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Tuesday, June 1, 1999 Published at 11:43 GMT 12:43 UK

World: South Asia

Row over hybrid crops

Saving seeds from their crop is a practise as old as farming itself

By David Chazan in Gazipor, Bangladesh

Hybrid rice is being introduced in Bangladesh, forcing farmers to buy new seeds each time they plant.

Environmentalists are up in arms, although the hybrid rice is not, strictly speaking, a genetically-modified terminator crop - a crop which is sterile and produces no seeds.

Watch David Chazan's report
Instead, the seeds produced by the hybrid crops are unusable because their quality is poor, so the effect on farmers is much the same. They become consumers, dependent on seeds supplied by a biotechnology company.

Saving seeds from their crop after harvest, to re-plant in the next growing season, is a practice as old as farming itself.

In Bangladesh, traditionally women have kept the seeds. They use knowledge passed down over generations to choose the best seeds, to ensure they have enough to eat next season. But seed-saving may soon be a thing of the past.

[ image: Women traditionally kept the seeds]
Women traditionally kept the seeds
Last year's floods devastated crops and wiped out half of Bangladesh's seedlings. The government decided to import hybrid seeds because they yield more rice. They are being distributed by Brac, a large charity with its headquarters in Dhaka.

Gini Alam, one of thousands of Bangladeshi farmers who have just harvested their first hybrid crop says he is happy because he has grown 30% to 40% more rice, although he has used more fertiliser.

If he saves and re-plants seeds from the crop, the results would be very poor. But he says the cost of buying new seeds and fertiliser will be more than covered by the higher yield.

At first, he said, his neighbours were sceptical but now they all want to grow hybrid rice.

Growing population needs more rice

[ image: Gene bank of indigenous seeds kept]
Gene bank of indigenous seeds kept
The government and Brac argue that a country with so many mouths to feed cannot afford to do without new agricultural technology.

Mr Abed, head of Brac says: "We need to increase our production of rice. Our population is growing, and we need to feed them.

"Unless we increase our productivity, we'll not be able to do that. And we need it very urgently."

Farhad Mazhar's Ubinig group has been leading the campaign against the hybrids.

"If you really want to ensure the food security of the farming communities, and if you're really committed to the poverty alleviation, then the first thing you have to do is that farmers should have the control over the production, that means over the seeds," he says.

"But here you are doing completely the opposite. You are taking away the control of the seed from the farmer and handing it over to the transnational companies. This is what you call the biopiracy."

Farhad Mazhar says the hybrid rice is not as productive as claimed by its manufacturers, the Indo-American Hybrid Seeds company.

He also accuses Brac of not telling farmers they would have to buy new seeds until just before they harvested the first crop this month - an accusation Brac denies.

Concern about biodiversity

Mr Mazhar and other environmentalists say many indigenous crop varieties may be lost if farmers use mass-produced hybrid seeds.

To preserve biodiversity for future generations, government scientists are keeping a gene bank of indigenous seeds. Although they favour hybrid crops, they are worried that not enough tests have been done.

Dr Hamid Mia of the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute says: "The varieties that we have so far in Bangladesh, all have not been thoroughly tested in the country, in connection with the reaction to pests and diseases, weather variability's, even nutrient status and also the management, etc."

Because of the lack of tests, Dr Mia warned that the yields of the first hybrid rice crop could be disappointing.

As population growth continues there will be increasing pressure to sell supercrops for the developing world.

Environmentalists are not the only ones worried that control over the very seeds of life may be passing into the hands of big corporations.

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