By Luisa Maria Jacinta C. Jocson, Reporter

SUBSIDIES to farmers will be critical in the first few years of the new administration, which has set a goal of expanding agricultural output, until farmers achieve a measure of self-sufficiency, according to an official from a company that produces high-yielding hybrid rice.

“Government subsidies are critical to growth in agriculture. Not forever, (but) maybe the first five years. At the moment, we need to subsidize them,” SL Agritech Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Henry Lim Bon Liong said in a Zoom interview.

“President Rodrigo R. Duterte (also provided subsidies) but the budget isn’t enough so there have been lots of issues,” he added. “Subsidies are not bad, every country does it. Even the United States in the early 19th century provided millions for agriculture (including) cotton. Subsidies have always been a way for farmers to become progressive. It is what China is doing now, focusing on agriculture… I think we should follow that.”

SL Agritech develops hybrid rice seed varieties that are suitable for the Philippines and provides technical support to farmers that use its seed.

“Rice is a pollinating flower and plant. In order for this rice to be hybrid then in nature there must be a flower that is self-sterile. If the rice flower is sterile then it cannot self-pollinate. If you cannot self-pollinate, then other male flowers will fertilize the plant thus leading to a hybrid,” Mr. Lim Bon Liong added.

SL Agritech products include the SL-8H, SL-12H, SL-19H, SL-20H, and SL-68H Super Hybrid Rice Seeds.. These hybrid rice varieties can thrive in both wet and dry seasons. For consumers, it offers premium milled rice brands such as Doña Maria Premium Quality Rice and Willy Farms Rice.

“The prices of our variety have not increased, about P5,000 to cover one hectare. We made a lot of farmers millionaires. If you look at Nueva Ecija farmers, they are mostly returning overseas Filipino workers (OFWs). The returning OFWs are really the best farmers because they are educated and know the different techniques,” he added.

The company is developing more varieties to help people with the rice crisis, according to Mr. Lim Bon Liong.

“The Doña Maria program is exporting to many countries like the Middle East. We are putting back Filipino rice to countries around the world,” he said.

During the company’s earlier years, Mr. Lim Bon Liong said he went to China in order to further study and research hybrid rice.

“When I went to China, they were able to feed their entire population and still have some to export…  More than 40 million people died of hunger in China in the sixties. From there I spoke with experts and I learned that agriculture will help the population, but with limited land what do you do? You turn to high yielding rice,” he said.

“When I came back to the Philippines. I met with the International Rice Research Institute. Unfortunately, hybrid rice can only be planted 70 degrees above the equator. The Philippines is a tropical country so it is very difficult to plant it here and I was disappointed,” he said.

Mr. Lim Bon Liong then began experimenting with 75 varieties of hybrid rice from China.

“I started in Laguna, but after one season it was a total failure. It is so hot in the Philippines that it kills the flowering, making it too early so the grains are empty. I was about to give up but my mother told me to make my own variety of hybrid rice,” he said.

In 1998, he started looking for land to establish a research facility. By 2001, he was able to eventually develop hybrid rice that was compatible with the Philippine climate.

Moving forward, SL Agritech will continue its initiatives to attain rice self-sufficiency and increase rice yields with the help of the government.

“We hope to talk to the current President to allow us (to supply) seed for the Masagana programs,” he added.