have burnt their fields because the yields were far lower than what they were promised.In the next season, the government intends to ramp up the programme to cover around 120,000 hectares. If it does, many more fields are sure to go up in smoke.For more information, see the report "Hybrid rice in Indonesia: too ambitious!" by Biotani Indonesia [www.biotani.org].