Juan L. Mercado

Overlooked

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Where should pork barrel scam thieves be jailed? In the bickering, did we overlook “another green revolution that is stirring the world’s paddy fields again” - a revolution prompted by new seeds crafted in Los Baños, Laguna?

 

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) developed a seed that had a genetic sequence bred into it, The Economist reports. Five million farmers worldwide now plant the flood-tolerant “Sub 1.”

Rice is the first cereal crop ever to be sequenced. Breeders found the genes for flood resistance in a variety from eastern India and transferred them worldwide. It’s now proliferating faster than new rice varieties released during the heady early days of the first green revolution in the 1960s. That transformed Asia from a hungry continent into one that could think beyond the next harvest, The Economist notes, and even projecting that a “second green revolution… should complete the first one, mainly by bringing benefits to the poorest, who missed out the first time round.”

The next seeds to be crafted are to tolerate drought, salinity and extreme heat, says IRRI director Bob Zeigler. If successful, they could “revolutionize cultivation of mankind’s most important source of calories.” But breakthroughs not guaranteed.

Rice is pivotal in Asia. More than half a billion indigents depend on rice. The Economist puts it this way: “It is rice or nothing. And if there are problems with rice, there are problems with everything” - including riots.

Thus, the Philippines racked up a 71-percent jump in rice imports. This will spur a new high for global rice trade, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s “Rice Market Monitor Report.”

The National Food Authority called for tenders for a total of 800,000 metric tons of rice to be imported, the biggest volume in a year during the Aquino administration. Over 400,000 metric tons were unloaded as part of a December tender. The Philippines accounts for the eighth largest import-volume worldwide in 2014.

The dwarf IR8 came on stream early 1960s. China then was reeling from the “Great Leap Forward’s” famine. India teetered on starvation’s edge. Famines are now nightmares of the past. In affluent Asian countries, like Japan and South Korea, rice consumption per person plateaued.

The world’s rice bowls are the deltas of Asia’s great rivers. These are subject to changing floods, rising salinity and growing heat stress. Climate change is sometimes scoffed at as just the new problem kid on the block.

Despite slumping fertility rates here, overall head counts are still rising. So is demand for rice. Africans tuck away 20 percent more rice yearly. Given current world population forecasts, total rice consumption - now under 450 million tons - will surge to 555 million tons by 2035. Rice yields are rising too - but at barely half that pace.

 

Output per hectare is stalling and, in some places, falling as pests and diseases take their toll. Yields in experimental IRRI plots slumped by 0.8 percent a year. Global warming shrivels harvests. Rising sea levels are seeping into Asian deltas. And water is scarce everywhere. Urban sprawl paves over farm lands as Metro Manila environmental experience underscores.

In Asia, farms are often less than 2-hectare slivers. They’ve shrank further over the past three decades as more farmers scram into ill-prepared cities. In contrast, technological change has enlarged farms in America and Europe. The “proliferation of efficient rental markets” that victimize small cultivators.

Importers in Indonesia and exporters like those in Thailand pay farmers above the world rice prices. Thailand’s scheme was so excessive it ran out of bahts this year. That stoked the continuing Bangkok street riots that led to the ouster of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s government.

Aside from new seeds tailored to dry, flooded or salty environments, scientists seek to boost the nutritional content of rice, not merely calories. Can these innovations be melded into earlier efforts?

The “golden rice” project tries to genetically lace additional vitamin A into the grains. Five trial plots of golden rice in Bicol, developed by scientists to help those afflicted with vitamin A deficiency, were vandalized by 400 protestors in 2013, reports BBC environment correspondent Matt McGrath. The crop was then “weeks away from being submitted for a safety evaluation.”

The golden rice project started in 1993 by researchers with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation. A cup of golden rice could provide half an adult’s recommended vitamin A daily intake, the researchers estimate. Field trials are carried out in the Philippines under the auspices of IRRI and the Philippine Rice Research Institute, the local research body.

The attackers were members of a group called Sikwal-GMO. They claimed the rice trial was both a danger to human health and biodiversity. The scientists disagree, saying: Development of the modified rice remains critical as 1.7 million Filipino children, under age five, are hobbled by vitamin A deficiency.

“Filipinos share one common item in our everyday existence: rice,” National Scientist Gelia Castillo wrote in her book on a cereal that makes or breaks presidents. “Rice In Our Life” reviewed three decades of studies into rice that was sown, between 6,000 BC and 400 AD, in different places - from Ifugao to Lucena. “Seared deep in the psyche of Filipino politicians are crises when we could not find rice, even if we had the money to buy it.”

Ayaw magsaligan ring tiyan, sa ana’t ibang taegsan, an Aklan proverb says. “Don’t count on someone else’s rice bin for what you eat.”

 

 

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