17 June 2008

Rice is back

The price of rice has stopped rising, for now, but the scramble to grow more rice has only just begun.

Agriculture ministers and scientists have been calling for a 'Green Revolution for Africa' for years. The Gates Foundation wants to fund it. Belatedly, the World Bank has agreed. The central focus seems to be on improved seed varieties, bred or modified for African conditions. A blog in the New York Times describes 'The Hunt for Super-Rice', a distributed computing project wherein unused time on personal computers is used to model genetic variations of rice. (This is the same technique as used to search for extraterrestrial intelligence and protein folding combinations).

By contrast, a friend has pointed out a low-tech approach to raising yields in today's edition of the same newspaper. Professor Norman Uthoff at Cornell University has developed a 'System of Rice Intensification' which relies on early and less dense planting. It may seem counterintuitive, but apparently yield can be raised without recourse to the flooded paddy fields or chemical fertiliser familiar from Asia. At a time when the cost of fuel (and hence fertiliser) has risen even faster than the price of the crop, this is welcome news.

As so often, however, the article skirts around the question of implementation. There may be isolated incidents of doubling or tripling yields, but techniques are even more difficult to disseminate than seeds or fertiliser: they need trained extension workers. Even if the System of Rice Intensification raises yields more cheaply or reliably than a 'Green Revolution', it will need a new army of extension agents to make it work. Unless it's so good that it can be spread by word of mouth. Maybe the best agricultural technology is the mobile phone . . .

1 comment:

Mohamed said...

The closer farmers are to subsistence income (and subsistence agriculture of food crops), the less willing they will be to take the leap towards a different planting method - regardless of the guarantee rate or quality stamp attached.

Which is why I tend to cheer (although, knowing little about rice harvesting, I cheer quietly) for methods that involve the smallest changes from the currently used methods.
I'd be keen on seeing SRI (the english name is but a lousy translation of the french name, translation which sought to maintain the original acronym..) tested more widely.
At a later point, further up the income chain, a more drastic change in the production methods can be introduced, but not quite yet..