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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Hybrid 'super rice' sows fear with hope

Hybrid 'super rice' sows fear with hope



ED NGOY has a dream: a future of wealthy Cambodian farmers exporting bumper crops

of new hybrid rice strains and fueling a leapfrog in the country's economic development.

Feast or famine? Samples of Ted Ngoy's hybrid rice seed and rice grown from that seed

But his introduction to Cambodia of the hybrids - which are sterile, forcing farmers

to buy new seed each season - has alarmed biodiversity specialists.

"This country needs to be rebuilt from scratch; the garment industry is just

temporary and once everyone joins the WTO, Cambodia won't be able to compete,"

said Ngoy, a garment factory owner and the international investment advisor to the

Council of Ministers. "To me the only hope for this country is agriculture."

The key to Ngoy's vision of an agriculture-based transformation of Cambodian society

is a trio of Chinese-designed hybrid rice strains that Ngoy had acquired through

a deal with the Chambers of Commerce of the Chinese provinces of Yunnan, Hunan and


In special test plots that Ngoy has established around Cambodia, the Chinese seed

has reportedly produced yields of between six and 12 tons of rice per hectare, far

greater than the normal Cambodian average of 1.9 tons per hectare.

"This hybrid rice will create a new 'green revolution' in Cambodia," Ngoy

said. "Test plots are producing far more rice in much less time - eighty-five

days - compared with four-to-six months for Cambodian rice varieties."

Ngoy is so convinced of the benefits and utility of the Chinese rice seed that he

has formed an NGO: the Federation for Advanced Agriculture Development of Cambodia

(FAADC) to market it to Cambodian farmers.

In addition, he's setting up special schools in provincial capitals across Cambodia

to train monks and students to persuade farmers to switch from their usual rice seed

to the new Chinese strain.

But rather than winning acclaim, Ngoy's plans have sparked concern among agricultural

development specialists who warn that his plans are both ill-conceived and potentially


One of the main concerns of agricultural experts is the potential damage that a new,

unknown Chinese variety of rice could wreak on Cambodia's ecosystem and fragile food


Ngoy says the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA) has given FAADC official approval to

start large scale dissemination of the hybrid seed - but the MOA says no such permission

has been given.

"We don't know the origin of this rice... We need to avoid undesirable consequences

of seeds introduced from other countries," said Men Sarom, Director of the Cambodian

Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI).

"We need to know what these materials are and what their impact might be on

farmers... I don't want to be blamed for not looking after this properly."

According to Sarom, Ngoy has invited CARDI to do "observation" of their

test plots, but CARDI Plant Breeder Ouk Makara told the Post that FAADC had yet to

provide any specific information about the nature of the seeds and their origin.

Gregory Cullen, a seed industry expert with the Government's Agriculture Productivity

Improvement Project, says mandatory testing of imported rice seed varieties should

be imposed to avert potential problems.

"Every country screens for two years to see if it is what the country needs;

if people use the rice and it's the wrong variety there could be trouble," he


Precisely what kind of trouble is spelled out by a Phnom-Penh-based biodiversity


"Invasive species are one of our biggest concerns," the expert said. "When

people introduce alien species to an ecosystem, it's possible it will get out of

control and knock out native species, thereby reducing people's food security options."

Such concerns are shared by Kum Saroun, General Director of the MOA.

"It is not wise to test an imported hybrid rice strain in just one or two places

and then spread it across the whole country," he said. "We are worried

that [FAADC's hybrid] might create an outbreak of insect infestation or affect local

rice varieties."

Ngoy insists that his Chinese hybrid rice carries no risk of negative consequences

for the Cambodian environment.

"This seed isn't risky," he said. "If it was taken from somewhere

from outer space it would be risky. But China uses this same rice to feed their people,

and within two years all the seed that we distribute to farmers will be developed

within Cambodia, not China."

Another controversial aspect of Ngoy's rice venture is that the hybrid rice strains

are sterile, forcing farmers to buy seed each year from FAADC.

Ngoy says FAADC will broker low-interest loans supplied by donors to allow farmers

to afford an initial $120 for a starter's supply of seed.

Acknowledging that the initial investment is a steep one for the vast majority of

poor Cambodian farmers, Ngoy says such loans will be easily repayable through the

huge rice harvests reaped by farmers who plant the seed.

"People will get rich instantly," he said of the plan.

Critics say that requiring farmers to buy their own rice seed violates a traditional

freedom and food security system enjoyed by Cambodian farmers for millennia.

"Once farmers start using a [sterile] hybrid rice, they're locked into it and

have lost choice," the biodiversity expert said. "Traditional agriculture

is all about self-sufficiency, but once you start depending on someone to supply

your rice seed, that person or people become more and more powerful."

Nonsense, says Ngoy.

"We won't force anyone [to plant the hybrid seed], we'll just explain to them

and let the farmers decide," Ngoy said. "But in future, all Cambodian farmers

will use our seed for reasons of the income they'll make from it."

In Baty Village in Prey Veng, where farmers have agreed to start testing the hybrid

rice seed, the mood is one of concern rather than celebration.

"We are worried about our ability to pay back [FAADC] if this crop does not

produce in the quantities it's supposed to, said Sok Malis, who has turned over one

hectare of his five-hectare farm to grow the hybrid seed. "This seems really


Malis and his neighbors also have to worry about an additional $50-to-$60 of chemical

fertilizer and pesticide required for each hectare of hybrid seed.

On the majority of Cambodian farms where agricultural chemical usage is still very

limited, the impact of the inputs for FAADC's hybrid rice could be disastrous.

"Cambodia is quite lucky, in that pesticide use is still quite low compared

to neighboring countries, so farmers can supplement their diet with the fish, frogs

and other plants that live in their rice fields," the biodiversity expert said.

"Excessive chemical inputs will eliminate those other biological entities in

the rice fields."

Misako Iwasaki, Country Director for the Japan International Volunteer Center, an

NGO which has assisted Cambodian farmers on improving rice production, says the need

of hybrid rice for chemical inputs makes the FAADC plan "too dangerous in many


"Use of chemical fertilizers has been proven repeatedly in numerous countries

to deplete the soil of nutrients and eventually cause a reduction in rice yields,"

Iwasaki said. "In so many places, so many cases, the use of hybrid rice varieties

went bad."

Iwasaki warns that FAADC's desire to create a "green revolution" in Cambodia

overlooks the fact that the original 1970s "green revolution" which boosted

rice yields across Asia by using hybrid strains is now considered a colossal failure.

"When hybrid rice strains were first introduced in Bangladesh in the 1970s,

farmers got three times their normal harvest," she said. "But now after

twenty years the production of those hybrid strains are the same or lower than the

original indigenous strains, but with the same expensive and environmentally harmful

chemical inputs."

According to CARDI Agronomist Harry Nesbitt, Iwasaki's fears may be premature. The

reality of Cambodian soil and climate conditions, he says, will severely limit the

productivity and thus the popularity of FAADC's Chinese hybrid rice seed.

"Eighty-four percent of rice-growing areas in Cambodia have water [availability]

problems, droughts, poor soil and pests, while even the remaining sixteen percent

of land is still not adequately irrigated," he said.

"We accept that there's a place for hybrid rice, but right now the other problems

facing farmers are overwhelming."

In spite of such concerns, Ngoy says FAADC is determined to give farmers the choice

to boost their production and their incomes using the hybrid Chinese rice for as

long as it's commercially viable.

"I accept what [agricultural experts] say ... but let's do [FAADC's] project

on a temporary basis, for five to ten years, then come up with another plan,"

he said.

"We have a fire on our doorstep [and] we need to generate income for our poor

people or this society won't be stable."

Seed specialist Gregory Cullen, however, says the potential dangers of the FAADC

project should not be risked.

"People in high places should slow [the FAADC project] down and think of the

needs of the people."



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