Politics of Poverty

I’m waiting for a revolution in rice that is actually green

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Loc Thi Su, 36, is visiting her rice field in Na Tap village, Dong Thinh commune, Dinh Hoa district, Thai Nguyen province, Vietnam. As part of Oxfam's program to support small-scale farming in northern Vietnam, since 2007 the agency has been working with the agriculture ministry's Plant Protection sub-Department to fund farmer training in the System of Rice Intensification. Photo: Chau Doan / Oxfam America.

Small-scale farmers are missing from the changeover.

Emmanuel Tumusiime is a researcher on economic justice and agriculture at Oxfam America.

Rice is the primary staple for more than half of the world’s people, making it inextricably linked to global food security. Its demand is growing, but rice production is being challenged, particularly by environmental degradation and climate change impacts.

Most often, the recommendation is a technological one: breed new, higher yielding seeds that are better adapted to withstand the impacts of climate change. In addition, such seeds can be coded with specific traits to become more nutritious, thus easily addressing problems of malnutrition among the chronically hungry.

This narrative has dominated the presentations at this year’s International Rice Congress (IRC 2014) taking place this week in Bangkok. This quadrennial event brings together rice scientists, government representatives, business interests, and civil society participants.

A second green revolution?

As part of the same narrative, the second green revolution in rice has been professed in some popular media to be underway. The director general of the International Rice Research Institute reaffirmed this in his keynote address at the IRC 2014, noting that the second green revolution started with the release of rice varieties that survive flooding from monsoons. As the narrative goes, this is being enabled by unprecedented advances in technology, particularly in the field of molecular biology, which has made sequencing of genes far more judicious, cheap and less time consuming.

To many people, this second green revolution in rice is vital since the gains of what is now the ‘first’ green revolution are plateauing. In some areas, these gains are being cancelled out by problems resulting from the overuse of inorganic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, as well as perverse scarcity of water. The imperative is compelling—new ways of doing business are obviously needed to address problems of modern day agriculture.

In my view, however, the ultimate faith that introductions of new seeds will help sustainably feed the world, respond to climate change, and fight poverty in rural areas, is conceit. Or it suggests that we have not learned enough from the first green revolution.

Yield gaps reveal the urgent need to invest in farmer education, especially for smallholders

We eat rice mostly grown by small-scale farmers, the majority of whom are producing far less than what is possible on their fields. The yield gaps in the different rice growing eco-systems, even when using a less conservative measure such as the difference between average farmers and best farmers, are huge. They are in a range that is larger than the gains attributed to the first green revolution— according to research. By some estimate, closing the existing yield gaps between average and best yielding rice farmers is predicted to be enough to keep up with rice demand in major rice-producing countries, at least until 2050.

Why do we have such huge yield gaps? Largely because farmers are using suboptimal standards of farming, in particular poor field management practices. Further, in conventional rice cultivation systems, farmers face problems of higher input needs and lower marginal increases in output, resulting in lower profits. The situation has not been helped by rice trade policies, which in many countries support cheap food for urban populations to the detriment of the rural economy. This is happening in both large rice producing countries such as China and Thailand as well as well as small ones, e.g. Haiti. No wonder, the largest proportion of rice never leaves the farm on which it is produced, with farmers subsisting on it for food self-reliance rather than producing to meet income goals.

We are fortunate that rice is a self-pollinated crop, and its regeneration vigor is lost less quickly than crops such as maize. This means farmers can produce seeds on the farm, and recycle with no (or little) penalty on yield. That tells me investment in breeding for higher productivity really is less urgent than investment in appropriate technology transfer systems.

Surprisingly, however, how to sustainably manage small rice fields for better productivity and resilience has featured only in passing at this year’s IRC.

Appropriate technologies for small-scale farmers

In practice, small-scale farmers benefit most from technologies that suite their resource conditions, and build on or enhance their knowledge. The evidence about the system of rice intensification (SRI) has proven that working with farmers to improve the management of rice in the field is more effective in raising their productivity efficiently. There is evidence that adopters of SRI have seen a 20-100 percent or more increase in yields, up to 90 percent reduction in required seeds, and up to 50 percent saving in water use through reliance on planting fewer, younger and widely-spaced rice seedlings in a semi-aquatic environment. Perhaps, this is the opportunity to bring about the revolution in rice that is actually green.

Unfortunately, SRI or approaches of the type hardly feature in formal discussions of rice research that can help them be effectively adopted by farmers. Of course, critics will charge that SRI requires more labor, at least initially, and that supplies of organic matter are often limited. That is true and concerning, but this is also precisely where conversations and close collaboration between researchers and farmers need to be happening to address site-specific problems and produce affordable simple machinery that could relieve labor.

The very definition of ‘revolution’ is about a fundamental change in systems, paradigms, or ways of thinking. In farming, we can only get there if we keep the needs, abilities and interests of small-scale farmers at the center of the research and the dialogue.

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