Case Studies, Systems Thinking

MASIPAG: Empowering farmers to breed local rice varieties

Visit one of MASIPAG’s three regional locations and you may come across shelves stacked high with small glass bottles containing hundreds of varieties of rice seeds. These seeds, and the people who grow them, have been the essence of MASIPAG’s work with Filipino farmers since the network of civil society organizations, NGOs, and scientists was established in 1985.

By collecting and maintaining Indigenous, farmer-bred, and locally-adapted varieties of rice, MASIPAG offers its 35,000 small-scale farmer members an alternative to the pressures of multinational fertilizer and pesticide companies and other powerful players in the rice industry.

At a time when high-yielding varieties (HYV) of rice are widely used, MASIPAG is at the forefront of the fight to protect and promote agricultural biodiversity in rural communities across the Philippines.

A history of high-yield rice varieties

The emergence of high-yield varieties (HYV) of rice started in the 1960s with the advent of the Green Revolution.

The Philippines was a leader in the initial development of these new varieties, with the establishment of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in 1960. IRRI was created by the Philippines’ national government, with support from the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation.

IRRI scientists succeeded in developing a HYV of rice: IR8, also known as “the miracle variety.” IR8 nearly doubled annual rice production in the Philippines, but required the use of agrochemicals. This soon created a dependency among subsistence, small-scale farmers who had little choice but to continue acquiring expensive chemical inputs from fertilizer and pesticide companies.

MASIPAG has been a voice for small-scale farmers from the start of the HYV era. The network puts control and leadership back in the hands of local farmers, helping them to break the control of local and multinational fertilizer and pesticide companies, multilateral rice research institutes such as IRRI, and rice distribution cartels.

Today, it is understood that the Green Revolution’s focus on productivism was too narrow-minded and that the root causes of food insecurity are much more complex. Not only that, but chemical agriculture threatens life on land and below water, depleting soil health and leading to the nitrification of water systems. This is especially relevant for MASIPAG because of the water-intensive irrigation systems used for rice paddy fields.

Seed sovereignty and climate change

MASIPAG’s activities take a bottom-up, farmer-led approach. Safeguarding agricultural biodiversity is the network’s core principle, but it also encourages its farmer members to diversify the crops they plant and promotes seed-saving and seedbanking as a way for communities to ensure they have a reliable source of high-quality seeds. Many programs developed by MASIPAG adopt participatory research approaches, linking farmers and researchers, as a way to co-develop knowledge with communities on seed breading, saving and banking.

These community-based seed systems are key in achieving food sovereignty, as well as protecting culinary tradition and local knowledge systems. And yet local seed networks worldwide face a number of challenges, including a lack of social institutions, policies and legislation that favour formal seed systems, and dependence on external funding. As a farmer-led network that has been around for more than 35 years, MASIPAG has overcome many of these obstacles.

One of MASIPAG’s key activities in recent years has been developing climate change resistant cultivars through close scientist-farmer partnerships.

In 2019, the network unveiled its collection of 74 adapted rice varieties, each resistant to a modern-day stressor like droughts, flooding, pests, disease, and saltwater intrusion. These locally-developed, organically-farmed varieties demonstrate that agroecological practices can contribute to the fight against climate change, rather than perpetuate it.

“Agriculture is being considered as among the causes of high greenhouse gas emission, but it is, in fact, the industrial monocropped and chemical-based agriculture that contributes to climate change,” says Cris Panerio, MASIPAG’s National Coordinator. “Meanwhile, farming practices by small-scale subsistence farmers have proven to be healthier, cheaper, and resilient to climate change.”

Climate change has offered a unique opportunity for MASIPAG to position itself within the Filipino market. Domestic consumers are increasingly favouring organically-grown agriculture as they learn more about the urgency of climate change and the benefits that organic food can have on their health and the livelihood of local farmers. 

There has also been progress when it comes to MASIPAG working alongside the government’s Department of Agriculture, and the network partnered with the department to support the implementation of its 2010 law to promote organic agriculture.

MASIPAG’s advocacy work will continue in the coming years, as the group champions organic rice farming as an integral solution for poverty alleviation, biodiversity protection, rural development, and climate change.