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
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
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 sidelined.''
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 productivity.''
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
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