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).

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