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Issues in hybrid rice

December 23, 2012

THE Rice Exporters Association of Pakistan has in a statement claimed popularity of hybrid rice in the country because its cultivation is giving increased yield per acre that creates exportable surplus.

However, the FAO estimates that Pakistan will export about 3.4 million tonnes of rice in 2012-13, about 15 per cent less from the targeted four million tonnes.

At present, hybrid rice, the statement says, is cultivated on an area of approximately 500,000 acres in the country. It is nearly one-fifth of the total area under rice cultivation.

According to the Economic Survey 2011-12, the sown area for rice in the year was 2.571 million hectares which is 8.7 per cent more than the previous year’s 2.365 million hectares. The production of the crop in 2011-12 was estimated to be 6.16 million tonnes, 27.7 per cent more than what was produced a year ago. This surge in output was possible due to increase in the area brought under cultivation.

The REAP does not mention production figures. However, other sources say that area under hybrid rice production increased from 971 acres in 2002, when it was first introduced, to 50,428 acres in 2006. The association’s entire thrust is on higher yield per acre. Under hybrid rice farming, it argues, a farmer gets around 80 maunds per acre after sowing seeds under the genetically modified technology. In some areas, it says, growers have achieved a yield as high as 110 to 120 maunds per acre.

Globally, it says,China has increased per hectare (approximately 2.47 acres) yield of rice from 3.5 to 6.2 tonne per hactare within five to six years by promoting hybrid rice cultivation. China, the key practitioner of this technology, grows hybrid rice on 15 million hectares. (Professor Yuan Longping, whose work in the 1970s made him China's ‘father of hybrid rice’, told a seminar in Jiangsu a fortnight ago that he would attempt to push the yield of one hectare of his ‘super-hybrid’ rice to 15 tonnes by 2015, up from his current record of 13.5 tonnes, according to Xinhua.) In Pakistan the national yield per hectare of rice is still 2.387 tonnes per hectare, which is one of the lowest in the world.

The REAP statement, which advocates the case of GM agriculture, reveals that a total of 3,000 to 4,000 metric tonnes of hybrid rice seeds are imported every year. As is the case with all GM crop productions, seeds are expensive and cannot be reused.

They have to be purchased each time at the start of sowing season, unlike the practice in conventional farming under which the seeds of the previous produce are used. It means a lucrative business for foreign seed companies is on the rise as is evident from the sowing rate which is seven to eight kilogrammes per acre. Within the country as well, several companies remain engaged in sale of hybrid rice or GM seeds with claims that these would boost the production manifold. During 2011-12, 45 new seed companies were registered, making the total number of registered seed companies in the country 774, which includes four public sector and five multinational companies.

The Association names eleven districts of Sindh and three districts of Balochistan where hybrid rice is cultivated on vast tracts. Multan, Sadiqabad, Rahim Yar Khan, Dera Ghazi Khan and Bhawalpur are places in Punjab where these seeds are widely used.

It completely rejects the merit of IRRI-6, being used in the country for the last 40 years, by saying that it has now almost been ‘degenerated’. Similarly, Rice Research Institute, Kala Shah Kaku and Rice Research Institute Dokri have lost their utility after having failed to develop new technologies. It is the private sector alone, it argues, that the government should encourage to use new rice technologies in the country, especially hybrid rice. In Pakistan, mostly the seeds marketed by the Chinese companies are used by the local farmers.

Hybrids are produced by crossing two inbred, genetically fixed, varieties of a particular crop. Hybrids are special because they express what is called ‘heterosis’ or hybrid vigour. The idea is that if you cross two parents which are genetically distant from each other, the offspring will be ‘superior’, particularly in terms of yield.

However, the heterosis effect disappears after the first generation, so it is pointless for farmers to save seeds produced from a hybrid crop.

Hybrid rice has been promoted across Asia by the multinationals along with the Chinese companies as ‘a magic bullet’ that can end the problem of declining output in the world’s rice farms.

In 2000, several Asian countries switched over to this technology to meet the growing domestic demand and also UN millennium goals of halving poverty but with little success. In fact by 2005, the area devoted to GM rice started to decline because it was failing to produce the promised results and farmers were getting disillusioned and opting out of it.

In Pakistan, disillusionment was visible in 2007 when media reports said that some farmers were thinking in terms of taking the seed companies to court for playing fraud with them.

Growers in Sindh were suffering huge losses as thousands of acres of paddy crop raised from hybrid rice seed turned out to be unproductive. On February 23, 2010, the Rice Advisory Board (RAB) had asked the government to ban the presence of unapproved rice varieties in the market as they might cause harm to genuine basmati rice crop. The provincial governments were told to take stern measures to stop the cultivation of banned rice varieties.

How the hybrid rice technology has again become popular among the farmers is difficult to understand. If at all, it is the marketing strategy of seed companies to create demand for their products that the idea of popularity is being promoted. The fact remains that if farmers are not benefiting from hybrid rice, someone else must be.—Ashfak Bokhari