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Farmers produce own rice varieties

April 2, 2010

By Clarice Colting-Pulumbarit
Inquirer Southern Luzon
First Posted 00:56:00 09/17/2009

LOS BAÑOS, LAGUNA—One need not be highly educated to be successful in plant breeding, the head of a farmer-scientist network says.

All it requires are a pair of small sharp scissors, flowering rice plants, a small parcel of land, the ability to write, and a bit of training from experts of the Magsasaka’t Siyentipiko para sa Pag-unlad ng Agrikultura or Masipag.

A keen interest and enthusiasm also go a long way, says Dr. Charito Medina, director of the Masipag national secretariat based in Los Baños town in Laguna province.

In its 22 years of existence, Masipag has proven that farmers are effective rice breeders. It has taught farmers how to breed their own rice varieties driven by two reasons, Medina says.

First, they wanted to go back to using traditional varieties after planting high yielding varieties (HYVs) because these did not require heavy chemical inputs.

“During the Green Revolution, the income of farmers increased, but their expenses were much higher. So aside from wanting to improve traditional varieties, farmers had an economic reason, and that was higher income,” Medina says.

Second, breeding is empowerment of farmers. “At this time, nobody believed that farmers could do their own breeding. Researchers were supposed to produce the seeds and determine which ones should be planted by farmers.”

Masipag aims to use and develop traditional rice varieties for poor farmers without the use of chemicals. Mainly, it advocates organic, sustainable and self-reliant farming.

While most breeding methods today seek to increase yield, Medina says farmers want other qualities in rice plants.” By teaching them to breed their own varieties, we empower farmers to know scientific agriculture and empower them to develop their own farming,” he says.

Starting from two rice breeding training sessions at the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB) and Nueva Ecija, Masipag now has 65 active farmer-rice breeders in at least 47 provinces in Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao.

The first sessions were given by seven partner-scientists who were mostly UPLB agriculture graduates.

From 48 traditional rice varieties, Masipag now has 1,085, developed through participatory rice breeding and 506 bred by the farmers themselves.

Simple

Rice breeding is simple, Medina stresses, noting that even children of farmers learn how to do it in their farms or at Masipag’s trial farms. “It just has to be systematic.”

“Lack of education is not a hindrance as long as the farmers know how to write because they have to regularly record observations and results. What usually becomes a problem is poor eyesight and unsteady hands among the older farmers when removing the plant’s anther,” he says.

Among the group’s earliest rice breeders is a 76-year-old farmer who remains to be one of the most prolific, Medina says.

Farmers evaluate their breeding task based on qualities they want in rice plants such as good taste, medium height for easy harvesting, resistance to pest, good yield, date of maturity and panicle length.

Some of the traditional rice varieties they have collected and used are elon-elon, mamantika, binuhangin and malagkit.

Medina says varieties with different qualities and which adapt to various areas have also been produced. One example is the salt-tolerant M45-12.

“We encourage farmers to plant two to three varieties to maintain diversity and ward off pests,” he says.

Varieties have different tolerance levels and adaptability to diseases so that when these strike, not all plants are affected. Plants also have different maturity dates, so that if a typhoon comes, some plants may have already been harvested.

This could also be useful if a farmer has only a few workers.

Better

According to Masipag, farmers perform better than conventional breeding by research institutions.

“They are selecting rice based on artificial conditions—they apply fertilizers, pesticides that are absent in actual conditions because farmers really cannot afford to buy these expensive chemical inputs,” Medina says.

“With farmers breeding their own rice varieties from the start, the selection criteria are fit to the end-users of seeds.”

Masipag studies have shown comparable yield of its rice varieties to common varieties used by farmers. The difference lies in the expenses used for chemical inputs.

Thus, those using Masipag varieties and employing organic agriculture have higher income. Their farmers save on production cost and don’t have to buy seeds because they produce their own.

Medina says the varieties developed by the farmers become “a legacy they can leave to their family.” These are named after the farmer breeders (usually their initials).

Starting from only three, Masipag now has a network of 648 farmer-organizations. “We just share what we have, the results, technology and farmers and LGUs come. We give trainings and several varieties for free, they just need to maintain the farms,” he says.

“Breeding is a component of empowerment and a means to save the rice seed. A step where the seed is going back to the control of farmers at this time, against the threat of seed patenting,” Medina says.

Ultimately, he says, rice breeding of farmers and Masipag’s sustainable agriculture can be a means to help resolve and probably avert another rice crisis.

With its success, Masipag was invited to participate and present three papers in the 1st International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (Ifoam) Conference on Organic Animal and Plant Breeding on Aug. 25-28 in New Mexico.

(Editor’s Note: The writer’s husband Alfie works with Masipag.)

http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/inquirerheadlines/regions/view/20090917-225593/Farmers-produce-own-rice-varieties

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