Finbarr G. Horgan, International Rice Research Institute, Los Baños, Philippines
A few outbreaks of the brown planthopper occurred in Java, Indonesia in August 2010. Mechanical damage caused by hopper feeding lead to the now ubiquitous yellow and brown-patched rice paddies (hopperburn) that leave farmers perplexed. During a recent trip to Karawang, accompanied by scientists from the Indonesia Rice Research Centre, we witnessed the situation in the field: a battle between a tiny insect and a new generation of ‘IPM’ extensionists, where the farmer is caught in the middle. This ‘new IPM’ is explained and facilitated by pesticide companies who place their products at the centre of management strategies. In a system that was designed to include crop monitoring and use pesticides only when necessary, the ‘new IPM’, promoted by extensionists and local experts who receive rewards and commissions based on pesticide sales, use a routine prophylactic schedule of 6 sprays.
At Karang Sinom, in a dusty village store with a pungent chemical odor, a young pesticide vendor explained that to receive his sales-license to own his “kiosk” he simply presented his identification to the relevant authorities. Having received no training and holding no qualifications he daily advises farmers on the precautions they should take during the current wave of hopper attacks. For advice on what pesticide to use he contacts his friend, the local extensionist. His sales targets are set based on a reward system from the pesticide companies. He explained that with each box sold of a certain product, he receives a new TV. Sales have been good, he explained, and he now has five TVs. Another incentive was for each bottle purchased one was entitled to a lottery title and the prize was a motorcycle.
There was an excitement about his store, as local farmers and even government extension officers listened in silence while he explained the range of products available, which one was good, which one was popular, and which was the cheapest. However, above all, everyone wants to know what new products are available for an insect that somehow escapes all their ‘management’ efforts. We left the store disappointed, powerless and with a slight nausea from the cocktail of odors that permeated the air. A nausea that helps one to reflect on the forgotten health hazards of chemical insecticides.
Earlier that day, while reviewing fields of rice with chronic grassy stunt and ragged stunt viral infection (viruses transmitted by hoppers) (Read: BPH and virus in Indonesia ), we witnessed farmers applying pesticides to somehow save the remaining crop. In many fields, rice lay abandoned, farmers having finally given-up on the battle. Over 20,000 ha have already been seriously damaged. Of the many farmers we observed spraying, none wore protective clothing. Of ten farmers with whom we spoke directly, four sported t-shirts with the colors and names of pesticide companies or products, free gifts handed-out during one of the many popular ‘pest management’ courses run by the company. One farmer told us that he was one of over 1,000 farmers to receive training at a recent company-sponsored event. At these courses farmers were told that the newer pesticide formulations are IPM compatible.
Posters and slideshows show healthy finches and guppies unharmed by pesticides, that for spiders the products are ‘slightly harmful’, that the ecosystem is maintained healthy. One wonders whether farmers, convinced that products are safe for spiders and fish, feel that the same chemicals could never harm humans. At one site, unprotected farmers sprayed fields beside a drainage canal where young villagers fished for catfish. The fish were for supper, ‘they are smaller and fewer than before’ explained one of the boys.
Classic IPM depended on field monitoring and the application of scientifically derived threshold criteria that helped the farmer decide when to spray. Only when insect densities were high enough to threaten production would the farmer spray. But the ‘new IPM’ has no place for monitoring as farmers receive didactic application schedules to follow whether insects occur or not, and irrespective of pest population densities. At Bayul Kidul two farmers reported on the fate of their crops this year. Both had previous IPM training had sprayed five times to control insects, following similar schedules and using the same insecticides; however, for one farmer the pesticides ‘worked’, whereas the second reported that he had been ‘unlucky’ and lost his crop to hoppers. Standing before these farmers one is faced with the difficulty of explaining the resurgence nature of planthoppers and the now increasingly apparent link between the overuse and misuse of pesticides and the occurrence of severe and widespread hopperburn. The patchy distribution of hoppers seems to actually promote pesticide use. Farmers who suffered no hopperburn, stick to apparently tried and proven spray regimes, they feel that they have been successful in controlling an insect that devastated their neighbour’s crop. Among farmers the antonym of ‘unlucky’ is not ‘lucky’ but ‘experienced’, farmers never feel they have been lucky, preferring to put their success down to hard-earned experience and good management. As hopper populations grow, as they have been recently, and more and more farmers become ‘unlucky’, perhaps a new solution will emerge to counteract the currently unsustainable situation in the countryside.
At Bogor, rice scientists reported on the growing hopper problem and looked for solutions that might function quickly. Evidence from around the room hinted at a problem that had been ignored for many years. Indonesia, more than any country should understand the complexities of planthoppers. In the early 1970s planthoppers had devastated their rice crops, depleted their stocks and reversed a government program to triple national rice production. Indonesia went from rice exporter to importer as outbreaks plagued the country. Indonesia also became the testing ground for widespread planting of resistant rice varieties, and witnessed the first emergence of adapted hopper populations: resistant varieties with the resistance genes Bph1 and bph2 no longer functioned within a short few years of their release. The removal of pesticide subsidies at that time and the initiation of farmer field schools are thought by some to have led to a successful and sustained management of the hoppers in Indonesia (See: Shepard’s post). At Bogor, recent posters advertised modern rice varieties as resistant to ‘biotype 2’: the claims and language of the poster an echo of 30 years past. Similarly unrealistic figures for insecticide efficiencies emerged: insecticide resistance, a scourge in other countries appears not to have been well monitored in Indonesia. None of this should be surprising since the hopper has only reemerged as a problem in the past few years. This all suggests that scientists, extensionists and policy makers have neglected classic IPM in recent years, allowing good management practices and governing structures to erode and making way for the ‘new IPM’ and calendar spraying. The quick solution sought at Bogor is unlikely, and, observing the players in Indonesia sadly suggests that things will get worse before they get better.