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Challenges planted in the rice industry
China View
Bai Shunhua is grinning with delight when he catches a fish from the muddy water in the paddy field. The rice has just been harvested, leaving a swath of stalks in the water-logged field. The water is draining away slowly through an opening in the mud walls enclosing the terraced paddy field, in which Bai and his family are wading about bare-footed as they try to catch fish they have bred. Bai said they have caught some 50 kilograms of fish per mu (one 15th of a hectare) from the field. "We'll leave some for ourselves to eat and sell the rest in the nearby market," Bai said, standing knee deep in the mud and water and holding a circular net of fish in the scorching midday sun. Like many other farmers in the village of Dabinlang, or Big Areca, Bai's family began to try raising fish in paddy fields this year under the guidance of local agricultural experts. He said they bought fry from the market with government subsidies and then introduced them into the paddy fields in rice-growing seasons. "When the time is ripe, we harvest both rice and fish," he said. The rice-fish farming practice was applied on 50 mu (3.3 hectare) of paddy fields in Dabinlang and several other villages in the tiny southern town of Gasa in Yunnan Province in southwestern China. Local agricultural experts helped farmers, mostly of the ethnic minority of Dai, select appropriate fry and manage the fish and paddy together. For Bai and his fellow farmers, this is quite a new farming experience, but the benefit is obvious - they not only have fish to catch, but also a better harvest of rice. "The fish eat the weeds and some pests in the paddy fields while their dung fertilizes the soil, thus creating a better environment for the rice to grow," said Zi Baoyu, an expert involved in the introduction of the new farming practice. He said new methods, introduced by the local government as part of its ecological agriculture strategy, are also significantly reducing the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. "We plan to extend the practice to 170 mu (11.3 hectare) of paddy fields next year," he said. "More farmers will be willing to take it up when they see the benefit." He admitted, however, that the new approach is still on a trial basis and government subsidies have been given to cover part of the cost of fry, amounting to roughly 100 yuan (US$12) per mu. But the fish catch, averaging 50 kilograms per mu, turned out to be sufficient to cover that cost if sold at the present market price, he added. Biological approach Zi is not alone in promoting this farming method, which features less use of chemicals input, biological control of crop pests and offers a better deal for the ecological harmony in farmland. In Yunnan, which is known as one of the origins of rice, ecological agriculture is going through a period of revival after decades of chemical-based farming began to take its toll. The Bureau of Agriculture of the provincial government of Yunnan has initiated the project in which Zi is involved. Other types of farming without chemicals, such as raising ducks in paddy fields to control the pests, have also been introduced, according to Zeng Yawen, a researcher with the Yunnan Academy of Agricultural Science. Yunnan scientists have also developed a biological approach to controlling pests by planting hybrid rice and sticky rice together. This approach, which makes use of the diversity of rice varieties, has been successfully applied, not only in Yunnan but also throughout the country, on over 30 million mu (2 million hectare) of paddy fields since 1997, according to a recently Xinhua news report. The use of pesticide has shrunk by 60 per cent on average and rice output grew by 50 kilograms per mu. The research team headed by Yang Youyong was awarded a top prize on rice research by the United Nations on the eve of the World Food Day, which fell earlier this month. And this year is the United Nations' International Year of Rice. Zeng, an expert on rice breeding, said the award is symbolic as it fits well into the theme of this year - biodiversity for food security. "It is quite encouraging that more and more Chinese farmers and policy makers are beginning to realize the value of ecological agriculture in maintaining our food security," he said on a tour recently to southern Yunnan, where China's most diverse rice varieties and rice farming practices are still held dear by the many ethnic minorities. The week-long tour, called "Rice Is Life," was organized by the international environmental group Greenpeace and several non-governmental organizations involved in ecological agriculture projects. The organizers hope that the public will pay more attention to conventional rice farming practices and the thousand-year-old rice culture in Yunnan, which are now being threatened by overuse of chemicals and pesticides, according to Sze Pang Cheung, a campaign manager of Greenpeace. Threat to rice farming In mountainous Yunnan, local ethnic minorities like Hani and Dai have farmed rice in the terraced fields on the hillside for thousands of years. A rich diversity of rice varieties thrive here and local people retained the tradition of seed exchange and rice worship. Exquisite irrigation systems built by ancient Hani people have ensured the steady output from the terraced paddy fields. Manure used to be the principal fertilizer. But things have changed significantly over the past few decades. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides have been widely used as hybrid rice is being spread to these regions. And their impact has been felt by local farmers in many aspects. While rice output has increased, the soil has been contaminated by overuse of chemicals and hardened. The fertility of the land has been severely affected. "The paddy field seems to have got addicted to heroin," said Li Qibo, a researcher with the Society of Hani Culture in Honghe Hani and Yi Prefecture in Yunnan. "The more rice output you want from it, the more chemicals you have to give it." In some extreme cases, the soil has been so contaminated that the farmers have to change seed types each year for a decent yield. "Unless you completely replace the contaminated soil, you would end up with nothing to harvest," said Nan Jianhua, a farmer from Diqing Tibetan Prefecture in north-western Yunnan. There is also another risk looming. According to Sze, the Ministry of Agriculture is now mulling over applications made by several Chinese research teams to commercialize genetically modified (GM) rice varieties they have developed. Although the actual number and types are unknown, the approval may be granted next year at the earliest, he said. If this becomes reality, China may very likely become the first country in the world that allows commercialization of GM rice, which is not good news for Chinese farmers, Sze said. No country has approved the commercialization of GM rice so far. Some GM crops - including soybean, cotton, corn and tobacco - have been commercialized in some nations. Chinese researchers, in recent years, have developed several GM rice varieties resistant to China's major rice pests. The varieties include strains that can resist stem borer, by using Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), protease inhibitor rice; planthopper and bacterial leaf blight, by using the rice plant disease resistance Xa21 gene; and fungal-resistant rice. China has the largest field for GM rice trials, and the country's plantation technologies and management of GM rice is also world leading. But the vast majority of Chinese farmers have little idea of GM rice, let alone its risks, said Xue Dayuan, a researcher from the Nanjing Institute of Environmental Science. Xue has been researching biosafety and biodiversity for more than two decades. He once made a random survey of 100 farmers about their knowledge about GM crops. Not surprisingly, 99 said they had never heard of it, while the only one who said yes was told about it by a local agricultural expert. He noted that the risks of GM crops are still a debatable issue, but the potential adverse impact of GM crops on the environment and human health has been revealed by experiments internationally. Scientists have found that natural plants can be genetically altered by GM plants by gene flow or gene escape. Pollens have proved an ideal gene carrier, too. Wild rice, for instance, may have its characteristics altered if planted together with GM rice. In the long run, the diversity of rice may be damaged and it could become impossible for plant scientists to use genes of wild rice to cultivate new rice varieties. And undesirable hybridization could result in wild rice producing herbicide-resistance genes which could become new strains of "superweeds," according to Xue. Sze has likened the commercialization of GM rice to a gamble with human life and with no way back. "Unlike environmental pollution, the impact of GM rice is irreversible," he said. "If any undesirable thing takes place, however minimal it may be, its long-term impact will be enormous." China should take a more precautious attitude toward the commercialization of GM rice, he said. Uncertain future The future of China's rice should be on ecological farming that is now re-emerging in Yunnan, he added. The success stories in Gasa and the biological pest control technology of Yang Youyong seem to be supportive of Sze's confidence. Yet the change of course may be difficult and painful. China began trials on ecological agriculture in the mid-1980s, when the negative side of chemical agriculture was surfacing. The initial success of many trials has not been sustained, as technological and funding support was disrupted for many reasons. Farmers normally lack the information and market access that are essential for such types of farming, and chemical fertilizers and pesticides becomes a natural choice. "Farming, particularly ecological farming, is much more complex compared to manufacturing and requires knowledge and experience. Unfortunately, most Chinese farmers are not educated sufficiently to manage such farming practice," Zeng said. "This reality makes the spread and practice of ecological farming harder than imagined." Another important issue facing the industry is that farming rice is no longer a lucrative business in many rural areas, including Yunnan. Young men prefer to work in cities than toil in the field and rice farming has been shifted to elderly workers. "The reality is you may earn 10 times more money working in a factory than in a paddy," said Li. "We need to find a way to narrow such economic difference if we want to retain our rice culture and keep ecological farming practice viable."
MGR Archive 30.10.2004
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Russia Rapan $ 700
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