Farmer-Led Resistance: MASIPAG’s Journey to Reclaim Seed Sovereignty

The Dominant Agricultural System in the Philippines is Stacked Against Them — But MASIPAG is Changing the Narrative

he Philippines’ food system was shaped by centuries of colonial rule — first Spanish, then U.S. Colonial powers worked to steadily consolidate land in the hands of a small number of corporations and wealthy landowners. Today, while 75 percent of the country lives in rural areas, where agriculture is the main source of livelihood, nine out of ten farmers do not own the land they till. The Philippines government has promised to address the feudalistic conditions facing the majority of the country since the 1980s; time and again they have broken their promises of genuine agrarian reform and land redistribution and instead shored up power with the support of the wealthy landowning minority. Increasingly, farmers and farmers’ rights advocates who advocate for land and justice are targeted and arrested or killed by the government.

Filipino farmers’ calls for the right to shape their own food systems have gone ignored. Instead, corporations have teamed up with the government to address what they see as “the real problem.” Institutions like the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) introduced what they claimed were “high-yielding,” vitamin fortified varieties of rice during the Green Revolution in the 1960s. Rice is a staple crop across Asia and supports the livelihoods of a majority of rural farmers. These seeds, which were funded by the likes of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (who donated around $10.3 million to the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) for its development of Vitamin-A-fortified “Golden Rice”), and delivered through government-subsidised packages, were marketed as a means to improve farmers’ yields.

But the new rice varieties came with a host of unintended consequences. Farmers’ health began to suffer from the high levels of chemical fertilisers and pesticides required to grow these modern rice varieties. As the initial subsidised packages ran out, the steep cost of inputs began to push farmers back into a cycle of debt; they began to see decreasing gains in their yields as soils became degraded as a result of the intensive style of agriculture. Biodiversity began to plummet with the uptake of these uniform seeds displacing traditional rice varieties while decimating native foodways.

MASIPAG was formed in 1985, when a group of farmers, NGOs and scientists came together to respond to the threats of the Green Revolution. After they recognised the damaging side effects of the hybrid rice varieties, they took matters into their own hands: they set out to restore their own control over agricultural biodiversity through a participatory rice breeding program that has now spread throughout the country. What resulted was an example of radical farmer-led transformation and resilience.

What is MASIPAG?

At its core, MASIPAG began as an effort to break up the control of corporations and multilateral rice research institutes that governed the Philippines’ rice sector. It began as an experiment — after the conference, the farmers and scientists from the University of the Philippines in Los Banos (UPLB) in attendance donated 47 traditional and locally-bred rice varieties to a community-managed seed bank. They also started their first trial farm, then called satellite farms, where they would test and breed new varieties without the use of chemical inputs.

Moreover, the rice breeding objectives are set by the farmers themselves. Today, in partnership with local crop scientists and partner organisations, MASIPAG has grown to include 50,000 farmers; 272 trial farms across 47 provinces; 10 community seed banks; and a total of more than 2000 locally-developed seed varieties. The varieties are completely free and open-source to farmers if they contribute a few hours of labor in the monitoring and upkeep at one of the trial farms where the new seeds are developed.

But that doesn’t even begin to cover what they have achieved since their founding. Through their network, MASIPAG also helps farmers transition to organic agriculture, away from mono-cropping towards diversified and integrated farming systems. Through the membership-based, grassroots chapters in most provinces in the Philippines (called People’s Organisations), MASIPAG disseminate knowledge and expertise, trainings, and activities to help farmers move away from industrial agriculture. This farmer-to-farmer exchange of knowledge and expertise also builds networks and provides increased opportunities for farmers to become leaders in their communities.

As with any community-led initiative, democracy is at the core, and MASIPAG is founded with that commitment. They carry out the vast majority of their activities at this grassroots level; decisions are made largely at the community level by farmer-leaders. MASIPAG has very few paid staff or full-time employees assisting the farmers. As a result, the costs required to run these programs are minimal.

And, perhaps most crucially, MASIPAG has created a process that is decidedly farmer-led. It places the needs, priorities, and expertise of farmers at the center, with scientists and NGOs providing support only if needed and requested in the process of achieving these goals. In turn, these farmer-led approaches have changed the scientists and NGOs perspectives and approaches in development work. MASIPAG explicitly aims to advance farmers’ rights, as they relate to land, seed, biodiversity, decision-making, culture, and knowledge. In the process, it has brought into question the very logic upon which institutions like the IRRI are built.

MASIPAG’s Impact

In 2008, a group of scientists carried out the largest study to date on small-scale rice based farming systems. The study was focused on MASIPAG’s work, incorporating experiences of 840 farmers, either organic, in transition to MASIPAG’s approach, or conventional to analyse differences in food security, income, productivity, and environmental outcomes. What they found was striking.

88 percent of the MASIPAG farmers reported having better food security than they did in 2000. Only 44 percent of the conventional farmers responded in the same way. Further, 18 percent of the conventional farmers rated themselves as “worse off” in terms of their food security than they had been in 2000, while only 2 percent of the MASIPAG farmers responded this way.

They also found that the organic farmers ate a more diverse diet — according to the study, the organic farmers consumed “68% more vegetables, 56% more fruit, 55% more protein rich staples and 40% more meat” than they did in 2000. This rate of consumption is between 2 and 3.7 times higher than it was found to be for conventional farmers.

The organic farmers grew 50 percent more crop types than the conventional farmers did; finally, 85 percent of the organic farmers rated their health to be “better or much better” than it was in 2000, while in the reference group, only 32 percent rated themselves in the same way.

Farmers in the MASIPAG group also reported higher incomes — 74 percent of these farmers report increasing incomes, while only 31 percent of conventional farmers reported the same (68 percent reported “stagnant or declining” incomes). Reduced production costs largely accounted for the higher incomes reported in the MASIPAG group — although production costs were high for farmers in the process of converting to organic agriculture, once the transition was complete, full organic farmers reported production costs half that of the conventional farmer group.

The researchers also compared the yields of rice on the different kinds of farms. (Although the MASIPAG farmers grew a more diverse set of crops, most farms are still based around rice as the main crop.) The MASIPAG farmers were growing the farmer-bred rice varieties while conventional farmers grew “high-yielding” varieties. They found no difference in the yields of the farmer-bred rice varieties compared to the high-yielding, corporate varieties during the study period. However, the yields of the conventional farmers were actually decreasing over time, as soil depleted in quality due to heavy chemical fertiliser and pesticide use; meanwhile, the yields of organic rice farmers were surpassing them and increasing over time.

In this way, farmers proved that they were not only capable of producing rice varieties that rivalled, if not surpassed, the ones developed by actors like the IRRI, they also recognised the strength that was held in organising themselves to create a robust network of farmer-to-farmer knowledge exchange to help free each other from the dependencies these external actors created. By restoring their own agency; by stepping outside the conventional system that wasn’t working for them and creating their own, they were able to observe profound shifts in many aspects of their lives.

A Revaluation of Farmer-Led Knowledge

All of this points to a pervasive problem in the way food systems change is approached: peasant farmers (and their traditional knowledge systems) are often seen in mainstream development narratives as resistant to change, slow to adopt innovation, and at odds with Western science, especially if they resist the adoption of high-yielding varieties or other technologies like fertilisers and pesticides. Further, peasant farmers’ “traditional” knowledge is often seen as subjective, unreliable, and less valuable in comparison to “scientific” knowledge.

Since the Green Revolution, dissemination of false information surrounding industrial agriculture and high-yielding varieties became rampant in the Philippines. Farmers were told that high-yielding varieties would produce a more economically profitable and nutritious crop than local varieties. Debal Deb, a rice scientist and seed protector from India, calls this “semantic imperialism” as it paints all local varieties as low-yielding in comparison. This type of semantic warfare leads to communities undervaluing not only their resources but also wealth of knowledge.⠀

This pervasive narrative is not only wrong; it’s dangerous. It makes coercion and forceful intervention by force on the part of governments and development actors seem like a legitimate necessity to bring about progress. In the 1980s, for example, the Filipino government ordered that stocks of traditional seeds be burned, effectively forcing farmers to convert to Green Revolution seed varieties as they no longer had access to their traditional seeds. This narrative is one with violent consequences.

MASIPAG’s approach directly challenges this dichotomy. Throughout their years doing this work, they intentionally used the same methods that the IRRI used to breed their crops, thus making it harder for the IRRI to discredit them. They pay careful attention to the scientific method and collaborate with crop scientists, while also revaluing and respecting the traditional knowledge that farmers hold about seed varieties. MASIPAG took an approach that was intentionally pro-science, pro-progress, and even pro-technology, to make themselves more of a force to be reckoned with.

Initiatives like MASIPAG are important agents in the process of revaluing farmers’ traditional knowledge for the social, environmental, and even political benefits it holds. This model directly challenges the technocratic notion that “experts” are those who ought to be charged with coming up with improved seed varieties (that measure success through increased yields alone). The MASIPAG farmers, when supported through partnerships with research institutions, were able to achieve these higher rates of productivity, but were able to do so in such a way that fosters biodiversity, positively impacts the environment, and preserves their culture.

The success of MASIPAG farmers puts into question the notion that smallholder farmers are destined to be poor unless they adopt the kind of high-yielding, intensive model of agriculture advocated by Green Revolution proponents. The picture begins to make less sense when put under scrutiny — under the prevailing logic, smallholder farmers are encouraged to take up Green Revolution farming styles in order to raise their yields, so that they can sell more crops and make a higher income with which to buy food for their families, thereby making them less food-insecure.

But, at least in the case of this study, the opposite happened. Farmers who adopted the conventional farming style began to see decreasing yields as the environmental side-effects of long-term chemical fertiliser and pesticide use emerged: they began to see lower yields, and because most of them practice monocropping, there was nothing to offset this loss. Further, the high production costs from purchasing inputs meant that most of the conventional farmers found themselves in debt at the end of the year.

The experience of MASIPAG ought to make us all pause when we hear narratives that present high-yielding, Green Revolution style agriculture to improve the livelihoods of small farmers. We must ask who benefits from this system; if it is true that farmers can develop equivalent or even superior crop varieties that require no expensive inputs, why are we not supporting them?

Instead of advocating for top-down subsidy packages that treat farmers as beneficiaries of “aid,” perhaps we ought to direct our attention to the places where farmers are defining both the problems and the solutions for themselves. We must support the places where farmers are out-performing top-down solutions and creating robust, decentralised networks that revalue traditional knowledge, protect biodiversity, and honour farmers’ role as active agents of change. We must strengthen these networks and scale out this approach to more communities in order to bring more lasting, sustainable change.

The next time you hear of a project, a conference, or a foundation calling for investment into more high-yielding varieties and input packages in the name of helping small farmers, think back to MASIPAG. Ask more questions. And demand that any solution we invest in restores agency to the ones who grow our food and radically restructures relationships of power so that farmers are no longer dependent on outside actors for their livelihoods. This is where we must invest our money, our support, and our priorities.

There exists a diversity of approaches to realising this goal; there will be no one-size-fits-all solution. But by placing the agency back into the hands of communities, we allow the solution to emerge that is most appropriate to that context. And by doing this — by recognising that agricultural change is a process, not a product — we begin the work of truly healing the injustices the food system has caused.

Confronting Unjust Power in the Food System

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