Sunday, December 4, 2011

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)

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