Rice farmers in Vietnam get the message

Posted: 31 May 2002

An initiative of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to persuade a million rice farmers in Asia to stop spraying harmful and unnecessary insecticides is the winner of this year's St Andrews Prize, the only international environmental prize in the United Kingdom.

Monina EscaladaMonina Escalada, a representative from the project team in the Philippines, was presented with the $25,000 award at St Andrews University - Scotland's oldest university - in May 2002.

Research shows that too many Asian rice farmers' insecticide sprays are unnecessary because they are applied at the wrong time and at the wrong targets. The chemicals used, such as methyl parathion, monocrotophos and metamidophos, are often highly hazardous to human health and are banned in the developed world.

These sprays disrupt natural biological control mechanisms - nature's "immune system" - and actually create an environment favourable to ecologically fitter pest species. This prompts farmers to spray even more in the late season. Not only can farmers become victims of pesticide abuse, but sprays can damage aquatic fauna, reducing fish and prawn cultures.

Most farmers spray in the early crop stages because of highly visible damage caused by caterpillars, beetles and grasshoppers. However, many of the modern rice varieties farmers grow today have built-in insect tolerance and generally do not require pest control.

What appeared to motivate farmers to spray insecticides during these stages are misconceptions, lack of knowledge and biased estimations of loss of crops. A recent study showed that the amount rice farmers estimated to lose if no insecticides were used was about 13 times higher than actual losses.

The project team argue that overuse and incorrect spraying of insecticides is due to years of aggressive pesticide advertising, lack of knowledge and incorrect estimations of crop losses.

Monina Escalada said: "We would use the St Andrews Prize money to correct this through a multi-media campaign to motivate farmers in the Red River Delta in North Vietnam to experiment with new information, change their beliefs and stop spraying unnecessarily and expensively.

"I have every confidence in this project as a similar initiative in the Mekong Delta spread successfully to two million farmers over five years."