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Planting rice and lies: IRRI’s six-decade history

Words by Julia Escueta

“Improved well-being of present and future generations of rice farmers and consumers, particularly those with low income” is said to be the International Rice Research Institute’s (IRRI) main objective; however, what are their means to achieve this ultimate goal?

IRRI is primarily situated and built in Los Baños, Laguna, not remote from the University of the Philippines’ College of Agriculture; The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations established IRRI as an autonomous, nonprofit education and research organization in 1960; the institute was built with funding from the national government.

Through rice science, IRRI rose to become the world’s leading research institution alleviating extreme poverty that thrive on rice-based agriculture food systems, likewise keeping the wellness of rice farmers and consumers in mind. Ultimately, it also aims to preserve the rice-growing ecosystem for the generations to come.

Historically, economic growth had been difficult to foresee and resurface; this is much expected for a post-World War II event which blew in the years 1939-1945. Recession, extreme poverty, and unemployment caused nationwide disturbance affecting numerous cities in Europe and Asia.  

Agriculture served as a crucial factor, economically and nationally, to aid these ever-growing crises that evidently exists until now. Though IRRI’s goals may sound ideal and pleasant, an immense goal is inherently challenged with bumps on the road, with some even clinging to uncertainties and unseen deception.

IRRI’s ascent to recognition

Throughout the first decade of IRRI’s foundation, it centered on doubling the yield capacity of irrigated rice. This was implemented by altering the morphological and physiological attributes of the rice plant. It then shifted focus and attention on lowland and deepwater rice, as well as examinations in soil analysis after executing upland works.

In its second decade, more variations of greater grain quality surfaced with IR36 receiving great acknowledgement due to its excellent resistance to nine pests and tolerance to seven unfavorable soil properties and drought, thus making it the largest grown crop variety. 

Countries with tropical climate, like the Philippines, are highly prone to unfavorable pest infections of crop production; a problem that led to the development of IR36.

IR36 was the first IRRI enhanced variety as pest and disease-resistant to multiple infestations  like bacterial blight, blast, tungro, grassy stunt, brown plant hopper, green leafhopper, stem borer, and gall midge. Its early-maturing, high-yielding properties have reduced the hazards that a farmer faces while cultivating a crop.

Consequently, IR36 rice accounted for 65% of all rice grown in the Philippines and 60% in Southern Vietnam and Indonesia. It is harvested in large quantities in India, Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and other countries.

The Quinquennial Review Mission of the International Rice Research Institute, consisting of 10 globally acknowledged authorities in 1981 reported, “The impact of IR36 alone would more than justify the investment in IRRI since its inception 21 years ago.”

Stepping up their game in its third decade, national rice research systems were strengthened, women in rice farming and integrated pest management (IPM) became more relevant, and biotechnology, strategic genetics, and germplasm improvement studies were pursued.

IRRI had then published 120 books in 34 tongues and spread them in 25 countries by the mid-1980s. They created the “Strategy Towards 2000 and Beyond,” and educated 6,000 scientists and technicians from across the country.

Marcos’ Green Revolution

Between the 1940s and the 1960s, William Gaud of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) constructed the term “Green Revolution” to describe the implementation of new technologies and measures in developing countries with support from developed nations to escalate the output and yield of agricultural crops.

Massive starvation in “underdeveloped” nations is unavoidable, and population growth would outstrip food supply, resulting in catastrophic consequences in countries like India in the 1960s.

According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 56% of the world’s population lived in countries with an average per-capita food production of 2,200 calories per day or less, hardly enough to eat.

Furthermore, derived from the United Nations’ (UN) calculation, the Philippines had an estimated population of 18 million in the 1950s, continuously ascending to an amount of 47 million in the 1980s.

The Philippines was at the peak of groundbreaking scientific research on rice in 1962, which resulted in the introduction of high-yielding varieties. The main aim of the research, which was assisted by many international organizations including the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, was to increase crop yields and minimize the unrest of peasants relative to the increasing population. 

Much to the seemingly appealing vision, the World Bank (WB), in a 1979 study of Philippine grain production system, found that total rice intake declined in the 1970s, rising at just 2.9%, even with continuous population growth; perhaps a result of Marcos’ regime where income decreased and so impoverished families could not even afford basic necessities like food. 

Consequently, there was a rice surplus, and rice prices dropped. There was a rise in deprivation after martial law was imposed in 1972. Despite the fact that rice prices have plummeted, the poor were still unable to purchase these commodities.

Another aftermath of the green revolution led to an increase in dependency on commercial seeds, pesticides, and artificial fertilizers to grow crops, a very costly option for farmers. Mike Caliuag, a farmer and former president of Alyansa ng mga Magbubukid sa Gitnang Luson (AMGL), mentioned the high-cost production with regards to their labor; one harvest season costs P10,000 per hectare.

This is undeniably immense for farmers with low-income, and reduced opportunities and privileges. According to the Philippine Statistics Authority’s (PSA) Agricultural Indicators System Report, a farmer only earned an average of P170.34 per day in 2013; whereas in 2019, the average daily wage for farmers only increased to P331.10 in a span of six years, taking into account inflation.

Escape from accountability

On a more devastating note, farmers were given less control and autonomy; to maintain their livelihood, they have to conform to work practices. The seeds that have been genetically modified are marketed by the same companies that market pesticides.

The prohibitions of [agrochemical consumption] were overlooked even though its toxicity had already been disclosed. This is due to the declaration of PD 1620 in 1970 that exonerates IRRI of any wrongdoing or malpractice committed in the Philippines for it was granted “the status, prerogatives, privileges, and immunities of an international organization.” It is to be noted that this law is still in effect.

Employees who have acquired serious illnesses while working in the institute, of which is majorly due to their exposure to hazardous pesticides, and those who seek justice by suing IRRI’s malpractices, are barred by the law’s implication that enables IRRI to escape accountability.

With the initiation of retrenchment programs, this matter remained in the shadows; Article 283 of the Labor Code governs a company’s ability to fire employees on the basis of retrenchment in order to avoid significant losses. This is used as one of the legal grounds for dismissing workers.

“I would say more than 60% have mentioned significant ill effects of pesticides that they were exposed to among which include the highly toxic pesticides like Endrin,” affirmed Dr. Romeo Quijano, president of Pesticide Action Network (PAN) Philippines, a system that aims to substitute potentially dangerous substances with eco-friendly and healthy alternatives.

Endrin is known to affect the human nervous system. Besides this, Carbaryl pesticide was also discovered to be present; it is made with the input of a chemical called Methyl isocyanate (MIC). The Bhopal Tragedy, the world’s worst industrial disaster, was caused by a leak of MIC used in the manufacture of Carbaryl. Other highly hazardous pesticides also include Methyl Bromide, and Zinc Phosphide.

This neglect of toxic substances which farmers particularly are exposed to, though unwantedly but pursued because of their reliance on income and living, bore the death of some of our farmers due to cancer, kidney failure, and liver diseases.

“Yun pong aming dalawang [magsasaka] ay namatay na rin po sa [sakit sa] kidney, ako po yata ang magiging pangatlo,” stated Raymundo Mercado, a former member of the Brotherhood of IRRI Support Services (BISSIG) who later died of kidney disease.

Other victims who suffered and perished are Juanito Malbataan who died from kidney and lung disease in 2000; Benigno Carandang died from kidney failure in 2001; Pantrasio Mercado died from kidney failure, bronchitis, and leukemia in 2002; Leoncio Mercado died of tuberculosis and kidney failure in 2005; and Serafio Malbataan passed away in 2015 from prostate cancer, tuberculosis, and kidney failure.

The truth behind Golden Rice

Developed 20 years ago as an element in the fight against vitamin A deficiency, IRRI collaborated with Syngenta to further progress the golden rice. In the Philippines and Bangladesh, commercialization of the crop began in 2013, however, it received much criticism from scientists, consumers, and farmers themselves.

“Golden rice is a fat-soluble vitamin, it means to say that any individual who benefits from this vitamin A rice must have a balanced diet including fats in order to absorb vitamin A (beta-carotene),” stated by Dr. Chito Medina, National Coordinator of Magsasaka at Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura (MASIPAG), a farmer-led platform dedicated to the long-term use and governance of ecosystems. 

Seeing fat as associated with meat, it is one of the least consumed nutrients among farmers and the marginalized who cannot afford to derive such from relatively expensive food. Hence, golden rice is fruitless in their situation.

The controversy, however, is not about the golden rice alone, but the utilization of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) and the measure of its immense capability to contaminate, mixing pesticides with non-GMOs in the overall process of crop cultivation.

“Can you imagine that these genes that go into our food systems, then our food will be producing pesticides also,” added Dr. Medina.

(Read: The unsettling issues of Golden Rice, and Grains of truth: Why the war on Golden Rice is far from over)

How exactly is IRRI “people-centered”?

In 1974, Presidential Decree no. 457 was deemed active; it authorized the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) “to acquire by negotiated sale or by expropriation of certain private properties for the expansion of agricultural research programs and appropriating the necessary funds therefor.” 

It enabled UP and IRRI to acquire land to broaden data analysis on agriculture, especially in rice and multiple cropping, and further projects aimed at increasing food security. Under this decree, IRRI took land from farmers in compensation for a small sum of money (P25,000 per hectare) and a pledge of work.

With much opposition to the preceding statement, IRRI launched a number of retrenchment programs between the years 1989 and 1997. It is notable that the first to be fired were unionists.

A “special separation program” was implemented after Filipino employees registered for a petition for certification election in 1989.

“IRRI management has terminated about 1,500 Filipino workers since 1989 not because of financial difficulties, but to get rid of labor unrest due to intense discrimination against Filipino workers and farmers.  The current retrenchment is nothing but a grand design of eliminating regular workers and replacing them with contractual and project employees,” expressed Patricio Layosa, the BISSIG acting president.

Afterwards, a “staff adjustment program” was launched in 1993, due to a series of mass complaints against severe discrimination, poor wages, and insufficient services; and a “staff restructuring program” was administered to break up the union after the workers’ effort to unite and mobilize in 1996.

“Bakit naman tatanggalin? Pangako nila sa’min ay habang kaya naming magtrabaho, ay kami ay magtatrabaho, pero wala, walang nangyari,” Serafio Malbataan, a BISSIG Board Member, expressed his reasonable confusion. (Watch: FEEDING LIES

Relative to the farmers’ work, the propagation of agrochemicals exposed them to pesticides which IRRI utilized to develop high-yielding varieties (HYVs), making the farmers victims of their health-risk experiment.

Now, let us examine its articulated five P’s: (1) people, (2) permanency, (3) productivity, (4) protection, and (5) partnership. After the statements mentioned, does their objective to “improve the well-being of present and future generations of rice farmers and consumers, particularly those with low income,” still stand?

IRRI’s acceptance as a shift in scientific research and development is contrasted by the loss of many lives. People are highly reliant on protection; the lack of safe approaches would have a negative impact on citizens, who are, after all, the primary reason for continuous development. (Read: Lessons from the Green Revolution: Do We Need New Technology to End Hunger?)

Rafael Mariano, national chairperson of the Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP), said, “We strongly demand to close down IRRI. IRRI out of peasants’ lands and agricultural activities. Pursue and promote farmer-centered rice research programs and initiatives. Fight for food sovereignty and genuine food security by pursuing independent and self-reliant policies on food and agriculture, and implement genuine agrarian reform programs.” 

The intentions of IRRI are being questioned and challenged in light of the responses of the oppressed, which have resulted in inequality, instability, and death. It poses the question: Does scientific progress and technological innovation still qualify as “advancements and development” if it jeopardizes, not just our farmers’ liberty and human rights, but also our communities in the process? [P]

Photo screen-grabbed from Feeding Lies
Design by Jun Vince Dizon

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