Miracle Rice (International Rice Research Institute)
From the curators: In the mid-20th century, as a rapidly growing population led to increased concerns about global famine, scientists of many nationalities united to redesign agricultural practices and increase crop productivity. These efforts, which came to be known as the Green Revolution, were concentrated particularly in countries with developing infrastructures in Asia and Latin America. The development of novel, mechanized agricultural technologies was combined with research on new varieties of wheat that were high-yield and disease resistant (including work done by American scientist Norman Borlaug, who won a Nobel prize for his work). The result was a massive boom in crop productivity in these areas from the late 1960s onward. Like wheat and other crops, rice was genetically modified to increase its yield—but only when grown with an excess of nitrogen fertilizers, pesticides, and intensive irrigation. This rice, dubbed IR8, was first produced in 1966 by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) at the University of the Philippines’ Los Banos site. While IR8 and other Green Revolution developments greatly increased global food production, it has not been without significant impact on ecosystems and economic structures. The full effects of the Green Revolution are elusive, complex, and yet to be realized. A second iteration of the Green Revolution is currently underway in China, and Green Revolution ideas are now being introduced in Africa.
It haunts me still. I was 21 years old when I participated in a design research project that ultimately saved millions of people from starvation—but it did so by sacrificing the good of many along the way, and I’ve often wondered about the project’s true cost.
I was in the Peace Corps in the Philippines in the late 1960s, when the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), an NGO established by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, was designing new varieties of rice. One such cultivar, dubbed IR8, or “Miracle Rice,” basically tripled rice yields, and, together with versions of “Miracle Wheat” and other grains, significantly diminished the number of famines worldwide (the natural, climate-induced kind that happened with depressing regularity for nearly as long as humans have populated the earth). The design of the new rice was a massive breakthrough that we now take for granted.
At that time I was teaching third-grade science in Caloocan City, outside of Manila, and I traveled south to the institute’s headquarters in Los Baños, where Miracle Rice was being tested. The scientists from Ford and Rockefeller, with support from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and large chemical companies, were in the last stages of analyzing the newly designed rice plant. I assisted with a study comparing the efficacy of using water buffalo versus small Japanese tractors to cultivate rice fields with the new seed. Water buffalo had long been used in Asia to plow and level land, puddle rice fields, and cultivate field crops, all while providing no-cost fertilizer. Japanese planting tractors, on the other hand, had been recently introduced to help farmers save on labor time, since mechanized tillage requires fewer field laborers for the same output. I still remember how wonderful the warm, deep mud felt on my legs as I moved across the paddy, and how scared I was of the venomous paddy snakes that were known for biting between the toes. I was happy to participate in the final testing.
In the end the Japanese tractors proved more efficient; but, as with Miracle Rice, their use had unforeseen outcomes. Soon it would become clear that, in designing new rice seeds, the scientists had also designed new growing requirements. Miracle Rice needs much more water, fertilizer, insecticide, and, in part because of its increased reliance on tractors, more fuel to grow than do other rice varieties. The Green Revolution, as this new method of high-yield agriculture came to be called, could triple production, but these new growing requirements also meant higher costs—financially, but also socially and environmentally.
In the months before Los Baños, I had begun going up into the mountains of Pampanga and Tarlac in the region of central Luzon. At that time, the country’s handful of oligarchic families, who effectively dominated the political system and ran the country, presided over enormous feudal landholdings in the region. There were still many small peasant farms, however, and people were eager to own their own land. When the government began to roll out Miracle Rice, these small farmers could not compete against the oligarchs who had access to both the financing and water needed to sustain the new crop. Promises of special loan programs enabling small farmers to buy pesticides, fertilizer, and fuel for the new tractors never materialized on any significant scale. Water buffalo, one of the only sources of capital wealth, depreciated in value. Small farmers were squeezed and, in the end, lost their land to the oligarchs. The design of Miracle Rice was for these peasants a disaster.
Historically, Luzon had been a center of rebellion in the country, with peasants rising up against the country’s dominant families to reclaim the land that was taken from them. The Hukbalahap insurgency in the 1950s, for instance, which nearly brought the Philippines government to collapse, was centered in this region. With the introduction of Miracle Rice, central Luzon exploded once again. The first article I ever wrote as a journalist was for the Far Eastern Economic Review and was titled “How The Green Revolution Turned Red.”
It would be many years before I would again become involved in the field of design (I now consult, write, and teach on subjects in design, innovation, and creativity). Yet the violence that resulted from the invention of this new food crop has always tempered my view of the optimism that is so much a part of design culture. The profession proclaims good intentions; and we must be fully aware of what harm good intentions may sometimes bring.
Worldwide rice production. Map of rice production across the world in the year 2000. Data compiled by the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment with data from C. Monfreda, N. Ramankutty, and J.A. Foley. 2008. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons