Capacity building: Boosting yields through science

Buffered by cycles of droughts, flooding and typhoons, the ominous threat of regional or even global food shortages has led the Philippines to map out domestic food security plans to protect its citizens from these uncertainties. While a number of different strategies are employed to achieve greater food security, such as reduced wastage, market protection measures and a diversification of food consumption, the primary tactic is an increase in domestic production of the country’s number one food staple – rice.

Key priorities for carrying out this plan include increasing the acreage available to grow the crop and improving the yield and consistency of existing rice farms. The first agenda is a relatively straightforward matter of creating enough reasons for farmers to set aside more acreage for rice cultivation, which the government has done through a variety of incentive and aid programmes. The second and more complex task of increasing the efficiency of farms is being tackled on a number of fronts, including research and education programmes.

SELECTIVE BREEDING: One of the most effective, albeit controversial and expensive, methods of increasing yields is through the usage of hybrid and genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds, which are altered to create hybrid and transgenic strains with enhanced productivity and resilience to adverse conditions. Largely shunned by European farmers as an untested science and championed by the US for its proven efficiency, GMO usage in the Philippines is still in its infancy. Although yields inevitably vary widely from country to country and year-to-year, hybrid rice crops yield an average of 16 tonnes per ha compared to 9 tonnes per ha for inbred plants in which farmers selectively save and replant higher-producing strains.

While a 78% rise in yield is undeniably impressive, researchers are striving to boost production through further genetic modification. The holy grail of rice production, dubbed C-4, aims to reengineer rice strands to develop more efficient photosynthesis, which is naturally occurring in corn. One institution specialising in this research is the non-profit International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), outside of Manila. Funded by the government and private sector, IRRI’s focuses on rice research, breeding and distribution.

GREEN REVOLUTION: “Now we are on the cusp of a new green revolution,” Bruce Tolentino, the deputy director-general for communications and partnerships at IRRI, told OBG. “We are working on how to engineer rice that can survive conditions brought on by climate change. These will be resistant to drought, submersion, salinity and heat.” According to Tolentino, the average temperature at the experimental fields of their Luzon-based headquarters and research facility has increased by 2-4 degrees Celsius over the past 40 years, which has resulted in roughly 6-8% decrease in yield.

In addition to higher temperatures, domestic farm production has been decimated in recent years by flooding and typhoons, which have wiped out entire crops and necessitated massive replanting efforts backed by the government. Yet in spite of the advantages of new rice strains that are more hardy in the face of these natural challenges, uptake of GMO products has been slow, with an adoption rate under 15% for most nations (including the Philippines), due primarily to financial constraints and farmer awareness.

EDUCATION: To address the lack of awareness of farmers regarding GMO, organic farming and other non-traditional practices, the government has embarked on a number of education programmes spearheaded by the Department of Agriculture via the Agricultural Training Institute (ATI). One programme designed to counter this trend and to educate a new generation of farmers from the ground up is a scholarship programme for agricultural schools operated by the ATI. The P100m ($2.4m) project was started in 2009 with the hope of putting students through school so that they could then apply this knowledge to start small agricultural businesses and farms of their own. Through a partnership with the Development Bank of the Philippines, graduates are entitled to financing for agriculture-related business plans.

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The Report: The Philippines 2014

Agriculture chapter from The Report: The Philippines 2014

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