Friday, December 9, 2011

An Analysis of IRRI and the Green Revolution by Edmund K. Oasa, Part 9

A friend pointed me to the PhD dissertation of Edmund Kazuso Oasa (The International Rice Research Institute and the Green Revolution: A Case Study on the Politics of Agricultural Research, University of Hawaii, 1981.), a 500+ page monster that is incredibly valuable in understanding the Green Revolution in Asia, and specifically in the Philippines.

This is the ninth and last post about Oasa's dissertation, covering the conclusion.

Here's Oasa's not-very-surprising big finish:

To what extent is IRRI willing and/or able to embark on an alternative research path? I will argue that the Institute will be unable and, consequently, unwilling to alter the direction and approach to research. It it were to do so, it would need to abandon the historical foundations of its existence. p. 441

He wrote that in 1981, remember, so thirty years have lapsed, giving IRRI plenty of time to stray from its initial course if it were so inclined.

Oasa continues, saying that:

By defining the food problem in tersm of supplies and low productivity, the International Rice Research Institute continued a series of projects that the Rockefeller Foundation started in areas of health, medicine, and education... These projects... had as its goals the restoration and maintenance of social stability for American democracy and the expansion of corporate, monopoly capitalism. - p. 442

The Foundation harnessed modern science to respond to an unstable social order. Just as science and its products (technologies) became means of social production... they also came to perform an ideological function by legitimizing the dominant and yet tumultuous international socio-economic system...

Defining the food problem as a supply shortage was consistent with this tradition set in motion decades earlier. It rendered problematic technical aspects of food and agriculture while neutralizing their social and political dimensions. As in earlier Rockefeller projects, the move into Third World agriculture was a technological project. Improving the productivity of technology, IRRI's founding fathers believed, would solve "the problem of revolutionary Asia." - p. 442-443

Over the course of many pages, Oasa makes the case that, with this as its history, the old dog of IRRI was nowhere near gaining the ability to learn new tricks. He says:

This background exposes a tension permeating the international agricultural research system. IRRI and CGIAR/TAC [Technical Advisory Committee] reports express a willingness to pay more attention to the poor and down-trodden, but at the same moment, cling on to a basis[sic] tenet of the dominant research philosophy -- namely, the interest in claiming political neutrality. - p. 451

In other words, they might look into a technology or two that would be applicable or helpful to the poor, but for god sakes, they are not going to rock the boat politically to tip the balance of power in a way that will meaningfully improve the lives of the poor. CGIAR's Technical Advisory Committee had announced that "international centers will be increasingly called upon to investigate more difficult research areas" such as developing technology for "less favorable, marginal conditions." (p. 454) Oasa notes "the Institute may appear willing to develop an alternative technological package; but it is not willing to question its own approach to research." (p. 456) "The Institute's expressed interest in sub-optimal technology amounts to nothing more than an attempt to appear accountable in the face of what needs to be done." (p. 456-457)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

An Analysis of IRRI and the Green Revolution by Edmund K. Oasa, Part 8

A friend pointed me to the PhD dissertation of Edmund Kazuso Oasa (The International Rice Research Institute and the Green Revolution: A Case Study on the Politics of Agricultural Research, University of Hawaii, 1981.), a 500+ page monster that is incredibly valuable in understanding the Green Revolution in Asia, and specifically in the Philippines.

This is the eighth post about Oasa's dissertation, covering the latter half of chapter 7, in which IRRI hires an anthropologist in the late 1970's, with most interesting consequences.

In chapter 7, Oasa takes on a discussion of IRRI's hiring of an anthropologist, Grace Goodell. She was a post-doctoral fellow who "also enjoyed some of the benefits of a senior staff scientist." (p. 419) Goodell knew from the outset that her job was to prove that anthropology could "meaningfully contribute to agricultural research and technological development" or else IRRI would not hire any other social scientists after her or in addition to her. (p. 419) She was also told that "IRRI had not been very keen on having an anthropologist" on staff. (p. 420)

Oasa questions whether Goodell was hired merely as "window dressing" given her lack of experience in the region. Her dissertation was on Iran. "In the field of anthropology, this practice of hiring someone with little or no background in the desired geographical area is essentially unsound and even unheard of." (p. 420) Goodell "immediately had the impression" that she was in fact hired as window dressing and "felt pressured to play a subservient, supportive role." (p. 421) (I must also wonder about the impact of her being a girl in the late 70s in an institution full of men.) Interestingly, Oasa says:

Much of the interaction with scientists brought out the conventional notions of how anthropologists do their work. This was verified by additional requests for her to op from village to village, week to week, with a carefully structured questionnaire, to determine what farmers were doing and to suggest changes toward making the IRRI technology more profitable. From the discipline's standpoint, this was again a most unsound practice. More important, these requests showed how little IRRI knew about perceptions of peasant cultivators towards outsiders and the probable distorted nature of interaction between scientists and farmer resulting from those perceptions. - p. 423

But at last, Goodell got to do some real anthropology. For example, "she pointed out that the lack of sufficient drainage facilities is a major constraint to higher yields or, as she at one point put it, "any yields at all!" (p. 427) She found that flooding and overabundance of water was a major issue in a large number of Asian countries, and yet it was unaddressed by IRRI, who instead focused on "the alleviation of water scarcity" and promotion of irrigation. And for that matter, the problem of flooding was often actually caused by the new irrigation systems. (p. 428)

In my favorite section, Goodell spent time living in a village and then wrote to all IRRI scientist with sections of a notebook of household expenses of one of the farmers in that village.

She showed how increasingly complex farming had become for her farmer friend since he began using the new technology through the government's Masagana 99 program. In this growing complexity, "the most striking feature" of her friend's "agro-history is its utter lack of pattern." - p. 429

Here is what she wrote:

You get seventeen hundred dollars of rice from three buck's worth of Tide and DDT -- no fertilizer at all -- in one dry season (1977-1978) and the very next dry season you get barely 60% of that from $150 bucks of pure jibberish: "Azodrin 202-R, Hopsin, Komet, 14-14-14-, Hytox, Carbofuran, Brodan, Urea, and Sumacidin D.S.U. . ." Fifty times the cost of your own laundry-soap concoction brings out barely half the returns! Are you kidding????

Conscientiously, one season you spend P3,500 on the crop, while in the next season the same conscientious planning has you spent but a quarter of that . . . . In nine cropping seasons you try seven different varieties, and just when IR36 looks agronomically sound it starts splitting in the mill and yellow with tungro [a disease]! . . . Three consecutive crops see you zap from no fertilizer at all to 15 sacks and then back to none again . . . Inputs that college-graduate technicians insist are indispensable for even a poor farmer to buy, come and go in a single season without ever being heard of again: "Sulfate," "28-63," "Etropolan . . ." What's going on here??? This is "science?" - Memorandum from Grace Goodell to IRRI Scientists, September 19, 1979, p. 7.

Oasa summarizes that Goodell agreed that the average yields of the HYVs (high yielding varieties) and their "overall economic returns" were better than those of the traditional varieties, but she had a problem with the farmer's loss of control over the new yields. At one point, he was able to purchase a television, although even then he was in debt, "a condition which has plagued many other Filipino farmers since the beginning of Masagana 99." (p. 430)

Her work in the villages over two years culminated in a paper called "Communication From Farmer to Researcher," presented in 1980. Oasa says "Basically, she argued that the nature of communication between cultivator and scientist has essentially been one-way. Researchers have defined and set the parameters within which interaction takes place, thereby rendering particular kinds of information and data worthy of value and discussion." (p. 431) In no uncertain terms, she told IRRI that they needed to hear from the farmers. (p. 432)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

An Analysis of IRRI and the Green Revolution by Edmund K. Oasa, Part 7

A friend pointed me to the PhD dissertation of Edmund Kazuso Oasa (The International Rice Research Institute and the Green Revolution: A Case Study on the Politics of Agricultural Research, University of Hawaii, 1981.), a 500+ page monster that is incredibly valuable in understanding the Green Revolution in Asia, and specifically in the Philippines.

This is the seventh post about Oasa's dissertation, covering chapter 7 of the dissertation, entitled "Responding to its Critics."

Oasa begins with a summary of what has been discussed thus far: that IRRI "attempted to link a particular definition of the food problem and the nature of research resulting from it" and this was "a natural as well as historically-significant outcome of a problem defined strictly in terms of adoption and technical constraints to higher yields" (p. 376). In its work, IRRI had a "tradition of promotion, demonstration, and high pay-off." (p. 376) However, it did not want to be seen as promoting and "dominating" and it "responded by creating as best as it could an opposite impression -- that is, collaboration and cooperation." (p. 376) Part of this involved formalizing its international program to appear more collaborative. It also served to allow IRRI to continue to focus on "betting on the strong" (i.e. developing technologies most useful to resourch-rich farmers) while expressing its interest for helping resource-poor farmers by shunting that work off to other institutions. Or in the words of IRRI: "to stimulate international cooperation to develop upland, rainfed, and deep-water rice." (IRRI, "Rice Research and Training in the 70s," (Los Banos: IRRI, 1970), p. 12 and pp. 20-26.) Oasa says:

In this context, IRRI was also responding to critics of the green revolution. It also tried to be accountable to them by showing that it was not content with "betting on the strong." Recalling, IRRI's expansion in the 1970s was a response to second-generation problems. To this end, IRRI went beyond establishing collaborative relationships. It also attempted, as the period of expansion wore on, to display interest in the social consequences and dimensions of agricultural technology and food and agriculture in general. The Institute started a formal program on social consequences and hired an anthropologist. - p. 377

Great, right? But did they actually address their problems, or just make the appearance of doing so? Oasa begins with a discussion of IRRI's international programs. He says:

In the period 1974-1976, the Institute formalized the collaborative component of its international program, by way of two important decisions. First, it decided to abandon its policy of naming varieties for commercial use. Second, it established a system of five collaborative networks to bring scientists together on a regular and formal basis; each network focused on a specific research area. - p. 379

Instead of naming varieties itself, IRRI would now simply provide genetic materials to rice scientists everywhere and encouraging national programs to release IRRI varieties under names of their own choosing. (p. 380) The reason was that scientists in Asian nations "generally objected to releasing varieties not bearing local names" and also, IRRI was gaining publicity and credit for work as government officials and sometimes even farmers favored any variety named with an "IR." (p. 380) Oasa analyzes this change as follows:

Relying on the argument of national research strength simply masked the reality that the new policy was basically no different from the former policy. IRRI lines had always been sent to national programs for testing and cross breeding with local selections and vice versa as well. Encouraging the use of local designations was therefore a weak indication of a turning point in the development of national rice research capabilities. - p. 382

There was also, by this time, a basic realization that no one rice variety could work everywhere, in all conditions. A 1968 discussion among the Board of Trustees on this general topic was brought about by "the poor performance of IR8 and IR5 in cooler climates, particularly in East Pakistan [Bangladesh] and Taiwan." (p. 383)

The five international networks created were:
  • The International Rice Agro-Economic Network
  • The Industrial Extension Program (IEP)
  • International Network on Fertilizer Efficiency in Rice (INFER)
  • International Cropping Systems Network (ICSN)
  • International Rice Testing Program (IRTP)

Notably, INFER was "financially assisted" by the International Minerals and Fertilizer Corporation and the International Fertilizer Development Center, both based in the U.S. (p. 389)

Oasa identifies the last two programs listed as the most important. He says: "In the Institute's interests, ICSN was the most effective approach to contribute towards the development of sub-optimal technologies," i.e. technologies for rice farmers who didn't have access to lots of inputs and water control. (p. 390) The term "cropping systems" generally refers to looking at more than just a rice monoculture.

Even more important was IRTP. (p. 392) It "allowed IRRI to display its interest in developing non-irrigated rice technology and in encouraging national programs to develop their own local varieties. (p. 393) National programs would select seed from varieties they thought were could and send it to IRRI, who would multiply that seed and then distribute it to cooperating programs in various Asian countries. The national programs would then "evaluate and record how each rice yields and how each reacts to adverse biological factors such as diseases, drought, or cold." (IRRI, Annual Report for 1974, pp. 6-7) IRRI would then compile, analyze, and distribute the data. Then rice scientists from around the world would review the data and request seed.

However, even though testing was happening all over, it was usually under similar "optimal conditions" (water control, high inputs) as were used at IRRI. (p. 396) In 1978, a rainfed nursery was established to test varieties without irrigation. (p. 396) Oasa points out that "The performance of IR selections in the IRTP suggested that the Institute was incapable and/or unwilling to enter in low pay-off technologies." (p. 401) A senior scientist in the plant breeding department "said that IR lines simply did not fare well in the IRTP trials, meaning that IRRI did not have promising lines for less-than-optimal conditions or lines that were of medium maturity." (p. 401) Thus these networks allowed IRRI to "pursue alternative technological choices" by shunting the work in developing them to scientists in the various countries it collaborated with. (p. 401)

Next, Oasa delves into IRRI's look at the "socio-economic environment surrounding the new technology." (p. 406) Here, he looks back at the Constraints to Higher Yields project as "by far the most important activity in the Institute's socio-economic research program." (p. 406) That alone shows that IRRI wasn't prepared to do all that much in examining socio-economic factors beyond just simply looking at "the problem of low adoption rates" of its varieties and "low yields" even when the varieties were adopted. (p. 406-407)

Recall again that IRRI received a new director, Nyle C. Brady, in 1973. When Brady arrived at IRRI, he actually argued against "in-depth studies of social problems" from the get-go. (p. 407) His reason was that doing so would require a different mix of scientist than those currently on staff and would also require a look at location-specific political situations.

Still in 1976, the Department of Agricultural Economics held a conference called "Economic Consequences of New Rice Technology: A View from IRRI." (p. 408) By this time, there was already quite a bit of criticism of the Green Revolution that IRRI felt it must respond to. But it did so by digging its heels in the ground, so it seems, from its statement that "The purpose of this conference is to put together the empirical findings of IRRI research on the economic consequences of the new rice technology and to promote positive discussion on this controversial issue using the IRRI research findings as background materials." (Department of Agricultural Economics, IRRI, "Economic Consequences of New Rice Technology: A View from IRRI (A Proposal for Conference)," 1976, mimeo., Los Banos, IRRI, p. 1.)

Oasa provides another quote that: "As early as 19970, discussion within the Board of Trustees centered around the idea of bringing a couple of the green revolution's critics to IRRI to tell them that "they have no real proof that the big boys [read large farmers] have been shoving out the small boys [read small farmers and landless laborers]." (Minutes of the Meeting of the Executive and Finance Committee of the Board of Trustees of the International Rice Research Institute, August 19, 1970.) (p. 409) The economists put this in more diplomatic terms, saying that "data do not support the hypothesis that small farmers have generally lagged behind largely in the use of new technologies that would increase their yields, income, and employment." (Department of Agricultural Economics, IRRI, "Consequences of New Technology," n.d., mimeo., Los Banos, IRRI, p. 5.)

In fact, in the early and mid-1970s, IRRI scientists argued that the high yielding rice actually "has an effect of promoting more equal distribution" of wealth.36 Oasa says that this view underwent considerable change towards the end of the 1970s, beginning with two projects by Yujiro Hayami, "Anatomy of Rice Village Economy" and "Dynamics of Agrarian Change." The first examined a study of income and expenditures of 11 households based on a year's worth of records. The second studied the interaction between technological change, demographic trends, and government policies. (Department of Agricultural Economics, IRRI, "Consequences of the New Rice Technology," paper presented at the IRRI Internal Annual Review, January 25, 1978, Los Banos, IRRI, pp. 2-4) (p. 410-411)

In 1978, findings were published in IRRI's Internal Annual Review saying "If present trends continue, farm size will decline further, landless laborers will continue to increase in numbers relative to farmers. Real wages will decline and the value of tenancy rights will rise widening the income gap between farmers and landless workers." (Department of Agricultural Economics, IRRI, "Consequences of the New Rice Technology," paper presented at the IRRI Internal Annual Review, January 25, 1978, Los Banos, IRRI, p. 6) However, it doesn't seem that IRRI necessarily found this to be a problem, as it advocated solving it with more technological (and not political) solutions. (p. 411)

IRRI held a non-"IRRI-type" workshop in March of that year which brought together 29 participants from anthropology, sociology, economics, political science, and demography. (p. 412) Like the "Changes" workshop so many years before, it allowed for a variety of different viewpoints. One major theme was the economic polarization taking place, and another was the loss of control over their own destinies experienced by the poorest class. (p. 413-414) There was even "an allusion to rebellion and revolt." (p. 414) Unfortunately, it appears that the outcome of this workshop within IRRI was roughly nothing. (p. 417) As Oasa puts it "from the long-range planning committee's report, IRRI was most likely to stay fixed in a technological straightjacket." (p. 418)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

An Analysis of IRRI and the Green Revolution by Edmund K. Oasa, Part 6

A friend pointed me to the PhD dissertation of Edmund Kazuso Oasa (The International Rice Research Institute and the Green Revolution: A Case Study on the Politics of Agricultural Research, University of Hawaii, 1981.), a 500+ page monster that is incredibly valuable in understanding the Green Revolution in Asia, and specifically in the Philippines.

This is the sixth post about Oasa's dissertation, covering chapter 6 of the dissertation, which talks about the period of "expansion" following 1969.

This chapter is much more scattered than the very focused chapter it follows. That is likely because the work of IRRI was also more scattered in the period following 1969 than the 10 years leading up to it. Oasa identifies the watershed moment as a conference held from September 30 to October 3, 1969, a conference called "Rice Research and Training in the 70's" that was sponsored by the Ford Foundation. (p. 276) This conference took place in the wake of a publication by Clifton Wharton in Foreign Affairs entitled "The Green Revolution: Cornucopia or Pandora's Box?" that begins, saying:

On the one hand, some observers now believe that the race between food and population is over, that the new agricultural technology constitutes a cornucopia for the developing world, and that victory is in sight in the "War on Hunger." Others see this development as opening a Pandora's box; its very success will produce a number of new problems which are far more subtle and difficult than those faced during the development of the new technology.

Oasa also begins with a quote from Robert F. Chandler, the founding director of IRRI who retired from the role in 1972:

On retiring from IRRI in 1972, the only real disappointment I felt (other than the reluctance to leave such an exciting adventure) was that somehow we did not understand sufficiently why the Asian rice farmer who had adopted the new varieties was not doing better. Somehow I felt that the rice scientist who had obtained yields of 5 to 10 metric tons per hectare on the IRRI farm still could not explain why so many Filipino farmers (for example) obtained, on the average, less than one metric ton per hectare increase in yield after shifting from the traditional to the high-yielding varieties. All of us were a bit mystified as to why no more than 25 percent of rice land in the less developed Asian countries was planted to the new varieties. - Chandler, "Case History," p. 15.

Oasa feels that Chandler's questions "implied three possible reasons: 1) the farmer was technically inefficient; 2) extension policies were ineffective; and 3) the technology was not appropriate." (p. 275) He adds that by 1968, IRRI itself had already recognized that "without adequate irrigation facilities and ready cash for chemicals, farmers would be taking a "great risk" in using the new rice strains." (p. 277) However, in saying this, they were not admitting any mistakes on their own part; rather, they added that because of the risk, they should expect that there would be early and late adopters of the new varieties, with those taking the greatest risks being among the later adopters.

The 1969 conference included elements of many things we hear from proponents of the Second Green Revolution today:

The food problem, the [conference] report stated, was not merely a problem of production, thereby acknowledging the import of non-technological resources and solutions. Overall efforts also had to include correct national development and distribution policies that would reflect a greater emphasis upon the agricultural sectors of underdeveloped countries. Policies and programs should direct more capital invested in marketing, storage, and transportation facilities to absorb surplus production as well as effective price policies to lower the cost of food for all consumers, urban and rural alike. - p. 277-278

The report also recognized, to some degree, socio-economic ramifications of the new technologies, and "made clear that technologies for sub-optimal conditions (i.e., water is not available or controlled) needed to be developed." (p. 278)

This was a big moment for IRRI. Prior to 1969, its sole focus was on developing high yielding varieties that created the biggest, fastest jump in yield possible under highly controlled conditions. Now it looked beyond this narrow goal. Oasa says:

From the Institute's perspective, the larger context of development, in which the food problem is a definite part of, was and could not have been formally addressed. Today, the common opinion of present and former IRRI personnel is that it would have been premature for the Institute to address them in the 1960s since the technologies had to be developed first. - p. 278-279

That perspective is highly debatable, specifically because Filipino scientist warned IRRI of so many of the predictable problems its varieties would cause early on. But in any case, it wasn't until 1969 that IRRI "expanded its scope of concerns." Would it do so in a way that actually addressed the needs of most producers?

IRRI also acknowledged that national policy played a role in food production, but, as Oasa points out:

Insofar as it acknowledged the complimentary relationship between agricultural research and general development policy, the Institute believed that high-yielding technologies to increase production should stand as the foundation for national development policies. - p. 279

In other words, it was a one-way street: we develop it, and the government should promote it. Or as the 1969 conference put it:

National development policies should encourage the use of the new rice production technologies as a foundation for sustained improvement in economic activity and the welfare of mankind. - IRRI, "Rice Research and Training the 70s," p. 8

IRRI saw its role now as eliminating constraints to adoption of its varieties by farmers, which for them meant making the technologies more profitable (p. 280). One of the issues this brings up is the so-called, "yield gap," which is still a hot topic of discussion today. The "yield gap is the gap between the yields on the experimental farm and the yields in actual farmers fields. Oasa writes:

The 1969 conference made specific recommendations for expansion in six areas. First, it suggested average yields should be raise by way of increasing the productivity of marginal lands. Research should continue to improve the productivity of land with irrigation water; marginal lands, however, needed to contribute more towards greater output. Second, socio-economic research and training needed more support to understand better the social and economic environment in which farmers grew rice. Areas of research should include factor and product prices, earnings, uncertainty, the marketing chain and producer and consumer behavior... Third, machinery development should continue to reduce costs, thereby increasing profits and earnings for owner operators and laborers respectively. The conference then made special reference to farm level post-harvest technologies.

A fourth area of expansion was training and applied research for both farm technicians and research scientists. Extension services needed to be strengthened in order to more effectively promote new technologies and approaches to food and agriculture... Fifth, consistent with the requirement of extending beyond the boundaries of the Institute's experimental farm, the number of international cooperative projects needed to increase in order to study the vast array of socio-economic and ecological settings of rice production... Finally and related to the previous five, the conference highlighted the urgency to gather detailed information on the ecology and economics of sub-optimal conditions with the larger goal in mind to develop effective combinations of varieties and farming practices that would fit with each condition. p. 282-283

He summarizes that "All six recommended areas of expansion were consistent with the notions of adoption and higher yields." (p. 284) However, there were two different approaches within them. Oasa says:

The first approach would concentrate on developing varieties for soils that might be deficient in certain nutrients, too acidic, too toxic, or have undesirable features... A second approach would concentrate on non-varietal variables. Rather than attempting to improve traditional varieties, scientists would focus on cultural practices to modify the soil setting for use of the already-conceived short-statured, nitrogen-responsive plant type. These practices would include water control, soil supplements, and soil management methods. p. 284

In other words, they could change the plant to fit the environment, or they could change the environment to fit the plant. The chapter goes on for about a hundred pages, describing initiative after initiative of IRRI during the 1970s. One major change that took place was in IRRI's director. Chandler left in 1972, and Nyle C. Brady came in 1973 and stayed until 1981.

How much did this old dog learn the new trick of creating less high yielding varieties that worked for a greater percent of Asia's farmers? Not that much, it seems. In late 1969, they named two varieties, IR20 and IR22, reflecting this conflict. (p. 288) IR20 was "thin-strawed, taller, more susceptible to lodging and therefore had a lower yield potential. But, it also was said to have had a wider spectrum for disease and insect resistance, better grain quality, and wider adaptability." (p. 289) IR22 was more similar to IR8. The conflict was between plant breeders, who preferred IR22, and entomologists, who liked IR20. In the end, they recommended both varieties. However, this release was more of an aberration from their norm of promoting high yielding, high input varieties, and not a change in course.

A few projects and publications are quite relevant in this period. The first is Changes in Rice Farming in Selected Areas of Asia, a report resulting from a survey undertaken in 1971 of 36 villages in several Asian countries. For the first time in its history, IRRI involved sociologists and anthropologists while carrying out this survey. (p. 294) This signified a realization of the importance of socio-economic research, one that "went beyond IRRI's gates" to other CGIAR institutions. (p. 296) Yet, at IRRI at least, it does not seem that this interest in socio-economic research resulted in any significant changes in their work. The buzzword "profitability" was added to "yields," and that seems to be the main change. (p. 301)

The end result of this work was the "Constraints to Higher Yield Project," which was intended to "identify technical factors of production that constrain maximum yield performance. (p. 301-302) So it appears that after a brief interlude of considering a change in course, IRRI went back to focusing on yields and adoption of its varieties.

A 1977 paper called "Constraints to Higher Yield" identified two yield gaps when a variety moves from the experimental farm to farmers fields. The first is a gap in potential yield, as there is non-transferable technology that the experimental farm has and the real one doesn't, and environmental differences between the experimental farm and the real one. But then there's another gap in yields between the farm's potential and actual yields caused by biological constraints (water control, soil fertility, cultural practices, variety, weeds, insects, problem soils, and others) and Socio-economic constraints (knowledge, institutions, credit, input availability, economic behavior, risk aversion, transitions, and others). (p. 307)

Overall, it appears that a window opened up in which IRRI might have changed its course in 1969, and within a few years, that window closed.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

An Analysis of IRRI and the Green Revolution by Edmund K. Oasa, Part 5

A friend pointed me to the PhD dissertation of Edmund Kazuso Oasa (The International Rice Research Institute and the Green Revolution: A Case Study on the Politics of Agricultural Research, University of Hawaii, 1981.), a 500+ page monster that is incredibly valuable in understanding the Green Revolution in Asia, and specifically in the Philippines.

This is the fifth post about Oasa's dissertation, covering the first decade of IRRI's history, up to 1969.

The last post focused on the implications of IRRI's goal - to make a "big jump" in rice yield very quickly in order to show that higher yields were possible. To do this, they went with a short plant capable of absorbing a lot of nitrogen. Inherent in this decision was the need for lots of costly inputs. This post will continue that discussion.

Oasa notes that in the early 1960's, scientist from the University of the Philippines College of Agriculture (UPCA) "immediately warned the Institute that the plant architecture it was trying to develop would cause too sudden a change in agronomic practices for the Asian farmer." (p. 195)

These practices, they argued, would require a level of exogenous inputs that would be beyond the financial reach of most cultivators. They had no dispute with IRRI's mandate of raising food production by way of increasing rice yields and the need to alter plant architecture. Instead, they questioned the extent of that goal. They tried to impress upon the need for "incremental" increases in yield, which had important ramifications regarding plant type and application of inputs.

One of the scientists... pointed out... that physiological and morphological characteristics of the rice plant differed for the various ecological rice-growing conditions. He referred to the distinctions between lowland (bunded) and upland (unbunded) as well as irrigated and non-irrigated, rainfed conditions. He argued that IRRI's plant type required effective water control in order for the plant to efficiently abosrb the amount of nitrogen fertilizer needed for a short-statured plant to be profitable to the farmer. Because most Philippine, and indeed Asian, rice cultivators did not have access to effective water control, he advocated a taller plant that could tolerate the actual rice-growing condition of lack of irrigation. For a plant breeder, this required that breeding be done out in farmers' fields were conditions are uncontrollable and unpredictable, where water levels are almost never perfect. (p. 195-196)

Oasa adds "Unpredictable conditions, particularly with regards to water, necessitated a taller plant. It would be better able to withstand floods and tolerate drought because of its more vigorous root system which retains soil moisture more efficiently. Being taller, however, also meant a lower yield potential because of its susceptiblity to lodging under increasing levels of nitrogen fertilizer. But this did not concern scientists at the UPCA as much as the costliness of inputs." (p. 196)

This goes right back to the mandate for a "big jump" - a taller plant would mean a smaller increase in yields, and working in unpredictable, changing conditions would slow down the breeders' work (p. 199-200). Instead, they worked on highly controlled conditions of their experimental fields at IRRI.

UPCA scientist also "expressed their concern about the costliness of using insecticides and herbicides. The amount of both chemical ingredients would be reduced, they posited, if plant scientist would breed for a taller plant out in farmers' fields. Because of its height, it would be more capable of competing with weeds for sunlight, thereby reducing requirements for herbicides." (p. 197)

Their appeal for minimal insecticidal treatments was based on the natural outcome of intesified farming -- namely, a more serious insect pest problem. early-maturing, short-statured varieties would make way for double and sometimes triple cropping, which would leave little time for aldn to lie fallow. Allowing for the latter was one way to minimize the pest problem. (p. 197)

UPCA scientists advocated a more ecological approach to pest control: "they advocated breeding varietal tolerance to the natural population build-up of insects." "Research on varietal improvement should be based on identifying and developing plant tolerance out in the field. An indicator of success for research, then, was not the absence of insects by way of extermination but the plants' survival under a high population of insects." (p. 198)

In other words, UPCA scientist were not advocating a "big jump" rice variety that only few farmers could actually grow, but a modest increase in yield in a plant that more farmers could take advantage of. One of the UPCA scientists told Oasa he had told IRRI that their target plant "would benefit no more than one-third of Asia's rice producers." (p. 199)

Despite these complaints, IRRI went ahead without changing its course (p. 201-202) "According to Sterling Wortman, IRRI's first associate director and later became vice-president of the Rockefeller Foundation, no one thought about the question of who benefits." (p. 202)

The next passage is one I find interesting, about the logic of throwing out anything that was "traditional:"

Everything "traditional" was rendered questionable. "What," they asked, "should be done to supplant traditional agriculture?" The need to shorten and stiffen the rice plant was precipitated by the requirement for nitrogen fertilizer. In this sense, low levels or absence of the latter was considered traditional and therefore undesirable. The same line of reasoning applied to the use of other exogenous chemical inputs to combat rice pests. (p. 202)

Oasa goes through each department at IRRI to describe their work during this first decade. I will merely summarize a few bits that I found interesting.

The Department of Agronomy was charged with experimenting with nitrogen dosages and their corresponding impacts on yields. Oasa says:

The use of nitrogen fertilizer in chemical form was... a subject of very little debate, if any at all. Under IRRI's mandate, there was no hesitation. IRRI maintained, in spite of reservations of Philippine plant scientists, that chemical fertilizers were plentiful and cheap enough foro farmers to purchase, and quick and easy to apply. p. 211

The department had a few, insignificant dabbles in composting and other organic matter, but these were "quickly shelved." (p. 212) Interestingly, there was "a perceived relationship between developing organic fertilizer and the socio-economic system in which this research would take place. One Institute scientist commented on composting capabilities in China, which, he argued, has a socio-economic system more favorable towards composting research and farmer use of it. In "capitalist countries," this same individual stated, composting would be highly unlikely simply because "farmers will not do it." (p. 212)

Agronomy also looked into weed control, which was a very major part of their work, particularly once IR-8 was released (p. 215). Oasa writes "Expectedly, herbicides were the only choice. Agronomists experimented with different chemical compounds to determine the level of toxicity to rice plants and their effectiveness against the various types of weeds." (p. 213) They sought to determine how much time would be spent hand-weeding if herbicides were not used, as they expected that the cost of herbicides could be weighed against the cost of hired labor. "IRRI considered herbicides cheap and within financial reach of the Asian rice farmer as well as being quick and easy to apply. Chemical treatments, it believed, would make rice-growing more efficient for the private, entrepreneurial farmer by reducing hand weeding, which in many instances is done by hired labor. (p. 215)

They also experimented on the efficiency of direct-seeding instead of the usual way of planting rice and allowing it to grow for a time in a seed bed before transplanting it. "Weeds become even more crucial when varieties are direct-seeded as plants and weeds grow simultaneously." (p. 215)

The Department of Entomology spent its time focused on insecticides. The department head Mano D. Pathak was interested in developing varietal resistance (p. 217). "He was laughed at by some of the Institute's scientists, who argued that it was a slow process with little chance of success." (p. 221) Yet he did have a little bit of success, resulting in a release of a variety in 1970 with some insect and virus resistance (p. 222)

However, given the overall ignorance of tropical rice pests and the lack of varieties resistant to one of the first pests they looked at, the rice stem borer, insecticides won the day (p. 218) "Insecticidal research had a high pay-off because applying chemicals were quick and easy and the results dramatic and very visible." (p. 218) "Research philosophy was simply one of insect extermination" (p. 218) and the goal was to "control and dominate the eco-system in rice farming rather than adapt to it." (p. 218-219)

One scientist, John L. Nickel, spent two years researching the potential of biological controls, i.e. attracting predators to eat the pest species in the rice field. However, the general feeling was that this work would require much more funding and staff and a lot of time to amount to anything, and ultimately, the research was ended. (p. 220)

Oasa concludes:

However, the decision to embark on an insecticidal research program was not based on the existence of alternatives. It was grounded in the interest of controlling the rice-growing environment in much the same way the Institute's plant type required the individual farmer to possess adequate resources for production efficiency and precision. - p. 221

Throughout the decade, as "other insect pests that had been relatively minor and obscure slowly became major ones very difficult to control," IRRI "simply reacted to new insects by using chemicals without attempting to understand the ecological processes at work." (p. 222-223)

The Department of Agricultural Engineering focused on land preparation and machines required for use in rice growing. This is interesting because I've read elsewhere that mechanization was not an essential part of the Green Revolution and, as such, it was actually argued that the new varieties would increase employment as more labor would be needed to weed fields and harvest the increased yields. However, here, they were very specifically working toward mechanization in a way that reduces labor needs.

A VERY interesting section reeds: "The early maturity of photoperiod-insensitive varieties brought about a harvesting schedule that ran into the midst of the wet monsoon season, which, in turn, meant that land had to be prepared quickly to make way for planting a second crop and also effective and rapid ways to dry the newly harvested grain. Traditional varieties, on the other hand, normally matured on the last of the moonsoon rains." (p. 224) This is of particular interest because I think I read before but then could not find something saying just about exactly this. Farmers were encouraged to grow new varieties during the sunnier dry season to take advantage of the sunshine (requiring irrigation), and also, the new varieties would mature early, during the rains, requiring mechanical drying instead of drying in the sun as traditional varieties could do.

Oasa makes an interesting point, saying: "The assumption that mechanization was inevitable and indispensable was apparently based upon a circular logic to the rationale behind it. Likewise, for other other inputs, farmers had to attain the yield potential of nitrogen-responsive varieties in order to purchase machines, which, in turn, were necessary to do the former." (p. 224)

How about the labor displacement caused by mechanization? IRRI staff figured that those who used to work on farms could now go get jobs in construction, manufacturing, sales, or service. (p. 225)

Also interesting is that in 1965, USAID and IRRI signed a contract "to investigate farm equipment and power requirements in all aspects of Asian rice production." (p. 227)

The Department of Plant Pathology was unique, in that it actually focused on developing varietal resistance to plant diseases instead of just relying on spraying chemicals. The plant pathologist, S.H. Ou, "felt fungicides would be too expensive for cultivators" and "the use of chemicals for fungus and bacterial diseases were not known to be generally effective. If they were, they were either too costly or toxic. Moreover, there were (and still are) no chemicals effective against virus diseases." (p. 230)

Oasa says of this approach that it "apparently ran counter to the dominant orientation of guaranteeing a high pay-off and quick returns to research." (p. 231)

The Office of Communication was responsible for "rice production training and applied research." It was led by Francis Byrnes, who was assisted by William Golden beginning in 1964. A formal training program began in 1964.

Golden set up a system of trials to test nitrogen responsiveness of various varieties, the performance of new agrochemicals, and varying water management practices, among other things. These trials would be conducted in farmers fields by IRRI's trainees. Oasa says "Trial instructions, however, were exceedingly explicit in establishing the magnitude of control found on an experimental farm. Extension agents were instructed to grow varieties "under conditions of good management and high fertility." Agents were also directed to select sites that "must have an assured supply of water such that the plot will at no time suffer from shortages of water. Likewise, it should be free from flooding." (p. 237-238) What I find most humorous is that one set of such instructions - after calling for doing the trial only on the best land with very controlled conditions - says "Remember that the purpose of this Applied Research Trial is to obtain dependable and reliable data on the performance of these selections under actual farm conditions." (p. 238, emphasis in original)

As for the role of the Communications staff, Oasa says "in the first decade, however, no other word but promotion can adequately and objectively describe the nature of research outside the Institute's grounds." (p. 239-240)

Last, The Department of Agricultural Economics. Here, Oasa saw hope for "raising social questions on agriculture" (p. 240) and yet, it was not to be. The economist was Vernon W. Ruttan, who was faculty at Purdue University before joining IRRI in 1963. He outlined several potential areas of research for Chandler, who chose one: "the economics of technical change." (p. 243) Specifically, he wanted Ruttan to study why some farmers would not adopt Green Revolution technologies, and what would make them do so.

Chandler continued by pointing out that "we find no real difficulty in getting yields from three to five times the national average when we employ well-recognized, good management practices." "In spite of this, he continued, "only a few kilometers from the Institute farmers are still producing rice using outdated varieties and poor cultural practices." (p. 244)

Notably, Chandler ended, saying "the most common excuse offered by farmers and others for not using improved techniques is that they cannot afford them." (p. 244) Chandler saw this as an excuse - not a legitimate reason.

A last bit I find important in this section is that in the 1969 annual report, this department "presented a figure of 20 percent as the amount of irrigated rice lands in South and Southeast Asia." Oasa adds "Since much of that was found to be under diversion dam systems, irrigated lands were still not free, economists claimed, from floods and droughts." (p. 246) In other words, at best, the seeds produced by IRRI could be used on less than 20% of the land in South and Southeast Asia.

International Programs covers a few of the many programs IRRI established in other Asian nations. Perhaps the most interesting mentioned is the one in Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Briefly, as IR-8 was susceptible to several diseases, notably bacterial leaf blight, there were problems with using it in Sri Lanka. The government of Sri Lanka and IRRI continued promoting its use anyway. In a 1968 report, IRRI noted the issues with disease but said that they still recommend IR-8's use in the dry zones of Sri Lanka. (p. 260) Sri Lankan scientists disagreed. A LOT. (p. 261) Some of their concerns had to do with the disease issue, but they also raised the same complaints the Filipino scientists had raised before IR-8 was even developed (i.e. that IR-8 required chemical inputs that most farmers could not afford).

An Analysis of IRRI and the Green Revolution by Edmund K. Oasa, Part 4

A friend pointed me to the PhD dissertation of Edmund Kazuso Oasa (The International Rice Research Institute and the Green Revolution: A Case Study on the Politics of Agricultural Research, University of Hawaii, 1981.), a 500+ page monster that is incredibly valuable in understanding the Green Revolution in Asia, and specifically in the Philippines.

This is the fourth post about Oasa's dissertation, covering the first years of IRRI's history, up to the release of IR-8 in 1966.

In the period from its founding until 1969, Oasa connects everything that happened at IRRI back to its narrow definition of its mission - increasing the food supply by increasing yield (p. 173) - and its goal of doing so in a big way that would really get a lot of attention. He quotes:

As one former administrator put it, scientists were told that "all we want are results, to get the yields up; be on the constant lookout for it." Chandler, IRRI's director, further instructed them to determine precisely what held yields down. "IRRI," he said to this writer [Oasa], "had to shwo the world that higher yields were possible. - p. 174

The Rockefeller Foundation typically worked as a "pump primer," meaning that it would go into an area of philanthropy and do some work in a way that would "prime the pump" so that others would follow suit and fund the same sort of activity with much more money. In agriculture, they were incredibly successful at doing this, eventually drawing funding from other foundations and development agencies around the world. They did that, first and foremost, by proving that higher yields were possible in a spectacular way that got attention. They called this "the big jump." (p. 177)

Oasa says that the narrow goal set in the beginning for IRRI "produced a problematic package of technology." (p. 172) He continues, saying "These interests were explicitly linked to the act of conceptually isolating technology from the social context into which it was to enter."

How were they to increase yields? Well, it would have to be both via breeding and via inputs. Using inputs like fertilizer alone on existing rice varieties would not lead to increased yield. In fact, it could decrease yield as existing varieties were tall and they would become top-heavy with grain, causing them to "lodge" (fall over). So the target must be breeding a variety that can absorb and use increased inputs in a way that results in increased production. (p. 175)

There are two varieties of rice relevant here. One is called "indica;" the other "japonica." Tropical nations tend to grow indica varieties.

Chandler... claimed that the traditional, taller varieties known as indica types could absorb no more than 35 to 40 pounds per acre of nitrogen without an actual reduction in yield caused by lodging... A shorter plant from Japan, he continued, known as the japonica types, "will often stand up to 120 pounds of nitrogen without lodging." (p. 175-176)

As IRRI set out on its work, it was not the first in the world to research rice. Japanese scientists had been working on improving rice varieties for more than 50 years already. (p. 177-178) The Japanese scientist S. Tsunoda "found that nitrogen-responsive varieties have erect, short, narrow, thick, dark-green leaves and short, stiff stems." (p. 178) Oasa adds that this differs greatly with the traditional indica varieties grown in the tropics "which are tall, weak-stemmed, leafy, heavy tillering and susceptible to lodging." Later, he adds that indica types "were late-maturing because of their sensitivity to photoperiod (daylength), meaning that maturing depended on the ratio of night length to day. The indica plant's architecture had long, broad, drooping and thin and light-green leaves which caused it to absorb sunlight less efficiently." (p. 185)

Thus, what IRRI needed was an indica variety that had all of these japonica characteristics. Oasa notes that "In fact, the yield of the taller, traditional indica under improved management practices [lots of inputs, etc] was lower than its yield when cultivated with little or no inputs or improved practices. Finally, its late-maturity provided little time for intensifying crop production by growing more than one crop of rice per year." (p. 185)

Oasa goes through the scientists on staff at IRRI at the start of this mission, noting:

Except for Chang [T. T. Chang, who had worked with Taiwanese rice varieties before], the varietal improvement staff did not have extensive research experience in tropical rice conditions. Even Chang was most familiar with sub-tropical conditions in Taiwan, where climate also differs considerably from that of the true tropics. Beachell [who is credited with the development of IRRI's "Miracle Rice"] knew practically nothing about Asian rice and tropical conditions. He arrived in Los Banos thinking he could do in the Philippines what he had accomplished in the United States. (p. 182)

Many of the decisions later made stemmed from one main decision that was made very early: "that the plant height had to be shortened." (p. 183) Going forward with a taller rice plant susceptible to lodging would mean, at best, incremental and modest yield increases. For a "big jump," a short plant that could absorb a lot of nitrogen was needed.

A lot of nitrogen was also needed, as was "water control" (not just irrigation but also drainage when needed to prevent flooding). With a lot of growing to do with all of the fertilizer, and with a relatively shallow root system compared to taller plants, the plants would not be able to tolerate droughts or floods. The short plant also increased the need for weed control, since the short plant would have a harder time competing with weeds for sunlight compared to taller plants. Thus, many of the inputs (or labor, as weeding could be done manually) were inherent once the short plant size was determined. The scientists also pushed for "improved cultural practices such as closer spacings of rice plants" (p. 185)

After just a few years of work, by mid-1965, Chandler formed a committee to select which variety would be released for commercial use. (p. 189) The most promising was the variety that would later be released under the name IR-8, but it was "highly susceptible to a number of pests and diseases" and "particularly vulnerable to bacterial leaf blight, which is a tropical disease capable of causing up to a 50 percent loss in yield." Grain appearance and quality were also lacking (p. 189) And it had not yet been tested widely in Asia "let alone in the Philippines." (p. 189) Thus, at that point, they committed to doing more off-Institute field testing of the variety.

In 1966, IR-8 was officially released. The process for that was that it was recommended to the Philippines Seed Board, the agency in the Philippines responsible for commercial releases. However, at that time, IR-8 had proven capable of producing high yields but was still untested in other areas like taste and grain quality. Thus, the Philippine Seed Board released it as a "good seed" but not "certified seed." It achieved certified status two years later. (p. 192) The rice was heralded as capable of yielding 10 tons per hectare, and it was that yield potential that led to its release despite its obvious drawbacks (p. 192-193)

Saturday, December 3, 2011

An Analysis of IRRI and the Green Revolution by Edmund K. Oasa, Part 3

A friend pointed me to the PhD dissertation of Edmund Kazuso Oasa (The International Rice Research Institute and the Green Revolution: A Case Study on the Politics of Agricultural Research, University of Hawaii, 1981.), a 500+ page monster that is incredibly valuable in understanding the Green Revolution in Asia, and specifically in the Philippines.

This is the third post about Oasa's dissertation. This post covers the founding and staffing of IRRI.

In this third section, we begin on page 150 in which Robert F. Chandler (of the Rockefeller Foundation) goes to Tokyo in November 1958 after being asked to do so by J. George Harrar (a senior Rockefeller Foundation official) one month before. He was instructed "to investigate in a careful and diplomatic fashion the atmosphere and opportunities . . . in connection with rice improvement" and to make sure that the Philippines would provide the land, labor, and certain facilities for IRRI "along with the usual arrangements for taking care of foreign personnel who might be sent to the Philippines."

When Chandler arrived and met with L.B. Uichanco, the dean of the College (University of the Philippines, Los Banos College of Agriculture, UPCA), Uichanco offered him at least 40 ha of good rice land with the possibility of purchasing another adjacent 40 hectares if funds were available. (p. 151) Chandler also got immediate buy in from UPCA President Sinco, Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources Juan de G. Rodriguez and Assistant Secretary Armando M. Dalisay. The Secretary and Assistant Secretary then began to work with Philippine President Carlos P. Garcia as well as other government agencies to lay the groundwork for IRRI.

In April 1959, Harrar wrote to Secretary Rodriguez to request a meeting in June. The meeting resulted in a number of agreements, including an agreement for the eventual take-over of IRRI by Philippine nationals. That September, Rodriguez spoke to other cabinet members about IRRI, calling it a "blessing," a "pride," and an "honor" that such an institution would be founded in the Philippines. (p. 153) A Memorandum of Understanding was signed by the Foundations and the Secretary on December 9, 1959 and on March 8, 1960, IRRI's Articles of Incorporation were filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission of the Philippines (p. 153-154).

Oasa quotes these articles of incorporation as saying that IRRI was "to conduct basic research on the rice plant, on all phases of rice production, management, distribution, and utilization with a view of attaining nutritive and economic advantage or benefit for the people of Asia and other major rice-growing areas through improvement in the quality and quantity of rice." (emphasis added by Oasa)

By 1960, UPCA purchased the additional 40 hectares it had mentioned and provided land for all professional and residential buildings as well. All of this land was leased to IRRI for one piso a year. (p. 154) Menwhile, the foundations agreed that Ford would pay to construct the plant and Rockefeller would pay the operating costs.

Next, they began to staff IRRI, first by appointing Chandler as its director. (p. 154) Dr. Sterling Wortman, who had been a corn breeder at the Rockefeller program in Mexico, and Peter Jennings, who was then working at the Rockefeller Foundation project in Colombia, began searching for scientists. "The initial team consisted of individuals with degrees in agricultural economics, agricultural engineering, soil chemistry, agronomy, microbiology, biochemistry, plant physiology, plant pathology, entomology, plant breeding and genetics. There were also individuals in the areas of statistics and communication." (p. 155) Chandler and his staff viewed these disciplines as "indispensable" but Oasa points out that that "should be read as 'indispensable to plant breeding.'" (p. 157)

There was a worry that scientist from the United States and other wealthy nations would not want to work in the Philippines. IRRI decided to attract them both with the "noble" purpose of the work as well as with excellent salaries and fringe benefits, as well as excellent lab equipment and staff. The scientists arrived between 1960 and 1963. The formal organization of IRRI took place on April 13-14, 1960, with the inaugural meeting of its board of trustees, chaired by Harrar. (p. 158) Inauguration of IRRI itself took place on February 7, 1962. (p. 158)

After denoting these historical details and dates, Oasa discusses the mission of IRRI in greater depth:

IRRI's Articles of Incorporation specifically referred to the "economic advantage or benefit for the people of Asia." This meant that the food problem was immediately linked to the problem of societal development and, at the same time, was reduced to the problem of existing traditional varieties of the rice plant; that is, by identifying "isolable technical problems," the Foundation felt that it, in cooperation with national elites, could solve the food problem. In final analysis, the problem was reduced to the isolable task of improving the productivity of the rice plant.

But, such a dramatic reduction also reflected and reaffirmed a very fundamental interest in preserving a given social order that has been historically plagued with unrest. If we recall "Notes on Indian Agriculture," Harrar, Weaver, and Mangelsdorf apprised the Foundation of India's culture and tradition that needed to be "overcome" if an agricultural research project were to be started. We can interpret their observations in two ways. One is that an underdeveloped country's culture and tradition (read social context) had to change. The introduction of modern science and technology could help this process by increasing productivity and total output to the extent of making agriculture a commercial and profitable [sic] for the Asian rice farmer. A second interpretation is that the Foundation had to leave the social context intact in trying to solve "isolable technical problems" of food production.

However different these interpretations are, they, nevertheless, infer the notion of "givenness" or "status quot." Extant social structures and institutions were not to be tampered with through human, political action and participation. And if any changes or benefits were to be derived, they would come about through the formulas of the agricultural sciences producing technology capable of increasing the yield per hectare of rice. Only then would social stability be achieved, exhibited by the adoption of the Western democratic tradition and the free play of market forces. - p. 159-160

Friday, December 2, 2011

Bolivia Diaries: Days 14 & 15: Loose Ends

This will be the final diary describing my 2011 trip to Bolivia. Our last day together as a group was somewhat of a bust. That is, we were supposed to go to a touristy town called Porongo to get a taste of what this area looked like during colonial times. We got to Porongo and nothing went as planned. The next day, I flew back to La Paz for one final day there, because I couldn't bear to leave Bolivia without one last visit to my favorite city. I spent that day stuffing myself with street food. It was great.

As I noted above, our last day was intended as a trip to Porongo. We met a guide, a Costa Rican woman who I think was named Leslie. She had been living in Santa Cruz for a while now, married to a Bolivian with a cattle ranch.

One conversation from that day stands out as notable. Somewhere along the way to Porongo, someone in our group mentioned that the breakfasts in our current hotel were terrible. I agreed. Tanya, the American who was leading our group, asked what was wrong with them. I replied bluntly, "The food is bad." Tanya, who has spent an awful lot of time in Bolivia, was shocked. So we started complaining: white bread, cake, Nescafe instead of real coffee...

That's when Leslie cut in. "That's posh bread!" she said. We're talking about, like, Wonder Bread - or its Bolivian equivalent. And the Nescafe too. This nasty processed stuff that we didn't want to eat is seen as superior, as more modern and expensive, than more nutritious homemade stuff like rolls or filter coffee.

When we got to Porongo, we learned that it was famous for producing a fruit called achachairú. According to a book I bought in Bolivia:

In Bolivia, the name achachairú is given to at least 10 species of the genus Rheedia, including: Rheedia brasiliensis, R. achachairu, R. arubayensis, R. laterifolia, R. macrophylla, R. acuminata, R. floribunda, R. gardneriana, R. madruno, and R. rogaguensis. All of these species are characterized by medium sized trees, up to 10 meters, which present with grayish bark grayish and more or less smooth, yellow resin. Its leaves are simple, elliptical or oval shaped and its flowers are in small clusters. There are hermaphrodites and unisexual flowers on the same tree. Its fruits are round, cylindrical yellow berries with two seeds and white edible flresh that is sweet and slightly acidic. The peel is harder in some species, but generally looks similar to leather. Fruit size varies from 2 cm in R. achachairú to the size of an orange in R. macrophylla. They bloom from August to September, with the fruit maturing between November and February.

As we were there in August, the trees were in bloom. So were the mango trees, for that matter. I noticed mango trees everywhere that day. Another notable species was the gallito (little rooster) tree, named for the appearance of its beautiful red flowers.

When we arrived in Porongo, the place was dead. There was absolutely nothing going on, and a guide who was to meet us and give us a tour did not show up. Plus, it was freezing. We arrived in Santa Cruz during a "suraso" - blast of freezing Antarctic air that results in temperatures in the 50s and 60s. None of us were dressed well enough to be in the cold.

We ended up gathering in a restaurant that had a sign outside announcing they had patasca, a soup made from boiling an entire pig's head overnight. At some point, the head is removed and the flesh is cut off and put back in the soup, and the rest of the head is not. But we didn't order that. Instead, we had coffee, hot chocolate, and empanadas to warm us up. Ultimately we just decided to go back to our hotel because of the cold. I used the opportunity to head next door to a pastry shop that came highly recommended.

I spent my last day stuffing my face with salteñas, a Bolivian street food I love.


Inside my salteña

I stocked up on a few other types of street food to bring on the plane too.

I know nothing about this other than that it tastes good. I ate several of them.

And I finally gave in to my huge desire to taste mocochinchi, a drink made from a dried peach boiled with cinnamon, sugar, and water:


The only other notable bit from my last day was a chart I found in one of the stores showing all of the plants used for dyes for traditional Bolivian textiles:

So that's it - that's my whole trip. As usual, the flight home was a nightmare. In this particular case, I flew from La Paz to Miami as planned and then it went to hell. I nearly missed my connecting flight to Chicago and wasn't able to get anything to eat. Since I won't eat the plane food, I ate chocolate and cookies from Bolivia. The only catch is that the cookies were made with maca, an Andean root that makes you horny. I got the cookies because I wanted to try maca, not eat the whole thing in one sitting!!! And then the Miami to Chicago flight got in late and I was stuck spending the night in Chicago. I swear, I hate air travel.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Bolivia Diaries: Day 13, Part 2 - "Responsible" Soy Production in Santa Cruz

This diary is part of a series describing my trip to Bolivia to study food sovereignty, agroecology, and climate change. On our thirteenth day, we traveled around the agricultural area of Santa Cruz with Productividad Biosfera Medio Ambiente (PROBIOMA). This diary is about our visit to a "responsible" farm in Santa Cruz.

"Model Farm: Managed with criteria of social and environmental responsibility. Proprietor: Francisco Gonzales. Supported and certified by PROBIOMA."

The farm we visited was owned by a man named Francisco. His idea for his 16-hectare farm is to "do something totally different" from the monoculture soy around him. Previously, they were growing soy, corn, potato, and sunflowers here. Like so many in Santa Cruz, Francisco was a highlander who came to the lowlands looking for land. And he was lucky. He met and fell in love with his wife, whose family had come from Potosi years before - also looking for land. This land was in her family.

Francisco with a beet

A view of the farm, including its two buildings.

As you can see in the photos below, the farm was anything but a monoculture. The farm had two small buildings, each containing just one room. One seemed to be a bedroom, the other a kitchen. These might be the home of Francisco and his wife, but I think it's likely they have a home elsewhere and just use these buildings for cooking and sleeping when they are at the farm.

Francisco grows citrus trees, and just about every vegetable under the sun - potatoes, beets, peas, eggplant, squash, you name it. He also grows sunflowers, corn, and wheat. As you can see, he does not intercrop. He plants in long, straight rows of single crops. However, he has so much variety that no crop is very far from several other plant species all around it.


Citrus and Peppers







Wheat and corn

Tractor... you don't grow wheat and corn like that by hand.



Francisco told us a funny story about his neighbor. At first, when he began farming using organic methods with a polyculture, his neighbor got mad at him for growing sunflowers. The neighbor came over to complain that Francisco's sunflowers would cross-pollinate his. However, when he got to Francisco's farm and saw the quality of Francisco's sunflowers, he asked Francisco to grow sunflowers for him and sell them back to him.

He says that his neighbors have come around to ask questions a lot. They want to know what he's doing, where he gets his plants, and why he is doing this. He thinks they are curious and that they might switch to farming like he does if he can prove that he is financially successful over time.

At the front of his property (along the road), Francisco grows a number of trees, like mahogany and teak. While these are valuable as lumber of course, Francisco grows them for a different reason. His 16 hectares are in the shape of a long rectangle. Perhaps two thirds of the way across his land, he left a patch of natural forest. Beyond it, there are two hectares that sit in between two such patches of forest, which act like windbreaks. Francisco says that no matter what he grows, the land between the forest areas always yields higher. So he is attempting to create a similar sort of windbreak for the rest of his land by planting these lumber species in the front.




Close-up of one of the trees

After our tour, we went back to the house for our lunch. Don Francisco's wife prepared a traditional style lunch for us, a delicious soup made from one of her chickens.


Chickens... one of these guys became lunch.

Francisco's wife preparing lunch

After we ate, Francisco asked if we'd like to see his patch of jungle. Of course we would! As we walked over there, he asked me if it was true that the U.S. has no monkeys. Yes, I said. And, he continued, is it true that the U.S. doesn't have trees? No, I told him, That's not true. We walked a long way across bare soil that had been prepared for planting, or perhaps just planted. As we walked, he pointed out a few trees that he left standing for one reason or another. I think they were important species.

Bare field prepared for planting, with a tree

Another tree Francisco chose to leave standing.

A look at the jungle as we approached it.


Once in the jungle, I was delighted to see a passionflower I had been looking for, a pachío.

Pachío, a wild passionflower that produces edible fruit

Another view of the pachío.

Another view of the pachío.

Then, all of a sudden, we saw a little monkey in a motacú palm! He scurried away quickly, before anyone could get a picture. We watched the tree for a little while but he did not show his face again.

I saw a monkey! He's right up there, in that tree! (Just hiding)

Don Francisco showed us some banana trees he had. He also planted banana trees in the forest. His theory is that if the monkeys have bananas for themselves in the forest then they will leave his banana trees alone. He showed us where a bunch of bananas had been cut off and stolen and joked that some monkeys with machetes had come to take his bananas.


A nest

While near the jungle, Francisco proudly showed us a tiny plant. At first I could not imagine what kind of rare and valuable plant it was that he took such pride in. Coca, that's what. He somehow got a seed or a cutting (probably a seed) and this is his one, precious coca plant from which perhaps some day he can grow his own coca leaves for chewing.


I have two last pictures that don't fit very well in this story, so I am throwing them in here. The road was DUSTY. Horribly dusty. It was a dirt road and every vehicle that passed kicked up a huge cloud of dust. Check this out:

You might have noticed that when I called this "responsible" soy - which is how it was presented to us - I put the word "responsible" in quotes. It's not because Francisco is doing anything wrong. He's amazing, truly. But this land was all forest and it was all cleared. As was all of the other land for miles and miles around.

A major problem in Bolivia is that instead of redistributing land that is already in agriculture, they let the super-rich keep what they have and then help the poor clear more forest to grow food. With these 16 hectares Francisco is a smallholder. The average large landholder in Santa Cruz has 16,000 hectares. That's average! When I was visiting corn and soy farms in Iowa, the average farm in the area I visited was only about 1000 acres, or about 400 hectares. And the land isn't even used very well. We were told that the cattle ranches here will have about one cow per five hectares, which is far more land than you need per cow.

The colonization and deforestation of the eastern lowlands of Bolivia were actually a U.S. brainstorm, dating back to the "Bohan Plan," a plan written in the 1940s (I think) by an American that more or less instructed Bolivia to do exactly what they did. And Bolivia, after its 1952 revolution, followed that advice.