(STAR) By Julie Cabatit-Alegre - Henry Lim, together with farmers from Isabela, Cagayan, Nueva Ecija, Laguna, Camarines Norte, and Davao, was in Malacañang on the invitation of the presidential press office to talk about his hybrid rice. He was wearing a coat and tie, but he noticed that the farmers were in T-shirts, denim pants and sandals.

"I felt out of place," he recalls. So he started to remove his coat, but one of the farmers grabbed his hand.

"Boss, don’t," the farmer said in Tagalog. "Next time we, too, will be able to wear a coat and tie like you."

This incident took place a few years ago, but Henry Lim likes to tell the story because he felt happy for the farmers. He felt happy that they could see their life improving; that they could look forward to something better.

Henry Lim Bon Liong is the chairman and CEO of SL Agritech Corporation, which is relatively new in the business but already the largest and most aggressive hybrid rice seed company in the industry. What makes this even more noteworthy is the fact that Henry Lim was not an agriculturist to start with. He graduated from the University of the Philippines with a BS degree in Mechanical Engineering. At the very young age of 25, after the untimely death of his father, the late Lim Seh Leng, Henry Lim took over the helm of Sterling Paper Products Ent. Inc., which his father founded. Henry Lim saw it grow into the Sterling Paper Group of Companies, which has diversified from the business of paper products and stationery to include a call center, retail chains of real estate, pharmaceutical and agriculture products.

Henry Lim got involved in agriculture purely by chance. "It was providential," he likes to say. In 1997, when former President Joseph Estrada was still vice president, Henry Lim remembers him saying, "If ever I become president of the Philippines, I would like to put agriculture as the main priority." At about the same time, Henry Lim got the chance to meet Premier Zhu Rhong Ji of China.

"I was a board member of the Federation of Filpino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and I had the privilege to have lunch with him at the Westin Philippine Plaza," Lim relates. "He was so adored by Western economists – his economics was termed ‘huronomics.’ When the Asian crisis hit the region, China was not affected because of him. He was telling us, ‘Do you know, in China right now, even if we do not produce a single grain of rice in one year, we will not go hungry? Despite calamities and floods, we still have so much rice that we do not have enough warehouses to store our rice.’ Can you imagine? I hope I can live to see the day when our national leader will finally say something like that."

It was not always that way in China. "In the early ’50s up to the early ’80s, life was difficult in China," Henry Lim recalls. "Every year, more than 10 million people died of hunger. At that time, the Chinese government advocated widespread farming. They cut down the trees in the forest, burned the grass, and planted rice. They even reclaimed a beautiful lake just to plant rice. But even with that, they had to resort to rice and food coupons. If a family did not have a coupon, they would go hungry."

It was the pioneering work of Prof. Yuan Long Ping, who came to be known as the world’s father of hybrid rice technology, that changed all that.

"He is the main reason why China is self-sufficient in rice today in spite of its vast population," Henry Lim remarks. In 2001, Prof. Yuan Long Ping was recognized for his accomplishment and contribution to the world’s food security when he received the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service.

"I met Prof. Yuan in China through a common friend," Henry Lim relates. "I don’t know what kind of chemistry there was between the two of us, but he said he would like to assist me in the Philippines. Immediately I grabbed the opportunity – because this was an opportunity – even while I knew that I was practically venturing into the unknown. As an entrepreneur, I should know that one of the biggest risks is not to take risks. That is what entrepreneurs do. It is said that a ship is safe if it is always docked at the harbor, but that is not what ships are built for."

Back in the Philippines, Lim met with the experts at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Los Baños. "There are 190,000 varieties of rice and practically every available variety is stored in IRRI," Henry Lim says. "Unfortunately, hybrid rice can be planted only in the temperate region, at a certain degree above the equator. Because it is hotter here, the flowering comes too early and there is no grain that can be formed. We tested 75 different types of hybrid rice from China, and all failed."

Lim found himself in a quandary. "If I continue," he thought, "then I should develop my own variety, but who am I to develop a variety that can be adapted to our tropical country?" In response to his own question, he took a leap of faith and bought a 40-hectare property in Sta. Cruz, Laguna, which served as the experimental farm for his hybrid rice. Prof. Yuan sent three of his scientists to help him in his quest.

Lim is often asked if a hybrid is the same as GMO. "A hybrid is never a GMO," is his reply. "Hybrid" simply means getting the very superior parental lines and putting the two together. "The problem is that rice has always been a self-pollinating plant. Inside the small rice flower are both the male and female, so there is no cross-pollination."

In Prof. Yuan’s field research, nature provided the answer. He discovered a wild aborted male sterile rice flower that lent itself to cross-pollination. The challenge for Henry Lim was how to replicate this in a tropical setting.

On the morning of January 17, 2001, two months after a tragic car accident in which he was badly injured and lost his mother and a brother, Lim’s prayer was answered. "That early morning, Prof. Zhang, our lead scientist in the field, saw my mother, as if in a dream," Henry relates, "and she directed him to go to the rice fields to inspect the rice flowers. It took him all morning to look at all the flowers in the 40-hectare field. Just the day before, his inspection produced a negative result and they were about to clear the fields in order to start all over again. That morning, with the guidance of my mother, he found what he was looking for in Plot no. 8."

Henry Lim decided to call the hybrid variety SL8H after his father (Lim Seh Leng) and Plot 8 "where we found the stabilization of the cross-pollinated flower," he explains. Later, Prof. Yuan would confirm that this was a good variety. "‘It took me more than 25 years to come up with a very good hybrid-rice variety,’ Prof. Yuan told me, ‘and it took you less than five years.’ He gave me four words. Lacking one, he said, I would not have succeeded. If he had told me this the first time we met, I would have surrendered at once."

The four words were: first, knowledge – you must have knowledge about the hybrid rice; second, perspiration – you have to work hard and invest a lot of money; third, inspiration – because you are going to fail more than a thousand times, but you must not quit; and fourth, chance – this is the most difficult; it is one in a million. That chance was your mother. If she did not appear that morning, the fields would have been cleared, and you would have missed your chance."

They produced the seeds for the next three seasons and sent seeds to farmers in the north and south. "The farmers came back with eight tons, 14 tons of palay per hectare where before they could produce only three tons per hectare," says Lim. "Last year, we even got 17 tons per hectare."

It was also providential when he met Secretary Luis "Cito" Lorenzo Jr. when Lorenzo was Presidential Adviser for Agriculture and Job Generation. They were seated together on the plane during one of President Arroyo’s official trips to Japan. Lim was part of the business delegation, and Lorenzo showed an interest in his efforts.

"Our country has 3.9 million hectares of rice land but only 900,000 hectares are fully irrigated," Lim points out. "I am determined to increase the yield from three tons to at least 10 tons per hectare. If we have just one additional farmer to do the transplanting, harvesting and hauling, you would have created 900,000 additional jobs." He got the support of Lorenzo, who later became Secretary of Agriculture.

"In ancient China, they had a belief that only rich and wealthy farmers could lead to a strong nation," says Lim. "If farmers had bountiful harvests, they could collect taxes and have a strong dynasty. Every downfall of an emperor was caused by the uprising of the farmers. The state gave a high status to farmers, who were ranked second only to government officials. Third were the workers, and merchants, like us, were ranked only fourth among the four basic social classes. But our farmers here are the poorest of the poor. We are importing rice from Vietnam. If our farmers lose their livelihood, they have no means to buy even cheap rice. The only logical thing to do is to increase the yield, then buy palay from our farmers. Can you imagine the multiplier effect? When the harvest is good, the farmers will have money to buy appliances and many other things that can give rise to a lot of other industries." Lim has seen this happen. "When I go to the province, the farmers hug me and thank me for the increase in their harvest because of our hybrid variety," he relates.

With his continuing R&D, Lim has also developed a high-yielding hybrid variety that has the aroma of jasmine and the softness of Japanese rice, thus the name Jasponica rice. It carries the brand name Doña Maria, after Henry Lim’s beloved mother, Maria Co. "People used to say that hybrid rice does not taste good, that it is only fit for pigs. But we have proven that this is not true with our SL8H hybrid rice, which really has good eating quality. And now we have Jasponica rice, which has the best eating quality so that it is being served even in high-end restaurants, Philippine Airlines flights, and on international cruise ships.

"The good news is you can also enjoy it in your own home. It costs much less than the comparable imported varieties. We have our own mill so you can be sure that our Jasponica is not mixed with inferior varieties in the same bag. With every purchase, you will also be supporting our farmers."

Doña Maria Jasponica rice comes in two-kilo, five-kilo and 25-kilo packs. With the coming Christmas season, they make excellent gifts that not only taste good but also suggest prosperity for the new year.

Henry Lim would like to spread the good news about hybrid rice: "In China, they used to give free seeds to the farmers until they saw their increased yield so that they were already willing to buy the seeds. Here, less than seven percent of our farmers know about hybrid rice, but that is changing. Right now, seeds are being distributed through different municipal agriculture offices.

"We have farmers now who are making P100,000 per hectare," Henry says. "I lost my vice president for techno demo, Tom Jimenez, who went into farming because he saw a lot of farmers making more than P100,000 per hectare using our seeds. Now he is not only selling palay but also milling it into rice, so he gets a bigger profit. I told him, ‘I’m happy for you.’ I wish we could have more professionals who can become farmer-entrepreneurs like him.

"I would like to help farmers improve their standard of living and make our country self-sufficient in food, especially rice," says Henry Lim. "When that happens, I will consider it the greatest accomplishment in my life."

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Doña Maria Jasponica rice is available in most supermarkets such as SM, Robinsons, Hi-Top, and Waltermart.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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