Treasure in a bowl of porridge
Tai Long Wan -- Tales from a vanishing village
by Keith Addison
Tai Long Wan village, Shek Pik, Lantau, Hong Kong, 1983-85

Stories by Keith Addison
Tai Long Wan
-- Tales from a vanishing village


Full story

Tea money

Full story

Back to basics

Full story

Forbidden fruit

Full story

A place where nothing happens

Full story

No sugar

Full story

Treasure in a bowl of porridge

Hong Kong and Southeast Asia
-- Journalist follows his nose
Nutrient Starved Soils Lead To Nutrient Starved People

Full story

Cecil Rajendra
A Third World Poet and His Works

Full story

Leave the farmers alone
Book review of "Indigenous Agricultural Revolution -- Ecology and Food Production in West Africa", by Paul Richards

Full story

A timeless art
Some of the finest objects ever made

Full story

Health hazards dog progress in electronics sector
The dark side of electronics -- what happens to the health of workers on the production line

Full story

Mo man tai ('No problem')
-- "Write whatever you like" -- a weekly column in Hong Kong Life magazine Oct. 1994-Jan. 1996

Swag bag
Death of a Toyota

Full story

Zebra Crossing
-- On the wrong side of South Africa's racial divide.

Kwela Jake
Sold into slavery
Finding Tom Hark
Return of the Big Voice
Brother Jake

Curriculum Vitae

Diary, June 1983: Rice seed

A development project run by friends in the Philippines reports a setback to their plans to put 20 hectares under native strains of rice, fertilised with worm castings from a large-scale annelidic composting project they've set up which recycles 20 tons of organic wastes a day into high-grade compost.

They say the native strains, developed over hundreds of years to suit local conditions and resist local pests and disease, could, if properly fertilised, equal the yields of the new "Green Revolution" high-yielding dwarf hybrid strains, with better nutritional content, and without the expensive and dangerous chemical inputs which the hybrids need to survive -- and which only the rich farmers can afford.

This hard fact, that only the rich and influential have access to the new techniques, is the main reason that the Green Revolution has usually meant greater production on the one hand, and more starvation on the other.

In the Philippines, though agricultural production had grown by 3 to 4% a year, average real daily wages in agriculture in 1974 were only a third of what they'd been in 1965.

In 1977 the government declared the Philippines to be self-sufficient in rice, and no rice was imported that year. In 1982, 200,000 tons of rice were exported.

But even the official statistics, which generally favour the official line, show a different picture: half the deaths recorded annually are of children under five; of the country's nine million children under six, less than a third have normal growth rates and more than a third are actively malnourished -- that is, suffering from serious diet deficiencies; of children from one to six, 75% are anaemic, 75% are deficient in vitamin A; more than a third of school-aged children are malnourished.

Elsewhere the picture is similar. In Mexico, home of the Green Revolution, early childhood death from malnutrition increased by 10% between 1968 and 1978. Green Revolution production increases in Bangladesh saw 15% of the rural households increasing their incomes, while the number of rural households classified as poor increased by a third, and those classed as extremely poor increased five-fold.

The number of landless labourers meanwhile increased by 225% -- not because of uncontrolled population growth, but because of the mechanization that goes with the Green Revolution, and the fact that the rich farmers, who alone could afford to mechanize (subsidies and credit are often specifically confined to large farms), needed to expand their farms to pay for their new machines, and did so by evicting their tenants.

In India's Punjab, a fairly typical case, newly mechanized farms expanded by an average of 240% in three years, at the expense of small farmers. In the first decade of the Green Revolution in India, the number of cultivators decreased by 15 million, and the number of landless agricultural labourers increased by over 20 million, while mechanization meant that the number of jobs declined. Starvation, therefore, increased.

Throughout the Third World, the burgeoning of the rural landless has far outstripped the population growth -- even though the landlessness figures do not include the very many who have been forced to leave the rural areas for the squatter towns that have formed around the main cities.

So, by increasing the yields of native varieties through improved waste recycling methods and better soil maintenance techniques, the Philippines project hopes to strengthen the hand of peasant farmers in resisting -- or surviving -- this onslaught of "development".

They're not motivated by woolly nostalgia for the quaint old ways of the past, nor by anything other than practical considerations, since it is clear that modern industrialized farming, with its reliance on energy-intensive and capital-intensive techniques, its over-specialization, its artificial division between crops and livestock, extensive land use, heavy reliance on environmentally damaging chemicals, the poor nutritional quality of its products, and its failure to maintain soil fertility, is not sustainable, neither in the Third World nor even in the industrialized nations.

What, then, is sustainable? Smaller farms, for a start. Smallholdings generally outproduce the big farms. In India, the smallest farms produce one third more than the larger farms. In Thailand, plots of two to four acres produce 60% more rice per acre than farms of 140 acres or more. In Taiwan net income per acre of farms of less than 1.25 acres is nearly double that of farms over five acres. According to the World Bank, small farms in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Guatemala are three to 14 times more productive per acre than the large farms.

This phenomenon is not confined to the Third World. A study in Britain found that the output of food per unit area of the average house-and-garden plot is greater than that of the average commercial farm -- though only 14% of the house-plot area was used for growing food.

In the US, the average net income per acre for family farms was greater than that of large farms in 12 out of the 14 years up to 1975.

More important than volume and value of production is fertility maintenance, and history shows that the farming pattern that can best achieve this is that of the small, mixed, diverse, intensive farms which peasants the world over have traditionally favoured.

The only reason such farms have not proved "viable" in the modern era is that they have been shoved onto the sidelines in favour of the big, specialized, extensive farms, which in the past have nowhere proved viable in the long term. Nor will the modern chemicals make all the difference this time -- rather, they are hastening the decline.

It seems that big, specialized, extensive farms only develop when speculative interests come into contact with food production. Their interests are short-term. Peasants, however, cannot afford to take risks, not even in the long-term -- their methods have to be sustainable.

And so they are. Nor has modern technology discovered any other way of doing it: methods can be and have been greatly improved, but not the system itself.

Real rural development, as opposed to elitist schemes like the Green Revolution, should concern itself with bringing the resources of research and technology to bear on improving the peasant systems rather than replacing them.

There are no ready-made recipes for this. It certainly involves more than a bunch of fancy new seeds and an array of poisons. The existing structures must first be studied and understood before changes are proposed. It takes time and care, but excellent results can be achieved -- just by applying modern techniques to traditional waste recycling systems, for instance.

What cannot be achieved this way, though, is corporate profits for agribusiness and chemical multinationals, rakeoffs and contracts for city politicians, and political favour bought from rural elites with easy credit and big subsidies.

Thus the native rice project in the Philippines.

But they've only managed to find two kilos of native seed in the entire province.

Presuming their two kilos has a good proportion of viable seed, they'll need to plant two successive seed crops before they'll have enough seed for 20 hectares.

It wasn't clear whether the two kilos they found was all of the same or of several varieties. They would have found hundreds of varieties there a few years ago, but now there's nothing but IR36 Green Revolution dwarf hybrids from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

This is called mono-gene domination. The old way of genetic diversity meant that an attack of disease or pest would hit one variety in a few areas, but all the other varieties would survive. Mono-gene domination means putting all your eggs in one basket, so that any pest or disease which develops an immunity to the pesticides, as they invariably do, and penetrates the plant's own built-in resistance, can wipe out an entire national crop.

It happens. The response to the introduction of the hybrids, with their heavy reliance on an artificial environment of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, was what IRRI termed "an unexpected buildup" of pests and diseases which quickly developed resistance to the pesticides.

The answer was stronger doses of pesticides, and then new, stronger, pesticides. But that's no answer -- rather the opposite, since the major effect of the tremendous modern growth in the use of toxic pesticides has been to cause pest problems.

The trouble is that the pesticides tend to kill everything, friend and foe. They kill aphids, but they also kill ladybirds, which eat lots of aphids, and the whole delicate balance between predator and prey is disrupted. Pests tend to develop resistance to pesticides quicker than their predators do, since there are usually far more prey than predators, and thus more individuals with an inheritable resistance. These survive and multiply, so that the sprays kill progressively more predators and fewer pests. As a result, to take one example, 24 of the 25 most serious crop pests in California are either insecticide-aggravated or actually insecticide-induced pests.

The red spider mite is a good example of an insecticide-induced pest. Thirty years ago it was a minor pest, but repeated use of pesticides aimed at more important pests decimated its natural enemies and competitors, and now the red spider mite is a serious pest problem worldwide.

Thus, despite elaborate chemical protection, the 1972 mono-gene hybrid rice crop in the Philippines was ravaged by an epidemic of tungro virus, carried by little insects called leafhoppers, which had become resistant to the latest poisons being used. In 1974-75, a million acres of hybrid riceland in Indonesia was devastated by viral disease. The hybrids are currently threatened by 23 pests and diseases.

One other means of protection is used: breeding new resistant strains -- resistant to pest attack, and resistant to the incredible dosages of pesticides now required. This isn't working out too well either: just as the rate at which pests develop resistance to insecticides has accelerated to meet the ever-greater doses of ever-stronger poisons, so too the new resistant varieties are succumbing and being replaced faster and faster.

According to Dr Garrison Wilkes, a specialist in plant genetics at the University of Massachusetts, it is only a matter of time before a disease mutates and attacks a new seed strain. Wilkes puts a major disadvantage of the Green Revolution into perspective. The hybrids do not "breed true": seed saved from a hybrid crop will not reliably produce a successive crop, and new seed must be bought each year.

"In their wilderness state, both plants and the diseases which attack them are forever adapting to each other through the evolutionary process," Wilkes says. "The diseases mutate new forms of attack, the plants new forms of resistance. But under modern agriculture plants no longer mutate but are grown from new seeds each year for continuous high yields. The mutation of diseases, however, cannot be stopped."

And here's the crunch: where does the genetic material for the new strains come from? From the old native strains that the hybrids have all but wiped out.

This ludicrous situation is not unique to rice. It affects virtually all human food crops.

Historically, over 3,000 species of food plants were cultivated, half of them in sufficient quantity to enter into commerce. Today 85-90% of human nutrition comes from only 15 plant species, eight of which account for three-quarters of humanity's food. Three crops -- wheat, rice and maize -- account for more than three-quarters of the total cereal consumption, and these crops are now vulnerable because of mono-gene domination, thanks to the "miracle" seeds.

Of which the US National Academy of Sciences reported: "The process repesents a paradox in social and economic development in that the product of technology [the new seeds] displaces the resource upon which the technology is based."

What happens is that the farmers changing over to the new seeds -- as well as those forced out of business by them -- tend to eat their old seed, and unique strains that have taken hundreds of years of careful selective breeding to develop vanish -- often, as one researcher said, in a single bowl of porridge.

The disastrous aspect of this is not so much that it happens, but where it happens. The world's major crop varieties are not ubiquitous. Almost all our food plants developed in eight major and three minor centres of extreme plant gene diversity ("Vavilov centres") where, because of climate and topography, life continued to flourish and diversify while the temperate zones were in the grip of the ice age. These centres represent only a fortieth of the world's land area, and all are in the Third World.

The Irish Potato Famine of the late 1840s was caused by the fact that English explorers brought back only one variety of potato from the Caribbean. Planted everywhere in northern Europe, it was only a matter of time before such a genetically uniform crop would be struck by blight. Today, despite major efforts to diversify potato varieties, Europe is still vulnerable and in need of additional genetic material.

Which is to be found in the Vavilov centre in the Andes, where there are hundreds of potato varieties. Or there were: their fate seems to be in some doubt since the International Potato Centre in Peru announced that a large proportion of the varieties collected over the previous 50 years had been lost, leaving an inadequate sample of cultivated potato species in existing potato gene banks.

The gene banks themselves are not that reliable: one of South America's largest collections of corn germ plasm was lost when the compressors for the refrigerators in which it was stored failed.

The world's storehouse for many major crops is the US National Seed Storage Laboratory at Fort Collins, Colorado. The laboratory is insufficiently funded, and stands, above-ground, between one of the country's largest munitions manufacturing plants and a nuclear reactor. The collection is not protected against blast or radiation.

The US National Academy of Sciences concludes: "After weighing all available measures of preserving endangered species [of crop plants], we are repeatedly forced to the conclusion that the only reliable method is in the natural environment." In other words, growing on farms.

So what of all the varieties of potatoes growing in the fields of the Andean peasants whose ancestors developed them? Nobody seems to know, but one wouldn't say they were any more secure than the peasants who grow them, and ubiquitous development programs like the Green Revolution have not contributed to the security of peasants anywhere.

Virtually all crops are in the same situation. The US cucumber crop depends on new material introduced from Korea, Burma and India. North American lettuces depend on material from Turkey and Israel. US beans contain disease-resistant traits from Mexico, Syria, Turkey, Chile and El Salvador. The US Department of Agriculture states that the US spinach crop has "been rescued repeatedly" from disaster by new material from India, Iran, Turkey and Manchuria. Were it not for a Turkish variety brought to the US in 1948, US wheat farmers would lose at least another US$3 million a year to stripe rust. The sorghum crop was rescued by an Ethiopian strain. North African material saved the Canadian prairie oat crop. "Barley yellow dwarf", a new disease of barley, is blocked worldwide by a single Ethiopian gene.

Thus the future of the world's food supplies depends, as it has always done, on the Vavilov centres. But evidence is mounting that the centres are rapidly being destroyed.

The uncounted varieties of wheat traditionally grown in Afghanistan have largely vanished, replaced by the genetic uniformity of dwarf hybrids. Unique wheat varieties grown in Greece -- genetic material vital to the French, Argentinian and US wheat crops -- vanished when the introduction of dwarf hybrids to the rich farmers in the valleys drove the hillside farmers out of business.

The genetic erosion of wheat in its centre in the Near East has been so rapid under the advance of the Green Revolution that Dr Erna Bennett of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Crop Ecology Unit, and other FAO scientists, anticipate the complete loss of the Near East Vavilov centre, with severe implications for world wheat crops.

Wheat is the world's foremost cereal. Rice, the second most important cereal, is in a similarly vulnerable situation. It is this erosion that the Philippines native seed project has encountered.

A similar thing has happened in Hong Kong -- not the erosion of genetic diversity by the introduction of new seeds, but the simple destruction of rice farming. Twenty years ago about 9,000 acres were under rice in Hong Kong. Now the total is said to be only 10 hectares, but there is probably less than that.

One local variety grown in Shatin was famous: at one stage the entire harvest was reserved for the imperial court in Peking. No rice is grown in Shatin Valley now. There are still a few old villages left, tucked amongst the New Town's high-rises, the sports centre and the racecourse, but they don't grow any rice.

As of now, in summer 1983, only three villages on Lantau still grow rice. Six months ago there were four, but one dropped out this year. The total area under rice in Lantau is probably not more than one hectare. There may be a few more hectares in the New Territories.

This is why we're interested in the rice the Tsui brothers grow here in Tai Long Wan, for this is not hybrid rice, and it could be an original variety -- two varieties, in fact, one for the first crop and one for the second.

I asked Tsui Kam-fook about it, but he was rather vague: "We've always had it," he said, and changed the subject.

There are also other old crops to be found here. Seventy per cent of the US sweet potato crop is planted to one variety, but the Tai Long Wan villagers plant five varieties of sweet potato. The leaves are different shapes, the skins of the tubers are different colors, and the flesh ranges from white to white with red streaks to yellow to deep orange. There are also seasonal differences, though it's difficult to work them out because they all grow all year, given water. But each has a different optimum growing season, and between them they supply consecutive harvests throughout the year.

Peanuts, taros, spring onions, gourds and some of the cabbage crops all seem to be originals, and possibly some of the fruit varieties.

The future of these varieties is by no means secure. Tsui Kam-fook is seriously ill. His wife has seeded their rice nursery, the seeds have sprouted and are almost ready for transplanting, and the paddies are ploughed and flooded. But she is not young, and will not be able to manage the crop on her own if he doesn't recover.

When trouble has hit other families here, their first response has been to give up growing rice and sell their cattle, which they mainly keep for ploughing and harrowing the paddies. This could well be the fate of Kam-fook's rice paddies next year -- or even of this year's second crop.

His brother Kam-pui will continue growing rice, but he is also not well, and rice isn't very profitable: it takes a lot of labour, yields are not good, and the price is low.

Less than half an acre of land -- seven fields out of 130 -- has been prepared for rice this year. Last year's was about the same, but next year's could be much less. Or none at all.

The sweet potatoes are no more secure. The villagers don't value the sweet potatoes: they seem to grow them from force of habit as much as anything else. Their main use has traditionally been as pigfood and for insurance in hard times: they were the mainstay against famine during the Japanese occupation of Lantau in World War 2. But there are no pigs here now, and the villagers no longer have to depend on their own produce for their survival.

It isn't only the old varieties that are threatened: the whole structure of farming here is on the point of collapse. Many of the villagers hardly bother to farm at all, and sometimes it seems those that do are only going through the motions for want of something better to do.

I once asked Kam-pui why he hadn't moved to the city when he had the chance 20 years ago, like a lot of the other villagers had done (they received a big government pay-off for land).

"Because I was bloody stupid," he said.

See also:
Seeds of the world -- Journey to Forever
Nutrient starved soils lead to nutrient starved people

Community development | Rural development
City farms | Organic gardening | Composting | Small farms | Biofuel | Solar box cookers
Trees, soil and water | Seeds of the world | Appropriate technology | Project vehicles

Home | What people are saying about us | About Handmade Projects 
Projects | Internet | Schools projects | Sitemap | Site Search | Donations | Contact us

© Copyright of all original material on this website is the property of Keith Addison, unless otherwise stated. It may not be copied or distributed without the explicit permission of the copyright holder. All material is provided "as is" without guarantees or warranty of any kind, either expressed or implied.