Thursday, April 22, 2010

So this is how high-level scientists discuss issues...

The future of international agricultural research. That was the topic of the special forum/ armchair discussion (without armchairs) I attended today. What an impressive group of panellists!

Dr. Bob Zeigler and Dr. Klaus Lampe (Directors General)
Dr. Ren Wang and Dr. Achim Dobermann (Deputy Directors General, Research)
Dr. S.K. de Datta (Agronomist, Principal Scientist 1964–1991)
Dr. Swapan Datta (Senior Biotechnologist 1993–2005)
Dr. Ronnie Coffman (Plant Breeder 1971–1981)
Mrs. Angeline Kamba (Board of Trustees 1998–2003)

Only during an alumni homecoming can you gather all these brilliant people together in IRRI's Havener Auditorium to talk science in such a relaxed atmosphere.

A lot of things were discussed during the two-hour forum. It amazed me that all of them were throwing ideas from the top of their heads; very spontaneous, very informal. Dr. Zeigler was a very effective moderator as well, successfully engaging the panellists and keeping the audience's interest with challenging questions. I wonder what I'd say when I was given a pop quiz like that! The last time something similar happened to me, I was caught dozing at a lecture (thank you, eight-hour jet lag!) when Melissa directed a question to me. Oops!

What struck me the most in this forum was the pressing issue of who will stay in the rice fields 10 to 20 years from now. The panellists mentioned that many agriculturists don't want their brightest children to become agriculturists like them. However, the children deemed less academically inclined are made to stay on farm and continue the family business. In an industry that is rapidly becoming knowledge-intensive and information-driven, the challenge is how to make agriculture an attractive opportunity for jobs. Otherwise, rice-producers and rice-consumers will be facing another food crisis sometime in the future.

The migration of people (particularly men) into the urban areas also affect who will stay in the fields. Women, who are normally just at home, are now faced with the challenge of tending the rice fields; they simply need to be trained. Dr. Thelma Paris discussed the progress in women empowerment in different countries, especially since women are oftentimes left behind. Slowly but surely, women are becoming more involved in selecting varieties that will be planted in the fields.

The issue of land size was also mentioned. Yields in a small farm, hence revenues, are limited. Most small-scale farmers pass their lands to the next generation; I think that their goal is having food on the table, which is not profit-oriented. If farmers want to produce rice in the commercial scale, the size of the farms simply has to increase.

These points were just some of what were discussed in such a lively forum, and are certainly worth thinking about. No definite plans were lined up after two hours. I'm sure that these high-level scientists will continue discussing these broad issues long after the audience have resumed working on their specific projects.