Rice in times of crisis

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 - The Philippine Star

Super typhoon “Yolanda” that devastated the Philippines last November 8 has reportedly caused crop losses worth $110 million and inflicted damage to the agriculture sector of more than twice that figure. The preliminary estimates were culled from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report as of Tuesday, or 11 days after Yolanda (international name “Haiyan”) struck our country.

The United Nations’ food agency reported some 153,495 hectares of rice paddy, maize and other high value crops such as coconut, banana, and mango trees and vegetables have been destroyed by Haiyan. With this extent of damage, the FAO sees that the Philippines needs to increase its import rice by 20 percent next year to 1.2 million tons.

The National Food Authority (NFA) announced it would import up to 500,000 tons of rice from its neighboring countries, possibly before the end of the year to replenish stocks that continue to be depleted by the ongoing typhoon relief efforts. The FAO underscored the urgency of timely rehabilitation and provision of seeds and fertilizers to allow farmers to replant before the end of the sowing period to prevent supply shortage of damaged crops, especially rice being the staple of Filipinos.

As our country faces the massive rehabilitation effort following Typhoon Yolanda, we need to reflect at some point on what we can now do to help prevent such extreme weather events from doing so much damage. 

Indeed, Yolanda’s unprecedented strength took us all by surprise with so much devastation it has caused to our country. 

After seeing the horrendous image in the aftermath of the typhoon, it becomes clear that a massive clean-up and rebuilding will have to take place. But what about our poor farmers in these ravaged areas?

It was a great relief to hear from both the Department of Agriculture (DA) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) that most of the season’s rice crop in Leyte had already been harvested before Yolanda came. Of course, it damaged stored rice in warehouses, rice mills and other agricultural infrastructure and equipment that will hit our farmers hard.

The Filipino farmers are pretty good at helping themselves while the DA – Philippine Rice Research Institute provides them assistance, such as through the release of new rice varieties that can withstand weather extremes.

I just learned about a new rice variety around called “Submarino” palay. By its name, it describes this seed variety can actually cope with underwater conditions up to two weeks long when it would largely kill off other rice.

The Laguna-based IRRI, which developed “Submarino” rice, has promised to send “Submarino” rice seeds to farmers in Leyte, so that they can start planting and growing it. This will provide them with some degree of protection against future floods brought about by typhoons.

Surely, it’s worth discussing now how science and technology can help farmers. And finally, there is an ongoing interest in genetically modified (GM) crops in the Philippines and already farmers are growing GM corn, with a number of GM foods available in the global market. 

Earlier this month, the 7th International Rice Genetics Symposium was held in Manila showcasing the latest genetic technologies in rice aimed at helping farmers.

A few standout examples included a potential future type of rice that IRRI is hoping to develop called C4 rice. The C4 rice is still something of a dream. But IRRI has laid out the blueprint to show how it could be developed and has already identified genes that could make C4 rice a reality.

If successful, C4 rice would have vastly superior yields — up to 50% more than existing types of rice. Moreover, it can produce more with less – so with less “inputs” like nutrients and water, it would still be highly productive.

There’s no doubt such a rice would help farmers, and help them when climate challenges hit. The other rice that seems to get a lot of attention is Golden Rice. It is a new type of GM rice that produces beta-carotene, giving the rice a yellow color and also making it more nutritious, because beta-carotene is converted to vitamin A (an essential nutrient) when it is eaten.

It’s not available yet as there’s still some work to be done on it. But it is not the only healthier rice in the pipeline — rice with more zinc and iron are also in development stage. More nutritious rice available to people following disasters like Yolanda would also be helpful – any way to help people get a healthier diet is important when food is scarce.

Surely, anti-GMO groups like Greenpeace would strongly take issue against this. But what can they offer as alternative to potential food shortage in times of calamities or supply disruption in times of crisis? 

It will be recalled several local Greenpeace members were charged before a Laguna judicial court in connection with a reported attack and destruction of a government-owned trial farm planted with a pest-resistant eggplant variety Bt Talong on Feb. 17, 2011. Some foreign-looking members of Greenpeace who also allegedly took part in that raid-and-raze activity were able to elude arrest.

The accused allegedly forced their way into the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB) Institute of Plant Breeding experimental farm and pulled out the Bt eggplant causing damage estimated at about P25 million to the University. The crop variety’s field trials are being supervised by Filipino scientists from UPLB as part of their endeavors to reduce the use of chemical pesticides by Filipino farmers.

Since Bt Talong is a product of agricultural biotechnology, it appeared to have fell right into Greenpeace’s global hit list. As to why this European militant group and its local allies are blocking a crop variety that won’t depend on chemical pesticides is still a puzzle to many. In our previous columns on the subject, we said we welcome a continuing public debate on genetic engineering and its role in food security and environmental protection.
As we pick up the pieces that Yolanda left in her wake, there are reasons to be hopeful regarding the contributions science can make toward being better prepared for disasters whenever and wherever they strike. Plus the mix of emerging discoveries and technologies could help even more to reduce the impact of extreme typhoons and avert shortage of food and rice in times of crisis.

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