ASIA: 'Neglect of Farming Led to Rice Crisis'

By Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Apr 25 (IPS) - The headlines screaming about a global food 
shortage have not aroused surprise in a leading non-governmental 
organisation (NGO) working with farming communities across Asia. To 
its members, warnings of hunger on a biblical scale are hardly news.

After all, the Asia-Pacific arm of the Pesticide Action Network 
(PAN), a global environmental lobby, has been raising the alarm about 
an impending rice shortage for years. Among its more recent campaigns 
was one launched to coincide with ''The International Year of Rice,'' 
which was marked globally in 2004.

But the alarm bells rung by PAN were ignored by governments in the 
region, home to nine of the world's top 10 producers of the grain. 
They are China, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Thailand, 
Burma, the Philippines and Japan. The only non-Asian in this rice 
league is Brazil.

''Governments refused to listen to our concerns. In the last five 
years we have been saying that we are in rice crisis, that food 
security and food sovereignty were being undermined,'' Clare 
Westwood, campaign coordinator for PAN's 'Save Our Rice Campaign, 
said during a telephone interview from Malaysia. ''It was only a 
matter of time before the warnings became real.''

PAN's primary concern was the push towards rice cultivation on an 
industrial scale that promoted monoculture, where a few high-yield 
rice varieties that needed large doses of chemicals were held up as 
the answer to growing demand. Marginalised, consequently, were the 
small farmers, who came from rural communities that had used local 
knowledge over centuries to generate new varieties of paddy seeds 
that blended with the local environment.

''The high-yielding seeds prompted in the monoculture style of 
farming are not as hardy as local varieties produced through the 
ecological style of farming,'' adds Westwood. ''This hybrid rice can 
only perform well under certain circumstances and they need a lot of 
fertiliser and pesticides and they are water intensive. These are 
their inherent weaknesses.''

A recent report by a regional U.N. body lends weight to PAN's view 
about the high cost Asian governments are currently paying for 
neglecting the agricultural sector, where a bulk of the poor in Asia 
and the Pacific -- some 641 million people -- live. ''The rural poor 
account for 70 percent of the poor in the Asia-Pacific region, and 
agriculture is their main livelihood,'' states a survey published by 
the Bangkok-based Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the 
Pacific (ESCAP).

''The agriculture sector has been neglected for a long time, nearly 
four decades, and the Asia-Pacific regions would have run into a food 
shortage problem and rising food prices sooner or later,'' says 
Shamika Sirimanne, chief of the socioeconomic section in the poverty 
and development division of ESCAP. ''Governments used to provide much 
more public services to the agriculture sector earlier.''

Assistance had ranged from public funds to help farmers improve their 
Yields, assistance with research and development and with marketing 
the grain. State funds had also been invested to improve roads and 
other infrastructure projects to improve the quality of life in rural 

''This shift has become marked since the 1980s,'' Sirimanne explained 
in an interview. ''Everybody began to think of economic growth in 
that decade and what could be achieved through manufacturing, 
industry and services. The idea of growth through agriculture was 

World Bank figures help to explain why these new avenues for growth 
in the region were attractive. In China, the emerging Asian economic 
powerhouse, the gross domestic production (GDP) from agriculture 
during the 1981-1985 period was 28.7 percent, while industry 
accounted for 26 percent. But during the 2001-2006 period, 
agriculture's contribution to China's GDP had dropped to 8.7 percent, 
while industry rose to 49.1 percent.

In India, during the same period, agriculture went down from 18.4 
percent of GDP to 6.2 percent, making way for industry and services. 
And in Indonesia, agriculture dropped from 18.4 percent of GDP to 
11.8 percent, also making way for industry and services.

But what did not follow as a result of this shift away from 
agriculture was a drop in the number of poor in rural areas. ''Even 
today, 60 percent of the region's labour force is in the agriculture 
sector, where a large number live in poverty,'' says Sirimanne. ''The 
Asian agriculture sector is dominated by very poor people and it is 
the duty of governments to start re-investing in them to improve 

And now, even the authors of a major international study on the 
future of global agriculture have made a strong case to resurrect the 
role of the small, neglected rural farming communities to improve 
cereal production, including rice. The final report of the U.N-backed 
International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for 
Development (IAASTD), which was authored by 400 experts from across 
the world, was approved in mid-April at a meeting of governments and 
scientists in Johannesburg.

''The report called for greater participation of small-scale farming 
and for governments to rethink their prevailing agriculture 
structures,'' Lim Li Ching, the lead author for the Asia report to 
IAASTD, told IPS. ''This is because the traditional farming methods 
in this region were environmentally sustainable.''

The IAASTD report also called into question the Green Revolution, 
because the production of high yield rice during that period ''came 
with a huge environment cost,'' she added. ''The social and 
environmental cost of the Green Revolution in the region cannot be 

The Green Revolution was masterminded by the International Rice 
Research Institute (IRRI), based in Los Banos, the Philippines. To 
ensure high yields in rice cultivation at a time when there was an 
escalating demand for the grain, IRRI introduced high-yield rice 
seeds to be grown on an industrial scale, changing dramatically the 
landscape of rice cultivation in Asia.

During the Green Revolution, from 1968-81, high-yield rice varieties 
resulted in rice output increasing by 42 percent. But now, in 
retrospect, IRRI admits that the monoculture rice production did come 
with some costs.

''We are aware of the environmental lessons learnt from the Green 
Revolution,'' Duncan Macintosh, spokesman for IRRI, said in an IPS 
interview. ''The first Green Revolution occurred when there was no 
environmental movement. Back then, there was only one purpose: 
feeding people.''

Consequently, IRRI welcomes the findings of the IAASTD. ''We have no 
disagreement with that report,'' adds Macintosh. ''We need rice 
production systems that are environmentally safe and sound.''