Brown planthopper (BPH) attacks have been damaging millions of hectares of rice paddies in Asia in recent years, leading to the loss of several million tons of rice. It is now a major threat to livelihoods and food security tens of millions of subsistence farmers.
TVE Japan’s new scientific documentary, Hopper Race, takes a long and hard look at the crisis in Asian agriculture highlighted by these outbreaks.
For two years, the film’s script writer, director and editor Juka Kawaai worked closely with rice scientists, ecologists and entomologists, understanding the science, economics and politics of rice planthoppers. In this interview with TVEAP Director Nalaka Gunawardene, she discusses the research and production process, as well as what she’d like to see happen next.
Nalaka: How did you choose this topic to make a documentary film? Where did the inspiration come from?
Juka: I have been interested in issues on pesticides and Asian agriculture ever since I made (an episode of) the educational TV series, Japan’s Pollution Experience, titled “The light and shadow of pesticide” in 2007. That showed how “modern agriculture” degraded environment and affected human health in Japan back in 1960s, and also how Japan has since moved toward more restricted and regulated use of the agro-chemicals today. It was (thus) natural for me to shift my interest to rice planthoppers that has become a huge problem with the advent of agro-chemicals during green revolution.
Since around 2007, rice planthopper outbreaks were happening in Asian rice growing areas again and this was seen as “return of Green Revolution pests”. By 2009, situation were getting worse and International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), the very organization that led green revolution in the 1960s had begun a project to combat the problem, this time -- unlike in the past -- promoting non chemical solutions.
Because planthoppers were considered to be manageable since the mid 1980s for about 20 years, “Why planthoppers again?” was the question many scientists asked with the outbreak reports coming from several Asian countries.
So I decided to tag along with the journey with scientists, in search of the answers why…
How do you describe Hopper Race – an educational, awareness, activist or scientific film?
The purpose of the film “Hopper Race” is to promote awareness in ecological agriculture. But it is a very scientific film and I hope viewers can enjoy learning about biology of small insects that live in rice ecosystems. Their ways of survival, how planthoppers adapt to the environmental changes and how insects depend on each other are both fascinating and interesting…
Finding out about richness of the rice environment, (not only in rice but also in other agricultural products), we would have to stop and think what one spray of pesticides would do to these insects living in the fields. That’s what I am hoping the impacts on the viewers will be.
Plant Hoppers sounds very scientific and biological, but in this film it’s really a metaphor for something larger, isn’t it?
Planthoppers react to what humans do to the environment. So their outbreaks are like a “wake-up call” for what we have done wrong.
“Farmers and scientists like to think they can control pest like planthoppers with…chemical applications and pest-resistant rice varieties. But 50 years of…such technologies…have only ended up producing stronger and more resistant planthoppers!”
I mean, they weren’t even “pests” in tropical Asia until farmers started applying agrochemicals in rice fields. Farmers and scientists like to think they can control pest like planthoppers with “modern technology”, such as chemical applications and also breeding of pest-resistant rice varieties. But 50 years of diligent development of such technologies all around the world have only ended up producing stronger and more resistant planthoppers out there that needed more chemicals to kill!
Recent outbreaks of planthoppers tell us that stronger chemicals or resistant rice plant genes are not the solution. Maybe the whole approach needs to change…(I’d like the viewers to think about it after watching the film.)
The rice planthopper in the film seeks to explain “biodiversity”. Some people might find it hard to grasp the concept of biodiversity – they might wonder what biodiversity has got to do with them. But this film tries to show how Nature depends very much on biodiversity, and the absence of biodiversity can cause dire consequences.
So yes, the planthopper is indeed an icon, and a “wake up call” to the loss of biodiversity that can affect your lives – production loss of our sustenance rice.
Ricehopper outbreaks is a big story…one that concerns livelihoods and food security of hundreds of millions of Asians. It has economic implications that run into tens of millions of dollars. Does all this make it a political topic too?
Yes, it is a political issue (as well). And it’s amazing how an ordinary insect can trigger something so political! But as Dr. K L Heong -- the IRRI scientist interviewed in the film -- repeatedly says, the issue needs to be dealt at policy level. Without sound policies and their proper implementation, the problem can’t be resolved.
How did you research this story? Where did you find these experts who are engaged in evidence based advocacy?
First, I made contact with Dr. K Sogawa, a Japanese entomologist who has long studied rice planthoppers and host plant resistance relationship in China. He introduced me to Dr. Heong and other entomologists at IRRI. I also attended scientific conferences held in Japan, China and Vietnam and got to know many scientists who greatly helped me with filming.
You filmed this story, on and off, for two years in China, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam – all rice growing countries, but each different. How much material did you shoot? In how many languages did you interview?
Hours and hours of filming! I don’t exactly know how many, but something close to 150 hours. Further, filming in the rice field trying to capture many living things and some live action such as predation under the hot glaring sun took hours of patience and continuous efforts by the cameraman and help of many people. I cannot express my appreciation enough.
My fieldwork was in China (Yunnan and Hunan province), Thailand (mostly central Thailand) Vietnam (North and South Vietnam) and the Philippines. Language translation was hard because within the countries they use different dialects. So including the dialect I had to deal with five languages, plus English.
Any memorable moments during filming?
“We were waiting for baby insects to hatch…since the night before, and finally – after hours of waiting -- one baby decided to come out, just before our flight back to Japan!”
Many! But if I must choose one, it was the location shooting in the Philippines. We were filming at IRRI trying to film what kind of battles happen between planthoppers and its natural enemies. IRRI researchers helped us film parasitized
planthopper eggs. We were waiting for baby insects to hatch from the egg since the night before, and finally – after hours of waiting -- one baby decided to come out the next morning, just before our flight back to Japan! We were so happy it came out into this world just in time (for us). This footage is, of course, used in the film to explain what parasitization is.
You have filmed some of Green Revolution’s promoters now publicly voicing doubts, and even admitting they were wrong. How did you get them to be so candid?
IRRI has been criticized for being one of the drivers of pesticides dependence in Asian countries during Green Revolution. And the IRRI entomologist Dr. Heong knew that the Green Revolution ended up using a far greater volume of pesticides than was really needed.
“Dr. Heong has just remained loyal to the scientific evidence and his belief. That must not have been an easy task especially (while) belonging to the very institution that had initiated the Green Revolution…”
For him, being an entomologist for decades and knowing how insects behave in rice ecosystem, lessons learnt from Green Revolution were obvious. But it is hard for many experts and many others to admit their original mistakes. Also, agrochemical industries are so powerful both economically and politically.
Dr. Heong had just remained loyal to the scientific evidence and his belief. That must not have been an easy task especially (while) belonging to the very institution that had initiated the Green Revolution. But he not only became vocal about the lessons learnt, but has also spent 20 years trying to convince his institution and Asian governments to rethink their dependence on agrochemicals…
The Green Revolution was promoted on threats of widespread famine. Half a century later, some agronomists still invoke fears of food shortages looming large. How does sustainable agriculture address food security needs and concerns of Asia countries and governments?
Pesticides use in Asian countries has skyrocketed in the past 10 years since 2000. At the same time, planthopper damages have been occurring across Asian rice production regions causing huge rice production losses -- as we saw in Thailand recently.
From “economic” point of view, these losses could perhaps be ignored as being only a few percent of the world’s total rice production. Some might argue that there is greater benefit than harm in using agrochemicals to meet the demand for food.
But when I am actually in the field, I find many farmers bearing a heavy burden of debts to purchase costly pesticides, which also affect their health. Many farmers in Asia don’t want their children to continue that line of work. They want kids to quit farming and work in towns instead.
In contrast, I met many organic farmers who are very contented with their healthy and chemical-free lives and are having fun farming. So sustainable farming not only provides ecologically sustainable environment but (also) helps farmers to lead happier lives.
Measuring nutritional differences between organic and conventional food is missing the forest for the trees. Even though organic farming has been driven by consumers’ demand to have healthier food, it can (also) give you more than that. In the organically farmed land, soil is richer with micro-organisms, and the farm is full of biodiversity that provide priceless ecosystem services.
Also, the amount of inputs and output will be balanced and society will be more recycle oriented within such communities. So there will be no waste or excessive nitrogen and phosphorous to pollute the water (through agricultural runoff). Other than that, I don’t know if taste can be measured by science… anyone who has eaten food grown in the environment rich in biodiversity and soil full of micro-organisms knows that they are more tasty, rich and overflowing with vital energy.
More than anything, as a filmmaker who has had the opportunity to walk many fields on my own foot, I believe my role is not to forget what I experienced with my five senses…
The agrochemical business has spread to small villages in most parts of developing Asia. They are aggressively marketing chemical pesticides to farmers promising ‘quick fixes’ against assorted pests. Activists and researchers on alternatives are heavily outnumbered. What can they do?
Yes, they are totally outnumbered and cannot compete with the agro businesses that have huge capital. But I also see small changes here and there at the grassroots level.
Often, farmers who stop using chemical inputs are those who suffered from it either in health or from debt. And often, consumers who have realized dangers choose more sustainably grown food. This might be small numbers in Asian countries, but this is a sign that a movement is surely happening. We must document these small isolated changes and enhance these movements by building or supporting the system…
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) has been promoted in Asia since the 1970s, but still not entered the mainstream of farming. Many Asian governments still have policies that heavy favour agrochemicals. How can your film support the work of IPM community?
“Unfortunately amount of information coming from agrochemical advertisers has overwhelmed the impact of IPM since scaling down of IPM training in Asia. That’s why education needs to be on-going…”
I met many farmers who had gone through training and practiced IPM in the past but then turned back to more chemical use in recent years. Unfortunately amount of information coming from agrochemical advertisers have overwhelmed the impact of IPM since scaling down of the IPM training programmes. That’s why education needs to be on-going.
I hope that as an educational film, “Hopper Race” will be viewed repeatedly by farmers and their trainers, and it will have as much exposure as possible so it can support IPM efforts everywhere.
You have tried to make the film more interesting by occasionally bringing in the sarcastic voice of a plant hopper. What gave you this idea?
I wanted the viewers to learn the dynamism of biodiversity in rice field. But I wanted to avoid being too preachy. I thought it would be easier if we shift our point of view from people’s world to lower down below, the rice paddy’s world.
Because if you put yourself in the planthopper’s shoes, it is quite obvious why the planthopper population explodes. And you must wonder why people are going out all the way to clear all the natural enemies for hoppers (by using pesticides), when otherwise they were living in peace and harmony. In many cases, to tell this kind of stories, to explain the concept of biodiversity or the biology of the insects, it just was more exciting and easier to grasp if the hopper carries the story.
What’s the main audience you wish to reach and engage through this film?
I would like Asian farmers to watch the film, of course, but even more importantly, the message needs to be conveyed to higher, decision making levels -- agronomists, many of who are still inclined toward chemical solutions, scientists, who tend to stick only with their specialization and don’t try to see the bigger picture, and government officials who can actually implement new ideas and build systems for sustainable agriculture.
And also young people everywhere who will be shaping their societies in the future…
Now the film is being translated into 7 Asian languages by our partner organizations in Cambodia, Myanmar, India, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam. Then they will be disseminating in their countries in their various ways -- such as TV broadcasts, public film screenings, mobile screening in rural areas, DVD distribution to public institutions and universities and so on.
It is exciting to see how diverse our partners are, and in what diverse ways the film will be disseminated. This will engage a vast and diverse audience during 2013, and their feedback will also be very diverse. I am looking forward to seeing this audience reaction.
And TVE Japan is also trying to carry out a survey to study the impact of the film in selected Asian countries. This is a new field of activity for us, and will be a new challenge. If any more organizations in Asian countries are interested in disseminating the film, we invite them to get in touch with us c/o TVE Japan.