Rice politics ignores Asian socio-cultural base

Rice Science and Development Politics Robert S Anderson, Edwin Levy and Barrie M Morrison Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi Price: Rs 285

 
By Bibek Debroy
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

THE SUB-TITLE of the book: Research Strategies and IRRI's Technologies Confront Asian Diversity (1950-1980) says what the book is all about.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), set up near Manila in 1960, was conceived and financed by the Rockefeller and Ford foundations. This book is about IRRI's planning and development; the interplay of IRRI technology, rice scientists and national research strategies, and the persuasion of Asian governments to adopt a style of rice research and a concept of agriculture that matches IRRI's objectives -- to manipulate rice varieties genetically so as to multiply yields many times. The material is drawn from experiences in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

IRRI's mission is based on Norman Borlaug's successful experiments with wheat in Mexico in the 1940s, and the expectation is that similar success with rice can be achieved in Asia.

This book isn't concerned with issues relating to the green revolution, probably because was there really such a revolution and who gained from it? Instead, it focusses only on IRRI.

New rice varieties as well as the means of developing new technology for their cultivation were to be transferred and developed in Asia. IRRI's guiding philosophy was that plant genetics was the answer to Asia's food problems. The authors contend this philosophy is simplistic and does not take into account the physical and cultural diversity of Asian agriculture or the existence of lateral linkages in Asian agricultural systems. Nor does it consider the diverse and conflicting goals of various actors in this Asian drama.
Economic rationale Crops, socio-economic stratification, landholding size and farming practices differ immensely from region to region and their cultural context varies. The economic rationale for the rice farmer is not a narrow market-oriented one. Property-holding laws, taxation and inheritance laws, the markets for land, inputs and products and transportation services in rural areas also differ from region to region, as does the relative power of farming communities in political systems. Ignoring all this doomed IRRI's model of applied and basic research.

Even the significance of rice varies: the Rockefeller foundation considers rice a high-profile product that would ward off economic stagnation, political instability and the spread of communism in Asia. For the Ford Foundation, it is a prestigious agrarian undertaking in Asia. For IRRI's professionals, rice represents an opportunity to advance their careers. For national governments, it signifies a method of supplying cheap food to the cities and reducing dependence on food imports. And, for the small cultivator, rice means supplementing household income and strengthening resources for supporting children or for old-age security.

These differing significance of rice have shaped the values innate in rice production and distribution.

---Bibek Debroy is a professor of economics at the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, New Delhi.

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