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Home » Environment & Nature

Through the Eyes of Researcher: “Miracle Rice” Unwittingly Destroys Bali’s Coral Reefs  

by on Wednesday, 14 May 20082 Comments | 3,705 views

Coral Reef

Here is an interesting phenomena of the interconnection between the green revolutuin and coral reef preservation which is summed up in a nice article by Paul Spencer Sochaczewski.

Ida Bagus Gede Jika squats and examines emerald green rice stalks in a postcard-pretty paddy in the center of Bali. “This is ‘old’ rice,” he explains, referring to the traditional variety that pre-dates so-called ‘miracle rice’. “Doesn’t need pesticides.” Jika then points to a neighboring field of shorter rice stalks. “Those farmers are growing new rice,” he says, rubbing his fingers to indicate that big money is involved. “Uses plenty of chemicals.”

Had anyone bothered to ask him, Jika’s knowledge of traditional farming techniques could have helped stop the destruction of the oft-visited island’s coral reefs.

Today less than five percent of Bali’s reefs are healthy, according to a WWF-World Wide Fund for Nature study, down from approximately 32% healthy reefs in 1986.

One of the surprising causes of this coral reef destruction is the way the government tells farmers to grow rice, according to Ketut Sarjana Putra, a marine biologist with WWF.

The problem can be traced to the introduction of so-called miracle rice. Stephen Lansing, of the University of Arizona, and I Wayan Alit Artha Wiguna, of Bali’s state-run agricultural research center, have discovered that much of the phosphorus and potassium Balinese farmers apply as fertilizers to grow miracle rice is not needed. The volcanic soil of Bali is naturally rich in many of the nutrients essential for rice growth.

Not only is the runoff of excess nutrients a waste of money, but nutrient enrichment is harmful to the reef environment.

How does that happen?

In a healthy environment corals capture single-celled algae, which produce food for the corals. If too many nutrients enter the water, the algae grow too fast and eventually suffocate the corals. Excessive nutrients can also cause toxic algal blooms, which can kill fish and make shellfish poisonous to eat. And finally, nutrient enrichment can stimulate the outbreak of crown of thorns starfish, which eat corals.

A 1977 outbreak of these pests, directly linked to runoff of agricultural chemicals, destroyed many of the coral reefs in Bali Barat National Park.

Jika, who is responsible for managing the Balinese system of water sharing for some 3,000 hectares of paddy, says that he and his neighbors haven’t used chemical fertilizer for many years. By contrast, the Indonesian government suggests that farmers apply 100 kg of fertilizer per hectare. Studies show that although this massive input in fertilizer has little impact on the size of the crop, farmers are nevertheless pushed to buy the chemicals. “The government loans money to farmers to buy chemical fertilizers,” Jika says. “It costs around US 50 cents a kilo. But we get fertilizer for free – cow manure and compost.”

In addition to needing expensive fertilizer, miracle rice requires chemical pesticides, which can have damaging downstream effects, according to Vithal Rajan, executive chairman of Swayam Krishi Sangam, a non-governmental organisation which promotes micro-credit and environmentally-sustainable agriculture in arid regions of India.” Rajan notes “farmers growing miracle rice use a cocktail of pesticides, many of which are banned in the West, in a desperate attempt to save their crops from pest attacks to which the crop is susceptible. Natural predators, such as spiders and birds, are killed by chemicals.”

How do Jika and his friends prevent pests?

“The same way Balinese farmers got rid of pests before the agricultural experts came along,” Jika says, a mischievous smile on his round, open face. “In a natural system birds, spiders and dragonflies eat insect pests. And snakes eat the mice that attack the roots of the plant.”

“Farmer field schools” in Bangladesh have emphasised ecologically-sustainable pest control; Bangladeshi farmers who have stopped using pesticides have seen rice yields actually increase by 5% – 7%, while the costs of production have fallen as much as 80%.

Avoiding pesticides not only saves money but can save lives and increase productivity.

The pesticide-soaked fields of rice can create an immediate health hazard for subsistence farmers, Rajan notes. In Karnataka State some years ago poor rice farmers eating the crabs living in such pesticide-soaked waters “suffered from a strange new disease, which had a crippling effect on their bodies that made even teenagers look like very old people,” he says. Because the disease attacked the disenfranchised poor “no one bothered to do a lot of medical research on how the pesticide had been ingested; or how it had crippled them.”

Jules Pretty, from the University of Essex in the UK, adds another problem that results from an excess of pesticides. It was once common practice to grow fish in paddy fields, he notes, thereby providing farmers with a rich source of protein and vitamins. But Pretty noted that with the onset of the Green Revolution the chemical load in the water destroyed any chance of fish surviving.

The International Rice Research Institute, IRRI, was responsible for developing in 1966 a rice variety called IR8, dubbed miracle rice, which was a key element in the Green Revolution. “Yields increased considerably, so long as IR8 was grown with its costly associated package of artificial fertilisers, pesticides and timely irrigation,” notes Seedling, a publication of Genetic Resources Action International. “But IR8 was tasteless and highly susceptible to pests and diseases.”

IR8 was followed by a series of new varieties including IR36, the world’s most widely grown rice. “For the same yield as ten years ago, farmers now have to use as much as five times more fertiliser,” Seedling notes.

IRRI, based in Los Banos, Philippines, argues that such new rice varieties are essential because rice production must increase by 60% in the next 20 years to meet the needs of an expanding global population.

The agricultural engineers remain active.

Several years ago IRRI introduced a “super rice” that was predicted to increase rice yields by 25%-50%. A new variety called IR72 is engineered with a gene called XA21 to resist the common rice disease bacterial blight (Xanthomonas oryzae). Other breeders have genetically-engineered rice that produces beta-carotone, the precursor of vitamin A. It is hoped that this variety, dubbed “golden rice” because of its yellow colour, will reduce vitamin A deficiency, which affects some 250 million people, mainly small children and pregnant women.

These new rice varieties sometimes sound great on paper but disappoint in practice.

Pedrin Pangan, a farmer in the Philippines town of Calauan, recalls the time when IRRI introduced miracle rice. “We planted IR8 and threw away our traditional seeds,” he remembers. “We had a good first harvest, after that we harvested almost nothing.”
Tom Juntti, writing in the Environmental News Service, notes “IR8 caused the proliferation of the deadly pest brown planthopper which was the carrier of the deadly rice disease tungro. This illustrates that bioengineers can’t think of everything when developing a new ‘product.'” Juntti notes a concern shared by many conservationists: “If the traditional seed source is lost, it may not be possible to breed for corrections to this problem.”

Jika admits that ‘old’ rice has a few drawbacks. “‘New’ rice grows faster, so you can produce more rice, and is easier to thresh.”
But ‘old’ rice stores better, naturally resists pests, isn’t as sensitive to drought, is worth more when it’s sold, and tastes better. “When my wife is cooking ‘old’ rice you can smell the nice aroma from 200 meters away.”
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