Rice: The Staff of Life Fr. Sean McDonagh, SSC

If I asked a Filipino to point to the most sacred place in their country, many Catholics might opt for the place were the first Mass was offered. Others, , with a more political bent, may choose the spot in the Luneta in Manila where Jose Rizal, the national hero was executed by the Spanish.

I would argue that the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at Los Banos, in Luzon is the most sacred spot, not merely of the Philippines, but of all Asia. My reason is simple. Rice is arguably the most important food in the world, and there are more varieties and more possibilities for developing better varieties of rice at IRRI than any place else in the world.

In almost every Asian culture, one finds rice rituals. For many it is seen as the staff of life. In some Asian countries, the average person eats between 200-500 pounds of rice per annum. This amounts to between 30-70% of the calorie intake for an individual.  In recent years, rice has become more popular in Europe and North America, especially for people who are becoming more diet conscious, since it has no cholesterol and very little fat.

Given its crucial importance one would expect that the research centre at IRRI would be well supported, especially by governments. Unfortunately, this is not happening.  In an article in The New York Times, (May 18th 2008),  Keith Bradsher and Andrew Martin reported that the IRRI budget has fallen in recent years and as a result vital research programmes have been slashed or terminated.  While adjusting for inflation, rich countries contributed $6 billion  a year to agricultural research in the 1980s. By 2006, the figure had fallen to $2.8 billion. The US, for example, has cut its support for agricultural research from $2.3 billion to $624 million during the same period.

As a result of financial cuts research into how to control the brown plant hopper insect, which is devastating rice in paddies right across Asia, has been shelved.  Scientists at IRRI have identified 14 genetic traits which could help the rice survive the plant hopper.  Researchers at IRRI bred resistant strains into commercial rice in the 1980s. But, of course, the brown hopper insect did not stand still. It adapted swiftly and is now, once again threatening rice crops across Asia.

Regrettably, in 2008 the scientists at IRRI have no funding to breed these newly discovered traits into some of the world’s most widely used rice varieties.  In the 1980s the institute employed five entomologists, or insect experts, working with a staff of 200 people.  Today, there is only one entomologist with a staff of eight people.  Promising work on rice varieties, which could withstand higher temperatures or grow in saltier waters have been abandoned.  This is particularly worrying since many climate change scientists predict higher temperatures and encroaching sea-levels as a result of global warming.  Most scary and irresponsible of all, several dozen important varieties of rice has been lost from the institute’s gene bank because of poor and defective storage facilities.

IRRI has the largest collection of rice varieties in the world.  The loss of a significant number of these could be catastrophic for humanity, because once a species or variety is gone, it is gone forever.  It is vital that money should be made available immediately not just to IRRI at Los Banos, but to all the research centres on staple crops,  throughout the world, such as the one on maize in Mexico and the one on potatoes in Peru.

I find it very ironic that, while global multinational companies such as Monsanto are channeling billions of dollars, often with support from national governments, into creating genetically engineered varieties for various crops, agencies such as IRRI are being starved of funds.   These research centres could breed effective varieties at a fraction of the cost and make them readily available to farmers.

Does one have to subscribe to the conspiracy theory to claim that many First World governments, beginning with the US, have been so colonized by the corporations that they are happy to see agencies such as IRRI go to the wall in order to help their friends in the agri-business corporations. The big difference between IRRI and agri-business corporations is that in the latter every genetically engineered plant is patented. Farmers are forced to return to the corporation each year to buy seeds.  This is effectively giving a handful of agri-business corporations control over the seeds of the staple crops of the world.  The consequences for humanity would be disastrous./


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