“The Grass That Feeds Filipinos”
Henrylito Tacio, Edge Davao



(First of Five Parts)

     “The rice self-sufficiency target is an upwardly moving target that is always out of reach.  We are like Alice in Wonderland: We have to keep running just to stay in place.” – Dr. Gelia T. Castillo in Rice is Life



            Filipino plant pathologist Dr. Benito Vergara worked at the Laguna-based International Rice Research Rice Research Institute (IRRI) from 1961 to 1995.  He died in 2015 at the age of 81.

            Unknown to most Filipinos, Dr. Vergara contributed significantly on rice research, particularly on studies on deep water rice, flood-tolerant rice, and cold-resistant rice, varieties which are valuable to increased rice production. He also focused on the physiology of rice plant flowering, and developed rapid generation methods for rice.

            In 1975, he wrote a book entitled “Science Principles in Rice Farming” to explain not only the “why’s” but also the “how’s” of good rice-growing practices.

            Since it was written especially for extension workers, the IRRI was initially not interested with the book.  It was renowned Filipino agricultural journalist Zacarias Sarian who saw the book’s potentials and published it.  But when other countries started to ask permission to translate the book into their own language, IRRI decided to publish it in 1979 with better illustrations.

            In 1980, then President Ferdinand E. Marcos published a Tagalog version.

Today, Dr. Vergara’s “Farmer’s Primer on Growing Rice” is touted as the rice farmer’s bible, whatever his religion.  It has been translated into 42 languages, including Chinese, French and Spanish – and still counting!

            “It may be the most widely translated agricultural book in existence,” Dr. Vergara told this author.  “It never occurred to me that the book would be really that popular.”

            The book’s popularity is perhaps due to the fact that rice is the most important economic activity on this planet.  This is particularly true in Asia, where rice is grown on 250 million farms, most of which are smaller than one hectare.

            “Rice is the one thing that truly defines Asia,” said Dr. Ronald Cantrell when he was still the IRRI Director-General.  “From Pakistan to North Korea to Papua New Guinea and Indonesia, rice is the one thing shared by all.  Asia has no common political systems, no common religions, no common philosophies and no shared social values – however, each and every day most Asian join in together to eat rice.”

            Despite rising per capita income that had led to a more diversified diet in neighboring Asian countries, rice remains the staple food of Filipinos. Studies have shown that for every peso spent on food, 20 centavos go to rice.

            “If we did not have rice, our deepest comfort food, we would probably feel less Filipino,” the late food columnist Doreen Fernandez once said.

            From 1980s to 1990s, a Filipino consumed an average of 92 kilograms. The consumption went up to 111 kilograms from 2008 to 2009. From 2009 to 2010, it even increased to 119 kilograms.

            Today, Filipinos consume about 31,450 metric tons of rice per day, according to Secretary Emmanuel F. Piñol of the Department of Agriculture.

            Philippine history is lacking if rice is not included in its annals.  “The history of rice cultivation in the country dates back at least 3,000 years,” wrote Dr. Gelia T. Castillo, an academician and national scientist. “The building of rice terraces came a bit later.”

            It was in 1576 that an account of rice cultivation was recorded. By 1668, someone wrote that “rice usually does not last longer than the time it takes to harvest, since the rest they pay in tribute or sell to get the cash to pay the tribute.”

            Recently, the Grains Retailers’ Confederation of the Philippines, Inc. urged the government to approve the proposal of the National Food Authority to import 250,000 metric tons of rice to boost its buffer stock.  At that time, the NFA had only a total inventory of 1.2 million 50-kilogram bags, equivalent to two days of the country’s total rice consumption.

            This situation seems to be a frequent event.  “The story of rice in the Philippines is indeed a history of recurring shortages,” Castillo wrote.  “To illustrate this dramatically, a news item dated March 10, 1872 had the caption ‘Rice Shortage Feared.’  On about the same date, but a century later, March 11, 1972, the headline of a news item was ‘Government Certified Rice Shortage’ and a total importation of 500,000 metric tons from Thailand was contracted.”

            Rice self-sufficiency, so goes a saying, is national security.  Once it is achieved, it is a matter of celebration, but when it is on the contrary, it is a matter of shame and blame.  “Rice self-sufficiency has positive political value, just as a rice shortage, with delayed importation and an increase in rice prices, can bring political misfortune,” Castillo noted.

            This happened in 199’s rice  crisis.  The principal cause was: “the failure of government to anticipate a shortfall in domestic production and to plan imports to make up for the shortfall.”

            As a result of the rice crisis, the secretary of the Department of Agriculture was sacked.  “Because of the high political cost, no politician wants to get caught with a rice shortage; increased rice price; or, worst of all, queues of urban consumers waiting to buy cheap rice, especially on a rainy day,” Castillo wrote.

            Rice is not originally from the Philippines, although it is the staple food of Filipinos. Until now, it is being debated where rice originally comes from. D.H. Grist, in his book Rice, pointed this out: “We do not know the country of origin of rice, but the weight of evidence points out to the conclusion that the center of origin of rice is southeast Asia, particularly India and Indo-China, where the richest diversity of cultivated forms has been recorded.”

            Cultivation of rice, however, dates to the earliest age of man. “Carbonized paddy grains and husks, estimated to date 1000 to 800 B.C. have been found in excavations at Hastinapur in Uttar Pradesh, India. Specimens of rice have been discovered in China dating from the third millennium B.C. and the Chinese term for rice appears in inscription dating from the second millennium B.C.”

            Perhaps not too many know that there are four major kinds of rice culture: rainfed paddy, upland rice, deep-water rice and irrigated lowland rice. Rainfed paddy, most common in South and Southeast Asia, depends on monsoonal rains to soften the fields for plowing.

            Upland rice is dependent on rainfall. Because the land is not diked, there is no standing water and weeds and pests are a problem, particularly weeds since standing water discourages weeds.

            Deep-water rice culture (or floating rice) is practiced primarily in the heavy monsoonal areas of east Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam. Irrigated lowland planting is the method used in China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan.

            In the Philippines, much of the country’s irrigated rice is grown on the central plain of Luzon, the country’s rice bowl.  Other major rice-producing regions are located in Mindanao (23%), Central Luzon (16%), Western Visayas (13%), Southern Tagalog (10%) and Ilocos (9%).

            The rest of rice comes mainly from various coastal lowland areas and gently rolling erosional plains, such as in Mindanao and Iloilo.

            Rainfed rice is found in the Cagayan Valley, in Iloilo province, and on the coastal plains of Visayas and Ilocos region.  Upland rice is grown in both permanent and shifting cultivation systems scattered throughout the archipelago on rolling to steep lands.

            “Rice is the staple food of Filipinos in most parts of the country, although corn also contributes 20% or more of caloric intake from cereals in parts of Visayas and Mindanao,” said “Rice Almanac: Source Book for the Most Important Economic Activity on Earth.” “For the country as a whole, rice accounts for 41% of total caloric intake and 31% of total protein intake.”

            Although rice (known in the science world as “Oryza sativa”) is basically a complex carbohydrate, its protein contains all eight of the essential amino acids and complements the amino acids found in many other foods. It is low in sodium, fat, and fiber, it is easily digested.

            Most of the rice available in the market is enriched, which means, besides its other assets, it is also supplemented with iron, niacin, and thiamine. But most of these added nutrients are lost if rice is washed before cooking or drained afterward. (To be continued)



(Second of Five Parts)

            Back in the 1950s, Asia faced an impending food crisis as population continues to grow.  Something must be done so two American charities, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, founded the IRRI.  They reckoned promising developments in the science of plant breeding might just be the trick that would avert the looming disaster.  A team of rice scientists patiently cross-breeding the 10,000 different varieties they had collected through the years.

            After years of research, a high-yielding strain of rice was developed and tested.  The results were amazing. From 88 kilograms of pure seeds sown, 71 tons were harvested. The following year, IRRI distributed they newly-discovered variety to Filipino farmers for free.  The same thing happened.  Impressed by the harvest, the news of “miracle rice” spread and IRRI officially released the variety on November 29, 1966 giving it a name IR8.

            It also paved way to what experts called as an era of Green Revolution.  In an article, Margaret Cunningham recalled that time: “The Green Revolution was a period when the productivity of global agriculture increased drastically as a result of new advances. During this time period, new chemical fertilizers and synthetic herbicides and pesticides were created. The chemical fertilizers made it possible to supply crops with extra nutrients and, therefore, increase yield. The newly developed synthetic herbicides and pesticides controlled weeds, deterred or kill insects, and prevented diseases, which also resulted in higher productivity.”

            The IR8, which produces more grains of rice per plant when grown with certain fertilizers and lots of water, undoubtedly helped avert the impending rice crisis.  But the world never learned its lesson.  Population continues to grow and experts are again warning of a world crisis in food production.

            Dr. Gurdev Khush, one of IRRI’s plant breeders who helped develop IR8, estimates that by 2020 the world population will have swollen to around 8 billion people – with 5 billion of them eating rice.  Today, only around 3 billion people consume rice, so world rice production must increase by 60% in the next 20 years to meet the needs of the 2020 population.

            But “unlike the Green Revolution 30 years ago, there is virtually no more tillable-land available to grow rice,” Cunningham reminded.  “Future gains must be made solely by improving rice yields, and on top of that, there’s an imperative to use fewer harmful chemicals as fertilizers and for pest control.”

            The IRRI knows that.  Even with the success of IR8, it continues to search for a kind of rice that can thrive in harsh environments such as areas prone to flooding, drought, and salty soils.  For another, the rice should be environment-friendly: using less water, no fertilizer and pesticides if possible and not a product of genetic engineering. 

            The IRRI has developed such kind of variety and it is called Green Super Rice (GSR).  After almost two decades of testing and implementation around the world, the GSR is starting to have a dramatic effect on crop yields. 

            “We are at the fruit-bearing stage,” said Dr. Jauhar Ali, a senior scientist and regional project coordinator of the GSR program.  “The harvest is good.”

            One of those who tried planting GSR was Felicito Montano, a farmer from the municipality of Tanauan, Leyte who survived when Super Typhoon Yolanda hit the province.  In an article published in Rice Today, an IRRI publication, he said: “I planted it for the first time after I was given 2 kilograms of certified seed after I completed a two-day training course on high-quality seed production at Visayas State University.”

            Montano sowed those 2 kilograms of GSR seed and harvested 12 sacks from the first crop. Planting some of the harvested seed for his second crop, he was able to harvest 70 sacks, weighing from 45-50 kilos each. “That was double what I’d usually get from other varieties,” he was quoted as saying.

            Indeed, GSR was much better than the traditional rice.  “Although many farmers were hesitant to plant GSR at first, we received really good feedback from them after they gave it a try,” reported Evelyn Gergon, a crop protection specialist from the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), who initiated the program in the province.

            “Many farmers told me how great GSR performed in their fields,” Gergon further said.  “Some farmers reported that they were able to obtain as much as 11 tons per hectare – 2.75 times the average yield of 4 tons in Leyte! Some farmers asked us to try eating the cooked rice. We hadn’t even tasted GSR then and so we did. It tasted good!”

            Montano cited another reason why he liked GSR better than the previous rice he was growing.  “I like GSR because its grains are good and weigh considerably heavier than the previous rice grains I tried in the past,” he said. “The crop is tolerant of pests and diseases. Lately, we’ve also started shifting to organic fertilizers instead of chemical ones.”

            The IRRI developed the GSR together with the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences.  A non-profit organization established in 1960s by Ford and Rockefeller Foundation, it now funded by national governments as well as philanthropic organizations like Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

            The GSR program started in 1998 “involving the painstaking crossbreeding of more than 250 different varieties and rice hybrids,” said a news report.  Most varieties chosen were those having difficultly growing in such conditions as drought and low inputs, including no pesticide and less fertilizer.  Also handpicked were those with rapid establishment rates to out-compete weeds, thus reducing the need for herbicides.  

            “The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation originally funded the program with an US$18 million, three-year grant,” the news report further said.  “Because the strains have been produced by publicly funded organizations, they do not require payment of royalties, such as those demanded by Monsanto and other commercial companies.”

            “Rice bred to perform well in the toughest conditions where the poorest farmers grow rice is a step away from reaching farmers,” said IRRI in a statement.  “The GSR varieties are climate-smart and can help farmers protect the environment – and themselves,” it added.

            What makes GSR differ from other known varieties or hybrids before?  “Unlike present-day rice plants, the new variety produces seed heads on every shoot,” wrote Bob Holmes, in an article which appeared in New Scientist.  “This means that the plants do not waste energy on unproductive shoots.  The plants also pack more than two hundred rice grains into each seed head compared with an average of around a hundred a head in present-day rice.  In addition, the new ‘architecture; makes the rice plants more compact, allowing farmers to plant them more densely.”

            The GSR has been called “super rice” because it is predicted to increase rice yields by 25-50%.  “Plant breeders have developed a variety of rice that has the potential to yield a staggering 25% more than today’s best,” wrote Holmes in his report.  “This is the first time in nearly thirty years that researchers have raised the ceiling on yields of rice, the grain that feeds half the world’s population.”

            This is good news for Asia, where population continues to grow.  “We know that for the next 10 years, we need to produce 8 to 10 million more tons (of rice) each year,” Dr. Achim Dobermann, IRRI’s deputy director general for research, was quoted as saying by LiveScience.  “That would essentially enable us to keep pace with the growing population.”

            But it’s not only population growth that should be prime motivation to develop new rice varieties.  “Population growth, increasing demand from changing diets, dwindling land and water resources for agriculture, higher energy costs, and the huge uncertainties regarding the effects of climate change present scientists and policy makers with additional challenges,” wrote Vishakha N. Desai, president of the Asia Society, in the foreword of the report, “Never an Empty Bowl: Sustaining Food Security in Asia.”

            In its recent issue of Rice Today, IRRI said that GSR is “already in the hands of national agricultural agencies in key rice-growing countries for testing and development.”

            In the Philippines, the PhilRice is rolling out a massive adaptability trials under the High Yielding Technology Adaptation (HYTA) program of the Department of Agriculture.

            According to Thelma Padolina, one of the implementers of the Food Staples Sufficiency Program’s Accelerating the development and adoption of Next-Generation rice varieties for major ecosystems in the Philippines project, three GSR materials were formally approved as commercial varieties in saline-prone and upland areas.

            “These new varieties will be brought to the target areas through the Participatory Variety Selection (PVS) trials for better adoption,” she said.

            The GSR is what the world needs now – especially with the looming global warming.  “Climate change poses a big challenge to smallholder farmers who already have limited land and financial resources,” IRRI said.  “Unpredictable weather patterns make them even more vulnerable to crop losses.  Giving farmers access to GSR varieties that can withstand multiple stresses from climate change can help mitigate its impact on their livelihood.”

            In addition, the research done with GSR does not involve genetic engineering.  “It involves taking hundreds of donor cultivars from dozens of different countries, identifying significant variations in responses to drought, global warming and other problems, and ‘backcross’ breeding – painstakingly crossing a hybrid with one of its parents or with a plant genetically like one of its parents, then screening the backcross bulk populations after one or two backcrosses under severe abiotic and biotic stress conditions to identify transgressive segregants that are doing better than both parents and the checks,” explained an article which appeared in

            In the New Scientist feature, Holmes believes IRRI’s new rice variety plays a big important in the race to keep food production abreast of population growth.  Dr. Mark Rosegrant, an economist with the Washington, D.C.-based International Food Policy Research Institute, was quoted as saying: “You still need to have yields grow at 2% per year over the next twenty years to keep rice consumption stable.  There are not many ways you can get that except from this new rice.” (To be continued)



(Third of Five Parts)

“There’s so much misinformation floating around about GMOS that is taken as fact by people. The genes they inserted to make the vitamin are not some weird manufactured material, but are also found in squash, carrots and melons.” – Dr. Michael D. Purugganan, a professor of genomics and biology and the dean for science at New York University



            “It takes many PhDs and more than 10 years to develop a genetically-modified organism (GMO).  A handful of misguided militants needs only a few seconds to destroy it,” lamented Dr. Eufemio T. Rasco, Jr., one of the country’s most respected agricultural scientists.

            He was then the executive director of the state-owned Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) when he said those words.  He was talking about the destruction of the golden rice plants in a trial field in Pili, Camarines Sur. On August 8, 2013, more than 400 so-called “farmers” who uprooted the genetically modified crop that was nearly ready for harvest.

            “This courageous action undertaken by the Peasant Movement of Bicol and the SIKWAL-GMO alliance was necessary to prevent the contamination of Asia’s most important food crop by GMOs,” said Asian Peasant Coalition (APC), a group of non-government organizations in Asia in a statement.  GMO refers to genetically-modified organisms.

            “The risks posed by field trials of golden rice may not mean much to (to those who conducted the field trials), but they are enormous for farmers and consumers in the Philippines and throughout Asia,” APC added. “There is no way to ensure that a GMO field trial does not contaminate neighboring fields.”

            “I cried when I saw what was happening,” recalled Mary Jane Espina, the PhilRice’s research assistant of the Golden Rice Project.  “The tears were not just for the destroyed crops and the wasted efforts. It was because of the fact that we are not stupid to toil for something that will destroy people’s lives.”

            But contrary to what the militants claim, those who uprooted the rice plants were actually not farmers.  “Farmers could never destroy plants,” Perfecto Joaquin, a farmer for 20 years in Nueva Ecija, replied of what he thinks about the incident. “First of all, we know that a big amount of money is needed to start a farm.  Afterwards, you just destroy crops in a field?  Much will be lost and that is destructive.”

            The National Academy of Science and Technology (NAST) considered it as an “act of sabotage of a lawfully and responsibly-conducted scientific experiment. This disruption is also an act of disrespect for the cause of scientific inquiry and disregards the hard work that has been invested in reaching this stage of the research.”

            NAST, the country’s premier recognition and advisory body on science and technology, added, “Rather than use unfounded fears in making a decision, the scientific data from the sabotaged experiment would have provided the third set of solid observations about the field performance of golden rice.”

            The field experiment in Pili, Camarines Sur was one of the thirteen multilocational trials started in 2012 in different parts of the country.  The field testing was conducted by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and PhilRice, which are both authorized by the government through the Department of Agriculture.

            So contrary to the activists’ accusations, there is no private corporate involvement.  In fact, the field testing was under the scrutiny of the National Committee on Biosafety of the Philippines, which oversees field testing of biotech crops.

            Credited for discovering the golden rice were Ingo Potrykus, who was 65 at that time and was about to retire as a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, and Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg. “My team targeted vitamin A deficiency because this is one of the largest health problems worldwide,” said Potrykus.

            According to IRRI, golden rice contains beta carotene, which is converted to vitamin A when eaten. “Because rice is so popular in the Philippines,” the Laguna-based rice institute says, “providing rice that is more nutritious and that contains beta carotene could help boost people’s vitamin A status. In turn, this could reduce the extent and impact of vitamin A deficiency among Filipinos.”

            The Geneva-based World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 250,000 to 500,000 children become blind each year because of a lack of vitamin A in their diets.  Not only that, about half of these children die within 12 months.

            Vitamin A deficiency also depresses the immune system, raising overall mortality among children from other causes such as diarrhea, measles, and pneumonia. For these diseases the additional toll is estimated at 1 million preventable deaths a year, or around 2,700 per day, mostly among children younger than 5.

            Vitamin A is found naturally in many foods, including liver of chicken, beef, pork, and fish.  Most of them, however, can be found in root crops (carrot and sweet potato) vegetables (broccoli and tomato), and milk products (cheese and butter), and fruits (papaya, mango, melon).  Most of these sources are beyond the reach of poor people, particularly those living in shanty places, upland areas, and rural communities.

            “We’re still losing one generation after another to malnutrition and this just shouldn’t be happening anymore,” deplores Dr. Howart Bouis, a senior research fellow at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute.

            Golden rice is one possible solution to the problem.  Normally, rice plants produce beta-carotene in their green parts, but not the grain that people eat. Golden rice is genetically engineered to produce beta-carotene in the edible part of the plant.

            Using genetic modification techniques, scientists developed golden rice using genes from corn and a common soil microorganism that together produce beta carotene in the rice grain. According to IRRI, conventional breeding programs could not be used to develop golden rice because rice varieties do not contain significant amounts of beta carotene.

            IRRI describes golden rice as unique because it contains beta carotene which gives the golden color to the cereal (as well as to fruits and vegetables like squash, papaya and carrots). The body converts beta carotene in golden rice to Vitamin A as needed.

            According to research published in the “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition” in 2009, daily consumption of a cup of rice – about 150 grams uncooked weight – could supply half of the Recommended Daily Allowance of Vitamin A for an adult.

            In 2005, scientists develop the current version of golden rice.  In the Philippines, the first generation golden rice was first tested in advanced field trials in IRRI in 2008. The second generation of selected varieties was field tested in the wet season of 2010. At the PhilRice, confined field trials of advanced lines were conducted in February to June 2011.

            “The field trials are an important step in evaluating the performance of golden rice and to determine if it can be planted, grown, and harvested just like other popular rice varieties,” PhilRice said in a statement.  “These trials are also part of the safety assessment of golden rice.”

            Farmers who produce organically grown crops currently co-exist with farmers who grow genetically modified crops and crops grown in conventional ways. ‘Co-existence’ is the practice of growing different kinds of crops, crops grown in different ways, or crops for different customers nearby or next to each other, while keeping the crops separate so they don’t mix and so their economic value is not affected.

            “Golden rice could likewise co-exist with other crops, including other types of rice and rice grown in other ways such as in organic agriculture,” IRRI claims. “Golden rice is unlikely to impact organic agriculture through cross-pollination—also known as outcrossing or gene flow—for reasons that apply to all cultivated rice. Cross-pollination in rice is rare if plants are separated by a short distance of a few feet or meters and it can only occur when rice plants are flowering at the same time.

            “Moreover, rice pollen is normally viable for only a few minutes after flowering. All these factors mean that organically-grown rice won’t usually cross-pollinate with another cultivated rice variety unless they are growing close together and flower at the same time,” IRRI adds.

            To further minimize the possible accidental mixing of golden rice, if it is approved, with other rice varieties, “we plan to work with rice producers in areas where golden rice could be grown to develop guidelines for cultivation, harvest, transport, storage, and processing of rice to help keep it separate,” IRRI says.

            Because it’s genetically modified, golden rice has faced opposition from environmental groups and others. “A rip-off of the public trust” was how the Rural Advancement Foundation International, an advocacy group based in Winnipeg, Canada, said of the nutrient-rich rice.

            There are those who believe that golden rice is not the best answer to Vitamin A deficiency.  “The problem is that you’re trying to fix vitamin A deficiency with a narrow GM solution when the problem is much more complex,” Clare Oxborrow, from the anti-GM group Friends of the Earth, was quoted as saying by BBC News.  “People who are deficient in vitamin A are also deficient in a whole host of other vitamins and minerals. What are we going to do? Are we going to genetically modify a crop to address these issues, too?”

            On the other hand, Greenpeace, which has made a concerted effort to block golden rice’s introduction since it was announced in 2000, claims that vitamin A-fortified rice may not be effective in delivering vitamin A to children.  However, Tufts University and the Zhejiang Academy of Medical Sciences in China have already proven that golden rice is effective.

            After conducting nutritional trials with animals and then adults in the United States, the researchers fed 23 Chinese children one meal of golden rice and tested to see if they had absorbed the beta carotene. The results, which were published in 2012 in the peer-reviewed “American Journal of Clinical Nutrition,” demonstrate conclusively that golden rice is, indeed, effective.

            “The real reason Greenpeace is opposed to golden rice is because it is genetically modified and it can’t seem to imagine that even one beneficial crop might result from this technique,” writes Dr. Patrick Moore, a co-founder of Greenpeace who helped lead the organization for 15 years but is now an independent ecologist and environmentalist.  “It is willing to put its zero-tolerance ideology ahead of a critical humanitarian mission.” (To be continued)



(Fourth of Five Parts)

“The impact of hidden hunger on people’s health is very real. It can result in more frequent and severe illness and complications during pregnancy, childbirth, infancy, and childhood.” – International Rice Research Institute (IRRI)



            Every night, an average Filipino joins at least 3.7 billion other people who go to sleep still hungry.  Their hunger, however, is not the growling, aching kind that most people experience when they have not eaten a meal. 

            Rather, the hunger is somewhat silent and insidiously stunting their bodies and brains, weakening their immune systems, and sapping their energy.  The prospects for living productive lives is questionable.

            This hidden hunger – as most nutritionists called it – is called malnutrition and it contributes to killing an estimated 40,000 people every day!

            “We’re still losing one generation after another to malnutrition and this just shouldn’t be happening anymore,” deplored Dr. Howard Bouis, a senior research fellow at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute.

            “One more rice, please.” That call, which rings at dining time in almost all restaurants and kitchenettes all over the country, sums up the eating habits of the typical Filipino to whom eating is a matter of filling up. Since most people can’t fill up with ulam (viand), they fill up with rice.

            A study research done in 2009 to 2010 and conducted by Southeast Asian Regional Center (SEARCA) commissioned by the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PRRI) said that Filipinos eat an average of 119 kilograms of rice annually. Another research found that Filipinos consume about 4-5 cups of cooked rice per day.

            Nutritionists claim rice contains carbohydrates, protein, minerals, vitamins, and fiber. Most of the white rice available in the supermarket is enriched, which means it is supplemented with iron, niacin, and thiamine. But most of these added nutrients are lost if rice is washed before cooking or drained afterward.

            Brown rice, with its healthful bran layers, contains all these nutrients naturally, plus fiber, oil and vitamin E. It is also low in sodium and fat, with no cholesterol.

            Since rice is consumed in great amounts, the cereal is a good vehicle for solving the malnutrition problem in the Philippines.  And this can be done by food fortification.

            According to the Food and Nutrition Research Institute (FNRI), food fortification is “the addition of one or more essential nutrients to a food, whether or not it is normally contained in the food, for the purpose of preventing or correcting a demonstrated deficiency in one or more nutrients in the population of specific population groups in which a risk of nutrient deficiency has been identified.”

            One of the nutrients identified as lacking in Filipino diet is iron. “Iron is one of the most important minerals in the body,” a press release issued by the Department of Science and Technology (DOST) explained.

            According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the significant function of iron is to carry oxygen in the hemoglobin or red blood cells throughout the body so cells can produce energy. Thus, it enhances body strength, activates brain performance, and boosts body resistance against sickness. Iron also helps eliminate carbon dioxide from the body.

            However, the recommended level of iron in the body is classified by gender and age. Males aging from 14 to 18 are recommended with 11 milligrams, and aged 19 and above must have 8 milligrams daily intake. The daily intakes for females aged 14 to 18, 19 to 50, and 51 and above must have 15 milligrams, 18 milligrams, and 8 milligrams, respectively. This indicates that females need more iron than males.

            A person who does not get enough iron from his diet will have a lower hemoglobin level.  “If this condition is prolonged, one will be suffering from iron deficiency anemia or IDA,” warns FNRI, a line agency of DOST.

            IDA develops when body stores of iron drop too low to support normal red blood cell production.  “In the Philippines, IDA is very serious across population groups,” FNRI says, adding it is most common among newly-born babies (from 6-11 months old) and pregnant women.

            Among children, the consequences of IDA include poor scholastic performance due to poor cognition, low attention span, and frequent attacks of illness due to lowered immune response.

            Low and poor productivity due to easy fatigability are what adults experience when they have IDA.  Pregnant women with IDA, on the other hand, may suffer from stillbirths, miscarriages and hemorrhage, or worst, death of the baby.

            In a recent National Nutrition Survey, it was found that the Philippines has national iron-deficiency prevalence rate of 11%.  Another nutritional survey suggested that about 50% of the iron intake, even among high-income households, comes from the cereals, particularly rice and corn.

            Balancing cereal-based diets with vegetables and animal products is one approach used in some developing countries to address malnutrition problems.  But results were frustrating.  Vegetables and animal products are expensive, and seasonal, subject to spoilage because of limited storage and transport facilities.

            In 2000, the government signed the Food Fortification Law or Republic Act No. 8976.  It stipulates mandatory fortification of staples like rice with iron and voluntary fortification of processed foods with iron, vitamin A and/or iodine.

            In 2004, the National Food Authority (NFA) fortified rice with iron.  “NFA led the implementation of the law and has imported iron premix rice (IPR) fortified with ferrous sulfate using coating technology from the United States as no locally produced IPR was available at that time,” said a briefing paper on iron-fortified rice (IFR).

            The IFR was distributed to already “identified nutritionally-at-risk areas” through Food for Schools Program.  Unfortunately, the NFA fortified rice was less accepted by consumers due to the dark yellow-colored iron premix in rice and the darkening color of cooked rice.  In 2010, NFA stopped the importation of IPR and is now committed to utilizing locally-produced IPR.

            For its part, FNRI developed IPR made from rice flour blended with iron – with micronized dispersible ferric pyrophosphate as fortificant – using extrusion technology, which proved to be stable for one-year storage with iron content still retained.

            The National Center for Biotechnology Information said ferric pyrophosphate is “a water-insoluble iron compound used to fortify infant cereals and chocolate drink powders.”

            In a study conducted among school children in a public school in Pasig, it was found that there was “a very significant decline in anemia prevalence from 100% to 33%.”  The IFR was rated as “liked moderately” to “liked very much.”

            The ancient Indian name for rice, dhanya, meaning “sustainer of the human race,” indicates its age-old importance.  In Java, where it is the gift of the goddess Dewi Siri, people believe that rice has a soul and may be spoken to as a relative.

            An old Chinese relief for aching bones, stomach upsets and colds was toasted brown rice and minced ginger root simmered in wine, tied in cloth and rubbed on the joints, stomach or chest.

            “Grain upon grain, fresh and delightful as frost, a dazzling jewel, to what can I compare this treasure,” wrote Chinese poet Yang Ji. (To be concluded)



(Fifth of Five Parts)

“Ten thousand years have passed since the current pleasantly temperate period began, so another sudden shift is overdue.  The notion that greenhouse gases could trigger such a rapid change keeps serious scientists up at night… And since scientists today have little understanding of past climate flips, it’s impossible to say when the next one will start.” Gregg Easterbrook in A Skeptical Guide to Doomsday



            Rice production in the Philippines and those in other parts of the world will greatly be affected by climate, experts claim.

            “Increasing carbon dioxide leads to increased photosynthesis and potentially, more rice biomass.  But concurrent increases in global temperatures could also potentially limit rice harvests by increasing spikelet sterility,” explained Dr. Lewis H. Ziska of the Crop Systems and Global Change Laboratory at the United States Department of Agriculture.  “More carbon dioxide could also increase the biomass of known weeds when compared with that of rice, which could limit rice growth in the future.”

            “Higher temperature, especially in tropical areas that are already near or above the optimum temperature for rice, will reduce growth and yields,” noted Dr. Keith Ingram, former global climate change coordinator at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI).

            Rising temperatures during the past 25 years have already cut the yield growth rate by 10–20% in several locations, according to a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a peer-reviewed, scientific journal from the United States.

            As nights get hotter, as predicted with climate change, rice yields will drop.  “We found that as the daily minimum temperature increases, or as nights get hotter, rice yields drop,” said Jarrod Welch, lead author of the report and graduate student of economics at the University of California, San Diego.  

            The report analyzed 6 years of data from 227 irrigated rice farms in 6 major rice-growing countries in Asia, which produces more than 90% of the world’s rice.  “Our study is unique because it uses data collected in farmers’ fields, under real-world conditions,” said Welch. “This is an important addition to what we already know from controlled experiments.”

            The problem is just the tip of an iceberg.  Recent studies have shown that should farmers grow more rice, it means more methane will be emitted into the atmosphere.  “Rice production also contributes to global warming as it emits methane,” said Dr. Constancio Asis, Jr. supervising science research specialist at the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice) in Muñoz, Nueva Ecija.

            “Rice is a plant that grows best in wet soil, with its roots flooded,” says L. Hartwell Allen, an American soil scientist at the Crops Genetics and Environmental Research Unit in Gainesville, Florida.  “But flooded rice crops emit substantial amounts of methane to the atmosphere.”

            Scientists explain that long-term flooding of the fields cuts the soil off from atmospheric oxygen and causes anaerobic fermentation of organic matter in the soil. During the wet season, rice cannot hold the carbon in anaerobic conditions. The microbes in the soil convert the carbon into methane which is then released through the respiration of the rice plant or through diffusion of water.

            On the other hand, decomposition of organic material in flooded rice fields produces methane, which then escapes to the atmosphere during the growing season.  “Traditionally, farmers flood their rice fields continuously and incorporate 4-5 tons of rice straw per hectare at land preparation,” says a report released by the Philippine Council for Agriculture, Aquatic and Natural Resources Research and Development (PCARRD).  “Every year, these practices release 5,883 tons of methane to the atmosphere.”

            In Isabela State University, a study funded by PCARRD showed that by using simple science-based strategies, farmers can contribute significantly to the reduction of methane emissions.  For instance, mid-season drainage of irrigation water reduced methane emission by 48 percent.  This emission is valued at P34.16 million, based on the 2009 World Bank price of US$12 per ton of carbon dioxide and exchange rate of P48 per US$1.

            Meanwhile, composting of rice straw resulted in 64 percent less methane emission released in the air.  By combining mid-season drainage and application of rice straw compost, methane emission is further reduced by 81 percent.

            “By shifting to climate-change friendly farming practices, as what was done in the 7,789.34 hectares of lowland irrigated rice in Isabela, farmers can get incremental benefits amounting to as high as P138.95 million per year,” the PCARRD report points out.

            Rice farmers can also help reduce methane emissions into the atmosphere by adopting controlled irrigation or alternate wetting and drying (AWD) technology.

            Developed by the Laguna-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), AWD is a technology which allowed rice fields to dry for a certain period before applying irrigation water.

            Also called controlled irrigation or intermittent irrigation, AWD technology can actually save farmers almost one-third of irrigation water without sacrificing yields.  It also saves farm inputs like oil, fuel, and labor being utilized on the operation of water pumps.

            On an 8-season field experiment conducted at IRRI, it was found that AWD “has real potential to reduce the global warming impact of paddy fields to one-third of the conventional continuously-flooded field water management.”

            In a paper presented during the international workshop on “Water Management and Technology for Crop Production under Climate Change” in Suwon, Korea, the authors claimed AWD “can reduce methane emissions by over 40%.”

            Rice fields using this technology are alternately flooded and dried.  The number of days of non-flooded soil can vary from one day to more than 10 days, according to IRRI.   It uses an “observation well” that is made of bamboo, plastic pipes, or any hollow indigenous material.  Perforations are made in the lower half of the tube.

            The AWD technology can be started a few days after transplanting (or with a 10-centimeter tall crop in direct seeding). When many weeds are present, AWD can be postponed for 2-3 weeks until weeds have been suppressed by the ponded water. Local fertilizer recommendations as for flooded rice can be used. Nitrogen fertilizer maybe applied preferably on the dry soil just before irrigation.

            “A practical way to implement AWD technology is by monitoring the depth of the water table in the field using a simple perforated field water tube,” IRRI explains. “When the water level is 15 centimeters below the surface of the soil, it is time to flood the soil to a depth of around 5 centimeters at the time of flowering, from one week before to one week after the maximum flowering.”

            The water in the rice field is kept at 5 centimeters depth to avoid any water stress that would result in severe loss in rice grain yield.   The threshold of water level at 15centimeters is called “safe AWD,” as this will not cause any yield decline because the roots of the rice plants are still be able to take up water from the saturated soil and move it to root zone.

            “The field water tube used in this technology will help to measure the water level in the field so that incipient water stress in the rice plants can be anticipated,” the IRRI points out.  As such, the AWD technology does not only save water but can greatly reduce emissions of methane.

            Dr. Drew Shindell, a climatologist at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Columbia University in New York, once said: “If we control methane, which is viable, then we are likely to soften global warming more than one would have thought, so that’s a very positive outcome.” – ###