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Do subsistence farmers prefer traditional varieties?

The literature does not indicate the amount of subsistence farmers in Asia, but the data gathered by Mark A. Bell indicates that production distribution by ecosystem in Asia is 55% irrigated, 29% rainfed-lowland, 8% flooded areas, and 8% upland rice farms. Subsistence farmers are those who plant only enough rice to meet the requirements of their household. It is observed that many of these farmers use traditional rice varieties. Most of these subsistence farmers are found in unfavourable upland areas. Some are even beneficiaries of land reform programmes who depend on rainfall for irrigation and have reverted to traditional practices because they have no access to programme services. Francois Mazaud (FAO) raised the concern that some farmers persist in using traditional varieties. Pat Borlagdan (IRRI) came from a commercial rice growing family. He recalled the amazing success of the miracle rice IR8 when it was first introduced. Many farmers like them converted to the new miracle rice. But soon they discovered that the miracle had disadvantages. IR8 had to be sustained with chemical fertilizer; tungro and other diseases had to be eliminated with expensive chemicals; and weeds had to be controlled with pesticides. Finally, IR8 was unprofitable, as the increased crop yields did not cover the increased costs. Farmers gradually returned to traditional rice products which Pat recalls were better tasting, required less care and did not need toxic chemicals. Many experts disagree with this analysis. They maintain that problems encountered by the farmers during the introduction of IR8 have been resolved in its later versions. Also, new technologies have simplified handling. Some farmers do plant traditional varieties for their personal consumption or for the taste preferences of special markets. Interviews with farmers strengthen this finding. For example, farmers in the Philippines continue to favour aromatic rice.

Elsewhere, consumers influence what is planted. Sticky rice is found in northeast Thailand and Laos; in Taiwan, Japonica varieties are planted; South Korea has shifted to the Indica varieties. A formal study in seven Asian rice growing countries (with widely diverse production environments and agrarian and policy structures) after two decades of the high yielding varieties (HYV), indicates that the modern HYV are a 100% adopted in irrigated areas and 50% adopted in rainfed areas (Cristina David & Keijiro Otsuka, Modern Rice Technology and Income Distribution in Asia, 1994). These numbers indicate that HYV presently covers about 70% of rice growing areas. The reasons for the continued cultivation of traditional varieties on some rainfed areas are disadvantages during drought and flood.

The post-production requirements of subsistence farmers are minimal; their harvest can be sun-dried, stored in bags or baskets, and processed milled in small mills.

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