1.Scepticism over Chinese GM rice claims
2.Bangladeshi farmers banish insecticides

The GM rice claims that are being challenged (item 1) were in a joint US-Chinese paper: Insect-Resistant GM Rice in Farmers' Fields: Assessing Productivity and Health Effects in China, by Jikun Huang, Ruifa Hu, Scott Rozelle, Carl Pray

For the full text of the response:
Heong et al., Debate Over a GM Rice Trial in China, Science 2005 310: 231-233 [REQUIRES SUBSCRIPTION]

1.Scepticism over Chinese GM rice claims
Researchers have raised concerns about the Chinese study on GM rice
Priya Shetty
Source: SciDev.Net, 14 October 2005

Crop researchers have voiced scepticism over claims that genetically modified (GM) rice needs less pesticide than conventional varieties.

Jikun Huang of the Beijing-based Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy and colleagues published a paper in Science this April saying that farmers growing GM rice used 80 per cent less pesticide than those growing non-GM rice.

Huang's team concluded that opting for GM rice would not only reduce pesticide use and save the lives of hundreds of Chinese farmers who die each year from exposure to the chemicals, but would also save the farmers money.

But in this week's issue of Science, three groups of researchers raise concerns over the findings, questioning the study's reliability, legality and financial implications.

K. L. Heong, from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and colleagues say farmers might have been using less pesticide for their GM rice crops because they had decided beforehand that they would need fewer chemicals, not because they saw fewer insects.

Farmers tend to spray more insecticide than is needed to ensure all insect pests are wiped out, say Heong's team. Indeed, other research has shown that pesticide use can be reduced without reducing yields, and without the need for GM rice (see Bangladeshi farmers banish insecticides [item 2 below]).

Also writing in Science, Pang Cheung Sze and Janet Cotter of Greenpeace China, point out that it is still illegal to grow and sell GM rice in China, but that at least one of the varieties in Huang's study was found in Chinese markets earlier this year.

Finally, David Cleveland and Daniela Soleri of the University of California at Santa Barbara, United States, express concerns that the Huang's team did not discuss the costs of genetically modifying rice. "One estimate of the cost to develop a GM variety is 50 times that of a conventional variety," they write.

They note that there are cheaper ways to reduce plant disease and boost yields, such as growing more than one crop in a field.

Huang and colleagues have responded to all three concerns.

They say that although pesticide use could be reduced for conventional crops, the reduction would still only be a quarter of that achievable with GM rice.

They maintain that contrary to Greenpeace China's allegations, the GM strain they used had been approved by the Chinese government's biosafety committee.

Finally, they agree with Cleveland and Soleri that China needs other methods alongside GM crops to tackle hunger and poverty.

However, they say their study's purpose was to look at one aspect of GM crops, without providing an overall assessment of the advantages and disadvantages of commercialising them.

Reference: Science 308, 688 (2005)

2.Bangladeshi farmers banish insecticides
30 July 2004
Source: International Rice Research Institute

Imagine this: 2,000 poor rice farmers, whose average farm income is around US$100 per year, suddenly take on the role of agricultural scientists. Over the course of two years - i.e. four growing seasons - they prove that insecticides are a waste of time and money, and that they can significantly reduce the amount of nitrogen fertiliser they use. They save, on average, US$17 per year.

That might not sound like much to some. But it's a 17 per cent pay rise for people who struggle to provide sufficient food for themselves and their families, and enough to help put children through school or buy grain to tide rice-deficit farm families over to the next harvest.

Sound unlikely? Well, it's just happened in Bangladesh. In the last two years, the Livelihood Improvement Through Ecology (LITE) project, led by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), has trained 2,000 farmers to perform experiments in their own fields which demonstrate that insecticides can be eliminated and nitrogen fertiliser (urea) applications reduced without lowering yields. Four thousand more farmers are currently in training.

What's more, if LITE continues as it has started, in less than a decade, most of Bangladesh's 11.8 million rice farmers ”” almost one twelfth of the country's population of 141 million, according to the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI), a key project partner ”” will have copied their example.

LITE is part of the IRRI-led project Poverty Elimination Through Rice Research Assistance, funded in Bangladesh by the United Kingdom's Department for International Development. It set out to discover the precise cause of an assumed drop in rice yield when farmers stop spraying insecticide. The ultimate aim, explains LITE principal investigator and IRRI senior entomologist Gary Jahn, was to identify safe alternatives to insecticides.

"To my surprise, when people stopped spraying, yields didn't drop ”” and this was across 600 fields in two different districts over two seasons," says Jahn, "I'm convinced that the vast majority of insecticides that rice farmers use are a complete waste of time and money."

"We quickly realised the most important thing to focus on was scaling LITE up," he explains. "We've already trained 2,000 farmers. We've reduced insecticide use among participating farmers by 99 per cent, and by 90 per cent among non-participating farmers in the same villages. Even in the control villages, where no farmers conducted the experiments, insecticide use dropped from 80 per cent to 55 per cent - much of this because of casual contact with participating farmers."

So how did the farmers take on their scientist role? Lead farmers - local farmers who happened to be relatively successful - were taught how to conduct a simple experiment by partitioning their fields into quadrants, each of which received different management strategies: with and without spraying, and with and without using a leaf colour chart (used to optimise urea applications). Other participating farmers bisected their fields, spraying one half but not the other.

The results have made real differences for those involved in the experiment. Take 35-year-old Joinal Ahmad. Before joining LITE, Ahmad grew rice on just over half a hectare in his village of Tatoipara, eking out a farm income of 2,800 Bangladeshi taka (US$48) a year. He and his wife of 18 years struggled to look after their two young sons and put their two older daughters through school.

Now, with the money he has saved, Ahmad has been able to buy extra land and increase his planted area to almost two-thirds of a hectare. He has cut his exposure to health- and environment-threatening chemicals, and has almost doubled his annual farm income to 4,800 taka (US$80).

"I can grow rice at lower cost because I use less urea and no insecticide," Ahmad explains. "With the money I save, I help my family and pay for my children's education."

There a number of reasons why spraying is ineffective. Insecticides often kill the natural enemies of rice pests more effectively than the pests themselves, and many supposed insect pests don't attack either the parts of the plant that affect grain production, or the grain itself.

Compounding this, many farmers use poor equipment to apply out-of-date or inappropriate insecticides at the wrong time. According to Nazira Qureshi Kamal, head of BRRI's entomology division, and LITE's in-country coordinator, the mere presence of insects on the crop can panic farmers into spraying.

The method used to expand the scale of LITE from a few hundred farmers to several thousand ”” and potentially millions ”” is known as 'success case replication' (SCR). After being trained to perform the LITE experiments themselves, lead farmers then train other farmers in their own village, as well as successful farmers from surrounding villages, who become the next lead farmers.

The new lead farmers do the same, and the process repeats. In principle, the number of trained farmers grows exponentially each rice season like recipients of a chain letter, but this time good things actually happen.

Jan Orsini, an IRRI consultant to LITE on SCR, and a former United Nations rural development officer, says that in terms of cost-benefit LITE is extremely successful, bringing US$4 farm income for every dollar spent ”” well above the threshold used by the World Bank and other funding agencies to define a worthwhile project.

And this is for the first year alone, without factoring in subsequent years' savings. "This will only get better with time," enthuses Orsini. "The longer that farmers use the LITE regime, the more they will save. After five years, say, the ratio will be 1:20, which is truly exceptional."

Jahn is confident that the farmers will adhere to LITE practices because, first, they have seen the results of their own experiments in their own fields and, second, LITE goes straight to the bottom line. "Where farmer field schools rely on the farmers learning and understanding ecology," he explains, "LITE relies on understanding your wallet, which is almost innate."