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[HONG KONG] Rice farmers in China and South-East Asia are neglecting to adopt new pest-resistant cultivars, preferring to rely on excessive use of insecticide to combat pests, according to a leading rice scientist.

This has led to outbreaks of pests and disease in rice, affecting thousands of farmers, mainly in China, Indonesia and Thailand, K. L. Heong, a senior scientist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), in the Philippines, told SciDev.Net.

Heong was speaking following his presentation at the Forum for Agricultural Risk Management in Development's (FARMD) annual conference, held last month (17–18 October) in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

The most serious of these pests is the brown planthopper, an insect which damages rice at every stage of its development, by feeding directly upon the plant, and by transmitting viruses that destroy the plant.   

A farmer can easily lose an entire crop, Heong said. According to his estimates, Thai farmers have lost about 12 per cent of their yields to planthoppers over the past eight harvest seasons. In Java, Indonesia, infestations have completely destroyed crops on some 22,000 hectares of farmland, with an estimated economic loss of US$27.5 million.

While there are many varieties of pest-resistant cultivars to choose from, farmers' decisions over what to plant are usually dependent on yield, quality, and the demands of rice millers, Heong explained.

"On the other hand, researchers are focused on finding new things such as new genes, but pay little attention to how these genes are actually being adopted by farmers," he added.  

Heong said that language had a strong role to play in fostering the low pest-resistant cultivar uptake: people fail to grasp that "a resistant variety [is] one that will have no insects on it". In many Asian languages there is no concept of 'resistance', so the word is often translated as "immunity".

He added that because of weak communication with experts, local farmers rely on shopkeepers or pesticide salesmen for advice instead, often resulting in farmers falling victim to uncontrolled pesticide advertising and incentives.

"Researchers, scientists and extension officers need to understand farmers well. To appreciate the constraints farmers live under, these groups will have to spend time in the villages, hold focus group discussions, carry out interviews, and experience the farmers' lives directly," Heong said.

Participatory experiments are needed to show farmers products and best practice, make scientific concepts easier to understand, and make learning more pleasurable.  

Raul Montemayor, national manager for the Philippines at the Federation of Free Farmers Cooperatives, Inc., agreed that researchers should listen to other players in the value chain, particularly traders and processors, because they may be able to introduce cost-reduction or value-improvement technologies that will eventually benefit the farmers.

Montemayor said another approach is to develop new remedies for diseases and pests that will involve minimal costs and risks to farmers, such as bio-pesticides, proper timing and application of insecticides and pesticides, and synchronised plantings.

See below for FARMD conference video:

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia desk.