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.

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