Elle Guison

Published: April 3, 2024

 The rice farmers of Dila village in Bay, Laguna in the Philippines are facing a long series of unfortunate events.

“We harvested nothing last year because of pest damage. That is our biggest problem here: black bugs, fall armyworms, and snails that eat the rice plants,” 70-year-old farmer Elma Rebelion said in Filipino.

Another farmer, Renato Celis, 79, tries to solve the problem by spraying insecticides on his crops.

Dr. Oliver Manangkil, head of the Plant Breeding and Biotechnology Division at the Philippine Rice Research Institute (PhilRice), stressed that environmental stresses on crops have become worse over time due to climate change.

“Because of climate change, there are pests that we didn’t have in the past. But now that the weather conditions have become optimal for their growth, pests like the black bug can now survive in places where they didn’t originally thrive,” Manangkil said partly in Filipino.

Now that El Niño is likely to persist until May, such stresses are likely to intensify, worrying farmers such as Rebelion and Celis.

In March, the country’s weather bureau, the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration (PAGASA) projected that most parts of the country would experience “way below to below-normal” rainfall, an effect of El Niño.

Laguna, as well as Nueva Ecija, Isabela, Pangasinan, Cagayan, and Iloilo—five of the country’s top rice-producing provinces according to the Philippine Statistics Authority, were among the 37 provinces reported to be experiencing drought. These areas experienced five consecutive months of below-normal rainfall conditions, or a 21 to 60 percent reduction from average rainfall.

PAGASA’s Climate Review of 2023 shows that the effects of El Niño have increasingly become more pronounced in the last quarter. (Rainfall maps from PAGASA)

By the start of April, 54,203 farmers in 10 regions—Cordillera, Ilocos, Cagayan Valley, Central Luzon, CALABARZON, MIMAROPA, Bicol, Western Visayas, Zamboanga Peninsula and SOCCSKSARGEN have already lost PHP 2.63 billion due to El Niño, according to the Philippine Agriculture Department’s Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Operations Center.

This includes damage across 34,264 hectares of rice fields amounting to 72,733 metric tons of lost harvest.

In light of this, government agencies have intensified the promotion of drought-resistant crops and pest-control efforts to assist farmers in affected areas. 

Experts have advised farmers to plant several rice varieties–more than two or three varieties, Manangkil suggests–to avoid a full crop wipeout in the event of a weather disturbance or a disease or pest outbreak. 

Tolerant to climate change

IRRI Associate Scientist Gideon Torollo shares the agronomic characteristics of NSIC Rc 480 or Green Super Rice 8, a variety tolerant to drought, submergence, and salinity with good eating quality. (Rainielle Kyle Guison)

Since 1955, rice breeding institutes such as PhilRice, Bureau of Plant Industry, International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), University of the Philippines Los Baños, and private companies have been conducting research and development of varieties resilient to changing weather conditions and pests and diseases.

Climate-resilient rice varieties were first developed in 1993 when PhilRice released its first rain-fed lowland variety, Philippine Seed Board (PSB) Rc 16 (Ennano), and in 1995 when IRRI released its first cold-tolerant varieties, PSB Rc 44 (Gohang) and 46 (Sumadel).

“Our agriculture industry is very vulnerable because the Philippines is situated in the tropics, and so many areas in our country are affected by high temperature, cool temperature, salinity, drought, and submergence. In total, that is about 1 million hectares,” said Dr. Norvie Manigbas, Chief Science Research Specialist of Plant Breeding and Biotechnology Division at PhilRice.

Conventional breeding methods for new rice varieties take about 10 to 12 years before being released by the National Seed Industry Council (NSIC), formerly the PSB. A new variety must demonstrate at least a 5% increase in yield compared to older varieties in order to be approved. This means that all new varieties should give farmers better harvests.

The NSIC has released a total of 489 rice varieties over the past seven decades, all developed for specific needs. Most of these rice varieties are not in production anymore due to newer developments and demand issues.

The ones in circulation are distributed by PhilRice through the Seed Program of the Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (RCEF), which aims to support variety development. The program distributes up to 80 kilograms of seeds to each farmer depending on the size of their farm. 

The RCEF Seed Program started its latest distribution early in September 2023 in preparation for the 2024 dry season and El Niño. It hopes to reach 1 million farmers across 77 provinces, covering 1.5 million hectares of farmland.

The program currently distributes drought-tolerant or early-maturing varieties such as NSIC Rc 222 (Tubigan 18) and 480 (GSR 8).

Tubigan 18 is most preferred by local farmers because of its high-yielding capacities. But Gideon Torollo, an associate scientist in Cross-Cutting Operations for Seed Production and Yield Trial Services at IRRI, said that “its eating quality is not that good, but it is very marketable for farmers.” 

For farmers, more yield means more harvest, and thus, more profit.

Torollo added that GSR 8 is a favorite for farmers because of its tolerance to multiple stresses and good eating quality. However, its maximum yield is only 4.4 metric tons per hectare compared to Tubigan 18’s 10 metric tons.

Farmers’ choice

Rice seeds should be stored at a 12 percent moisture level or less to remain viable for planting even after months. (Rainielle Kyle Guison)

Farmers, including Celis, are very much aware of the trade-offs that go with these new varieties.

“We received free seeds but sometimes, we don’t get a lot of harvest because the seeds are not of good quality. Sometimes, they’re good. Sometimes, they’re not. We received Rc 218 seeds before, but most of them were already bad and ended up not growing,” Celis said in Filipino. 

According to him, they were still able to harvest 15 to 20 sacks of rice, which he considers very low compared to their usual harvest of 50. 

The Department of Agriculture has helped us a lot, but sometimes, I would rather not risk it. If I have seeds of my own, I would plant those instead,” he added.

Torollo attributed this to problems plaguing the country’s seed system, which he describes as “not yet well established.” Such challenges include insufficient seed supply and storage facilities. Some farmers also complain that the free seeds do not sprout anymore.

Need for wider distribution

Manigbas also pointed out the lack of government support in providing farmers with climate-resilient varieties in far-flung areas, which are also vulnerable to drought, submergence, salinity, and other stresses.

Not all farmers are aware of the RCEF Seed Program. Rebelion, for instance, never received seeds from the RCEF Seed Program because she was unaware of it.

Both Celis and Rebelion also said that they are not aware of other climate-resilient rice varieties, including those resistant to rice black bugs and fall armyworms. According to them, they do not worry much about drought as they have good irrigation in Dila village. But they are more concerned with the pests infesting their rice crops.

“Pesticides are very expensive, as well as seeds, so it would be nice if we could also receive free seeds of those varieties that are resistant to pests,” Rebelion said in Filipino.

Fast-tracking research, increasing demand

The Tubigan series (submergence-tolerant) and Sahod Ulan series (drought-tolerant) are continuously being developed to build better tolerance to the changing climate of the country. (Rainielle Kyle Guison)

Decades of research and development in rice breeding have greatly improved crop quality over time. But since the process takes so many years, scientists and researchers are continuously looking into better techniques and technologies to lessen the breeding period of new varieties.

IRRI, for example, already has a speed breeding facility using the Rapid Generation Advance (RGA) technology. Their RGA screenhouse can accommodate 120,000 plants and can fast-track the first stage of the breeding process from three to just two or one-and-a-half years.

Manigbas said that it may already be possible to reduce the breeding period to six years, and to less than five years in 10 to 20 years’ time.

Another way to promote the wider use of climate-adaptive varieties is by showcasing varieties through demonstration plots or technological demonstrations (techno-demos). Through this program, farmers and other stakeholders can observe the planted varieties and try their cooked form to assess their eating quality.

In 2022, IRRI and PhilRice launched OneRicePH, an initiative that aims to unify the country’s rice breeding and dissemination strategy.

Manangkil, who is also OneRicePH’s Project Leader, said that they have already started conducting the Expanded On-Farm Technology Demonstration in 2023. He also said that they will focus on rain-fed areas for the next techno-demos as RCEF already caters to irrigated lowland areas.

Such demonstrations hope to increase demand for climate-resilient varieties, which is crucial for seed production.

“I always tell farmers, we need to have an open mind for new techniques because these are already studied. We don’t just recommend; these are verified by scientists and other farmers, which is why we share these experiences with you,” Manigbas said.

While there is willingness to use other pest-tolerant climate-resilient varieties, Rebelion hopes that these would be more accessible to small farmers like her.

“That is a good initiative to help farmers because poverty has made it difficult for us to buy seeds. We just hope that these initiatives can reach everyone, even farmers like us with smaller fields,” she said in Filipino.