Rosalie may be a small lady, but she’s one of the most gutsy and innovative farmers in the developing world. I was lucky to meet her last year in person.
Amazingly, she didn’t grow up in a farming family. As recently as 1995, she wasn’t even involved in agriculture as a profession. In fact, she had just been widowed, and was struggling to support her three children as a single mother.
So she took her savings and bought a little farm of 1.3 hectares (about 3.2 acres.)
Rosalie had worked internationally as a domestic aide and a marketing specialist–and she knew enough about farming to know that she didn’t know how to run a farm. She hired a relative to oversee the operations. The results were disappointing. Rosalie realized that if they continued, she would never be able to afford to send her kids to college.
The enemies were pests and weeds. They were destroying her corn. “We got so many rejections from buyers,” she said. The biggest problems were the corn borers, which drilled holes into her plants, creating pathways for mites, diseases, and fungi to infest her crops.
Desperate for a solution, Rosalie attended a pest-management school–and she learned about biotechnology. A visit to a farm that grew Bt corn convinced her that GM crops were the answer to her challenges.
“When I saw the Bt corn field, I asked, ‘Why does this look very different from what I have planted and seen earlier?’ I was intrigued at how clean the kernel and the cob looked.”
She brought new know-how back to her town and became the first farmer in her region to try Bt corn. Although GM crops were already well-established commercial products, especially in the United States, Rosalie met with some local resistance. No matter where you go, there are always people who resist change–and Rosalie clashed with a few in her area.
Yet it was difficult to argue with the results. Her cornfields became the envy of her neighbors. Word spread that Rosalie was onto something–and that biotechnology had the potential to help other Filipino farmers. They followed in her pioneering footsteps.
She continued to embrace biotechnology, keeping up with new advances and always encouraging others to break new ground right alongside her. Last year, she planted her entire farm with corn with several biotech traits. “It was plain enough to see that the demo results were outstanding,” she said. “I was truly convinced that a marginal farmer can improve her lifestyle if she will adopt biotechnology.”
Specifically, she reduced her plowing and was able to replace labor-intensive hand-weeding with modest applications of herbicide. Her profitability increased and so did the size of her farm, which is now 6 hectares (15 acres).
Most important, biotechnology helped her meet her goals: “Even as a single parent, I managed to send my children to good universities from my additional income in growing biotechnology-enhanced corn,” she said. “There was a magic transformation of my life.”
Rosalie is an extraordinary person–but in many ways, she’s also typical. Most of the world’s planters are just like her, trying to eke out a living from a small amount of land and fighting against bugs, weeds, and bad weather.
Biotechnology holds the potential to help every one of them. If it can help a widowed mother in the Philippines send her kids to college, then surely it can help others feed themselves and their communities.
Next week in Des Moines, amid the events and festivities surrounding the World Food Prize, Rosalie will receive the first-ever Kleckner Award. Her plaque will recognize her “strong leadership, vision, and resolve in advancing the right of all farmers to choose the technology and tools that will improve the quality, quantity, and availability of agricultural products around the world.”
She’s a worthy recipient and an excellent role model.
John Rigolizzo, Jr. is a fifth generation farmer, raising fresh vegetables and field corn in southern New Jersey. The family farm manages both road side retail and wholesale markets. John is a board member of Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrrade.org