The first Green Revolution substantially increased rice production in the Philippines, using a package of new seeds, fertilizer and irrigation. In his book The Doubly Green Revolution: Food for all in the 21st century, Gordon Conway calls for a second Green Revolution that stresses environmental protection. Few realize that this revolution is well underway in the Philippines.
The most damaging environmental consequence of intensive farm production in the past 30 years has been farmers’ widespread use of pesticides, especially insecticides.
Insecticide use exploded because of both supply and demand factors. On the demand side, farmers worried that their larger and more frequent harvests would attract insect pests. This fear, along with aggressive marketing by pesticide producers, led farmers to spray ever-increasing quantities of these chemicals on their crops.
On the supply side, advances in the chemical industry produced highly affordable pesticides. Many observers mistakenly view pesticides as expensive inputs that destroy farmers’ profit margins. The fact is that pesticide costs, even in intensive production, absorb only a small share of the total value of the rice crop. Farmer surveys conducted for five years in eight rice bowls in China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines found that total pesticide costs accounted for less than 3% of the gross value of production, on average across the sites. In the Philippines, the share was just 2%. There are, however, many hidden costs.
Indiscriminate use of pesticides kills insect pests’ natural predators, such as spiders, causing an ecological imbalance that can actually contribute to pest outbreaks instead of preventing them. Probably the most egregious example of this phenomenon occurred on the Indonesian island of Java in the 1980s, when excessive pesticide use decimated the insect populations that preyed on the brown planthopper.
The planthopper’s short breeding cycle then allowed it to breed unchecked by predators. Worse, excessive pesticide use has damaged the health of farmers and consumers. Because of poor training and/or lack of money for buying proper pesticide application equipment, farmers are directly exposed to chemicals that injure their eyes, skin, respiratory tract and nervous system. Studies by Agnes Rola of the University of the Philippines Los Baños (UPLB) and Prabhu Pingali, formerly of IRRI, showed that the costs to farmers’ health outweighed the benefits gained from pesticides. Furthermore, farmers sometimes apply pesticides very close to Green Revolution harvest, which endangers the health of consumers.
Yet there are grounds for optimism, especially in the Philippines. The above-mentioned survey found that farmers in Central Luzon applied by far the lowest levels of insecticides in any of the areas surveyed. The next lowest users, farmers in Tamil Nadu, India, used 60% more insecticides than the Filipinos. The highest users were farmers in Zhejiang, China, who applied more than 20 times as much active ingredient as the Central Luzon farmers.
The low level of insecticide use in the Philippines is the culmination of a declining trend that began slowly in the mid-1980s and accelerated in the 1990s. Among farmers surveyed in Central Luzon, the quantity of insecticide active ingredient applied per hectare increased ten-fold from 1966 to 1979, from less than 0.1 kg/ha to nearly 1.0 kg/ha. But by the middle of the 1990s, this figure had been cut in half. Since then, use has declined even more, and levels of insecticide use are now slightly below what they were before the first Green Revolution began. In contrast, recent data from China show that per hectare pesticide costs in rice cultivation increased steadily from 1980 to 1998.
Two main factors appear to account for low insecticide use by Filipino rice farmers. First, education campaigns based on research findings from entomologists at UPLB, the Philippine Rice Research Institute, IRRI and other organizations appear to have enjoyed some success in convincing farmers of the dangers of insecticide use.
Second, insecticide prices are relatively high in the Philippines – double prices in Thailand, Vietnam and Tamil Nadu, and six times China’s subsidized prices. That said, remember that pesticide costs are a relatively low 2% of total farm revenues for irrigated farms in Central Luzon – revenues that, by the way, are higher than in the rice bowls of neighboring countries. Thus, Filipino farmers can afford insecticides, but they intelligently choose to use them carefully, if at all.
This is a heartening trend, but much remains to be done. Many farmers still overuse insecticides, which still damage water supplies and the environment.
More farmers must learn to differentiate harmful, harmless and beneficial insects, and about the damage pesticides do to the environment and their own personal health. The second Green Revolution against insecticide overuse in the Philippines is not yet won. But the good fight is underway, and substantial progress is being made.
David Dawe is an agricultural economist.