MacGyver tackles agricultural research

by Luigi Guarino on February 26, 2013

It should be so, so simple.

Take a bunch of hectares. Plant a bunch of rice. In a bunch of different ways. Replicate a bunch of times. In a bunch of different places. Count stuff. Publish the results. Eat the experiment.

We were talking, a couple of days ago, on my Facebook timeline, about the System of Rice Intensification (SRI). I had posted a short, somewhat doubtful, article from The Guardian, and that was Jim Croft’s solution to the problem of whether it, well, whether SRI actually works or not. Mike Jackson, who worked at IRRI for many years and should know, then weighed in.

That has been tried, following the ‘SRI recipe’ as formulated. When the results did not come up to scratch, so to speak, the SRI-ites claimed that the ‘recipe’ had not been followed. Efforts have been made to resolve the issues. SRI-ites have religion; faith — not empiricism — is the name of the game.

And yes, there have indeed been studies and trials and surveys and analyses and meta-analyses and pamphlets and training manuals and celebrity websites. Not to mention blogposts trying to make sense of all of the above.

So why haven’t we got to the bottom of it all yet? Why is something that is, at best, a variable hotchpotch of practices some of which, in some combinations, sometime work, to some extent, in some places, being touted as the greatest thing since the last Big Thing? Peter Fredenburg had a theory, again over on Facebook.

SRI is an easy story to sell. It comes across as smart farming that gets more harvest from fewer inputs and builds farmers’ character. Conventional agricultural research, by contrast, addresses each problem with another input or gene, turning farmers into mindless conveyor belts for lab products. SRI is MacGyver. Conventional ag research plods.

MacGyver is a character in an old(ish) TV show; he was an unconventional spy, who refused to use a gun, and relied on complicated, ingenious contraptions to get out of his predicaments instead, which he would build incredibly quickly with a Swiss Army knife and duct tape, usually under extreme pressure. That sold then, on TV, and it sells now, in agricultural research. Just ask the people who advocate balanced, diverse diets as the most sustainable solution to malnutrition. They regularly get told the kind of thing that the new and improved Mark Lynas, fresh from his Damascene encounter with science, told them a couple of days back.

No-one disputes that a balanced and nutritionally-adequate diet is the best long-term solution to vitamin A deficiency and malnutrition in general. But achieving this requires the elimination of poverty (which is why rich countries do not have this problem), something which will take time and decades of economic growth in the developing world.

You see what I mean? Nevermind all that plodding. Call in MacGyver and his Biofortification Army knife. Lynas was following up a post on Golden Rice, which has been in the news of late, incidentally causing IRRI to issue a useful clarification. Jeremy had this to say about Golden Rice a while back, and I see no reason to disagree with him now, five years on.

Golden Rice, as a poster child for engineered biofortification, has come a long way. Those promoting it have become much less strident and have sought to build alliances. But I haven’t seen anyone willing to give the most desirable option — a varied and sufficient diet — a fair crack of the whip.

SRI and biofortification — both of which, incidentally, I would be very happy to see succeed, as we cannot afford to lose any options for ensuring food security — could be seen as being on opposite sides of the agricultural barricades. But they are both benefiting from the same fascination with ingenious quick fixes, with the deus ex machina, though admittedly among different constituencies. With silver bullets, I’d be tempted to say, if only MacGyver used a gun.

And yet it should be so, so simple.

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa February 26, 2013 at 4:28 pm

I don’t understand why the same golden rice worshippers aren’t promoting crops that already have high levels of vitamin A like orange sweet potatoes, which are probably a more appropriate crop for many upland areas anyway.

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RachaelL February 26, 2013 at 4:38 pm

So, I understand the contrast being created here. Everyone has a tendency to propose “silver bullets” — solutions that just solve the problem cleanly and cleverly without any of the messiness that actually exist. I don’t know enough about SRI to know if that’s common, though from your description it is. “MacGyver” solutions is also a great term!

However, I don’t think most (and certainly not Lynas) are preferring Golden Rice in that way — as a quick, simple solution to a problem. In any case, I don’t. I wrote about it a last fall. The short version is that given that development necessary to improve diets more broadly is still outstanding in many regions, why wouldn’t bio-fortified staples be reasonable (and humanitarian) thing to produce? The 2008 article seems to imply GR seed would have to be given to people repeatedly but that doesn’t make any sense to me: the idea is to allow farmers to reuse it just like any rice they might have now. While getting GR out to farmers even once is no simple matter (e.g. how do you convince farmers that this yellowish rice is just like their normal rice only with an added vitamin?), it’s far simpler than regular supplementation programs (which require you to reach those rural areas every six months). Moreover, I submit that if GR is a MacGuyver solution, then so is orange-fleshed sweet potato, even though that’s showing a lot of promise already (it not being GE means it got out a lot faster …)

Giving a varied diet a “fair crack” IS being done: fundamentally that’s what any development program is trying to do because if you’re wealthier you’re going to chose a varied diet. But it’s not happening very fast in some regions. Should children be harmed while we wait for the long process of the entire world becoming sufficiently wealthy?

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Matthew February 27, 2013 at 6:14 pm

Wealth is not the solution to a healthy diet (“varied” is fairly meaningless…can can eat a variety of foods, but if a high % is junk, your diet is poor). One brief look at how middle class Americans eat is a clear enough to see that…and evidence is mounting that the middle classes in China and India are also not eating healthy diets.

But poverty is an issue, being poor in resources and in the power towards self-determination, and particularly in determining what crops you grow. A Kenyan growing green beans and flowers for England because that’s what the decision makers are telling them they must grow if they want a loan, credit on seeds, and so on – well that producer might make more money but (s)he also might stop producing more diversified crops that once provided their families with more diversified diets. Yes, the producer can choose to not grow crops for export and attempt to only produce a varied # of crops for subsistence, but then can’t afford other things – like the ability to send their kids to school.

We Northern hemi-people helped “develop” this solution for Kenya – grow export crops for Europe and we’ll give you loans for tractors and fertilizer!!! – Yes, their relative “wealth” in the form of income increased,but now with a spike in world food prices they once again struggle to afford food – and can’t eat the flowers.

Sorry, a bit off topic from GR, but I suppose the connection is that we Northerners tend to have all sorts of bright and shiny “development” ideas such as GR…but they are often like snakes set loose on an island to kill the rats, that later kill the indigenous ecosystems. Bright and shiny and silver, and bullets indeed.

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Karl Haro von Mogel February 27, 2013 at 7:02 pm

and evidence is mounting that the middle classes in China and India are also not eating healthy diets.

There is a huge contrast between the kinds of developing country malnutrition issues and the kinds of overnutrition (and malnutrition that sometimes comes along with it) that can happen in wealthier nations as a result of overabundance of french fries and soda. I know that everyone here would choose to live in a country and with a personal income that puts us in an able-to-eat-french-fries economy over the can’t-afford-anything-but-rice subsistence situations that many people find themselves trapped in.

But this is the first time I have seen someone poo-poo the idea of alleviating malnutrition by increasing wealth (or decreasing poverty – the fixation on the term wealth itself isn’t necessary – we know what Rachael means). Clearly the means by which this is achieved matters, but Golden Rice is not flowers for export but food for subsistence farmers to grow and eat. They don’t need to take out loans to grow it, or even change their farm management practices. It’s a completely different kind of idea.

Sensitivity to international and ethicity-related dynamics is important, but calling something a shiny “Northern” idea does nothing to help us figure out whether or not it is a good idea. Indeed, your idea that it is just a shiny Northern idea can itself be called a shiny Northern idea. It is a logical fallacy.

But poverty is an issue, being poor in resources and in the power towards self-determination, and particularly in determining what crops you grow.

The same goes for being told what crops they cannot grow. Am I to understand, Matthew, that you support the right of subsistence farmers in say, the Philippines, to grow Golden Rice if they so choose to?

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Matthew February 27, 2013 at 7:20 pm

I completely support the right of farmers in any country to grow GR once it has passed regulatory standards.

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Matthew February 27, 2013 at 7:25 pm

And I am not “poo-pooing” the importance of wealth. I am suggesting that we focus on it as the metric and in so doing often ignore the many other factors. It becomes the golden mean, like yield in crops, but it is in fact only one factor in complicated system. Wealth is not “the solution” – it is not a silver bullet, especially when wealth is tied to global economies that taketh away as quickly as they giveth.

Karl Haro von Mogel February 27, 2013 at 7:56 pm

Cool, glad to hear it!

As with my parenthetical statement, I don’t think Rachael was necessarily putting forth ”wealth” as a metric, but talking about bettering their economic status in general.

RachaelL March 3, 2013 at 1:11 am

I definitely meant wealth in the sense of families gaining enough stability (in terms of income, resources, etc.) to not be on the edge of starvation. In other words, enough wealth to have a choice. “Western” diet issues aside, it’s clear a certain level of wealth (including widespread supplementation) keeps most nutrient deficiency disorders very rare which is what we’re talking about. One reason I support Golden Rice is that unlike many other “shiny” ideas, it doesn’t require that people adopt other agricultural technology if they don’t want to. I think that’s an important difference with many other ideas.

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SLP February 26, 2013 at 10:20 pm

SRI is hardly a silver bullet. It’s been around for 30 years and promoted primarily by word of mouth among farmers at minimal cost. And if farmers can select, save and use/share a diversity of their own seeds, self sufficiency and resilience result. Seems a pretty useful part of the toolkit.

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Katryn February 27, 2013 at 6:41 pm

But are they allowed to save their seed? There in lies the 2-edged sword of patented seeds or terminator seeds. The high cost to the farmer to continually purchase seed is prohibitive to his/her bottom line. Add to that the cost of increased fertilizer use since there is no longer any crop rotation to replenish nutrients and add organic matter. The soil gradually loses is ability to retain moisture which impedes microbial growth for healthy roots and nutrient processing. Thus further degrading the soil. Without a healthy soil, especially in regions prone to drought, erosion will be greatly increased as dry unprotected soils are blown away. Secondary issues further down the road is the increased manufacture fertilizer use has a finite lifetime. There are only so many minerals that can be dug from the earth and yet if poison free plants could be tilled back into the soil some of those same nutrients removed would then be replaced and the cycle begun again, hopefully with a different crop. This is what has worked so well since the Fertile Cresent first tamed the grains for cultivation. Nurish the soil, it will then feed you.

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Jay Bost February 27, 2013 at 1:00 am

What about more attention to the most un-MacGuyver and un-quick fix new science approach of researching, reviving, and promoting indigenous wild foods high in vit A rather than having to resort to introducing new cultivars, rice or sweet potato? Am I being naive?

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Jacob February 27, 2013 at 7:50 pm

I am really confused now. McGyver has no gun, so how does he shoot the silver bullet?

If SRI is mainly about farmer experimentation (in spite of the “simple” PR) and is connected to national research, as it is now in India, I don’t think we are talking about a silver bullet, are we? The national genebank in India is giving landrace accessions to be tried under SRI conditions, for instance.

I guess lots of things start off like silver bullets and simple stories (“miracle rice”, “genetic erosion”), and then become more complicated.

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Dave Wood February 28, 2013 at 9:57 am

SRI: I go along with Mike on this. But there is a pattern. From a source in Madagascar SRI was taken up by Uphoff from Cornell, and vastly promoted as `agroecological’. While agroecology itself, with a cosmopolitan origin and usage such as `agroecological zones’ was vastly promoted by Altieri in Berkeley and is now `neo-agroecology’. Is there something in the university water over there?
In contrast to one-man promotion, we have the `New Green Revolution’ which lots of people are having a go at.
Back to SRI: I nominate Albert Howard, working out of the old Pusa Institute in Bihar, for the key SRI idea of getting air to roots and adequate drainage. But, despite the huge promotion of SRI, nobody seems to have credited Howard with anything.

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