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.