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Rice in the Philippines: Promise and neglect

EDITOR'S NOTE: Ian Williams' report airs tonight on the broadcast. It is part of a series this week "Against the Grain," focusing on food crises around the world.

By Ian Williams, NBC News correspondent

Laguna, the Philippines - Robert Zeigler was a terrific host, bubbling with enthusiasm as he told me about the new varieties of rice that could bring enormous relief to the world's poor.

"This is a transformational technology. It gives me goose bumps," he said, pointing at clusters of rice stems emerging from a flooded paddy field. "These are tailored for floods. They basically hold their breath underwater."

He was pointing at a new variety of flood resistant rice, bred by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), where he is Director General. "This will basically remove farmers in many parts of the world from being the victims of floods."

An assistant reminded him he was already late for another meeting, but Zeigler was getting into his stride, passionate about the Institute's research. They're also working on a variety of rice resistant to drought, he told me, and the Institute hosts the world's biggest seed bank – 100,000 varieties in cold storage inside a vast vault.

A morning with Dr. Zeigler at the Philippines-based IRRI leaves you wondering how the world could possibly be facing food shortages, but travel just a few miles from here and there is a very different picture.

Rice farmers are abandoning their land, unable to afford the new seeds. Half the paddies in this area lack irrigation, and few farmers have basic storage facilities. The soaring cost of fertilizer and pesticides have eaten into the small profits they could make from rice, pushing them into debt.

"There's no money in it, there's no point," said Sionong, whose family had been rice farmers for three generations. She's converted her paddies to blue grass for the lawns of housing developments, which are also replacing the paddies. Another farmer told me: "Maybe after ten years, we won't have any rice farmers any more."

The farmers here have little real power. The local market is controlled by three powerful traders, who buy at a price they set, and who sell the fertilizer and other inputs. They have the storage facilities and the driers which add value to the rice.

A mill, started by the farmers as a cooperative, lies overgrown and abandoned. It is a stark contrast: the innovative promise of the IRRI, and the grim reality of the local farmers.

In thirty years, the Philippines has gone from being a rice exporter to the world's biggest importer, unable to keep up with a population that has almost doubled to 90 million over that period.

When world food prices soared earlier this year, the Philippines was one of the hardest hit, scouring world markets for expensive rice in a bid to head off a crisis that threatened to bring down the government. Although prices have fallen somewhat, during our visit they were still double than those of a year ago. A costly subsidy program was calming the poor districts of Manila.

"Rice is central to the fabric of Asian societies," Zeigler told me. "In terms of economic security, political security, economic growth, if you don't have abundant rice supplies, you can kiss goodbye to that stuff."

Experts blame years of government neglect in the Philippines, a sense that the battle against hunger had been won - a dangerous complacency in the view of Zeigler, who for years has urged governments to pay more attention to food research and the welfare of farmers.

"We have a tremendous challenge facing us," he says. "We've got to be continually vigilant to make sure we have adequate food supplies for the next generation." Photo by Ian Williams: Filipinos line up for subsidized rice in a Manila suburb.

Heeding the warnings, the government has just launched a billion dollar program to bring seeds, water and other help to farmers. It has banned the conversion of rice paddies to industrial or residential use.

But in the villages close to the IRRI, there's skepticism about government promises and doubts that the money will ever reach them. "We've heard a lot of talk, but little is every delivered," said one local agricultural official.

The hope is that the shock of this year's food price rises will concentrate the minds of government - and the farmers, in a country that thought it had defeated hunger.