Monday, October 15, 2012

GRiSP-Asia finds its place under the sun

I interrupt regular personal blog posting to give way to some insights from the Global Rice Science Partnership Asia review. Let's shift towards more scientific stuff, sort of...


Opinions and insights written here are my own. :)

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Current director of the Global Rice Science Partnership (GRiSP) Asia Review, Bas Bouman, said it best as he welcomed everyone to the first day of this year's Asia Review week: "Our specific niche is the development of science-based solutions." International rice research organizations -- representing rice-growing countries in Asia, Africa, and in Latin America -- are harnessing science and technology developments to help farmers, along with research and extension partners, through GRiSP. 

In the three days of the Asia Review, scientists from the International Rice Research Institute presented highlights of all the exciting things they have done in the past year. All of them, indeed, are science-based innovations leading towards -- if scientists' models and assumptions are proven correct -- the alleviation of poverty, the conservation of rice diversity, the protection of the environment, and food security.  

For farmers, the scientists demonstrated the benefits of mechanized approaches to farming and to research. Imagine, being able to get data about the rice plant in the field by using a machine. That makes characterizing plants so much easier! Or how about planting rice? A machine that automates the process is available on the ground as well. Weed removal, a perennial backyard garden problem for me, can become mechanized too! Scientists also showed smartphone applications that act as decision-making aids for farmers in terms of when to plant, how much to put and how to time the application of fertilizers. If there's a shortage of extension workers in a location, all the farmer has to do is call up the application and get the information he/she needs to keep the rice plants healthy until harvest. If the farmer doesn't have a smartphone, he can still use the voice-prompt version of the application. Innovations in post-harvest rice processing methodologies were also presented by scientists. Different types of dryers that help farmers dry their harvests more efficiently have attracted farming equipment companies; so even after the project has ended, farmers still reap the benefits of new technology.

For policy-makers, strategists, breeders, agronomists, and other researchers, the scientists presented highlights of work conducted in understanding worldwide patterns of plant diseases, temperatures, drought, flooding, and consumer rice preference, among others. Color-coded maps were highly informative because they indicated where opportunities to help, and to study, are. Aside from maps, rice monitoring platforms were introduced; one of which has even caught the attention of the Philippine government. The amount of data that the scientists have crunched to come up with all these color-coded maps and databases for monitoring systems is simply astounding!

For breeders, the scientists showed the progress of developing new and improved rice varieties. New genes have been located; new breeding methodologies, promoted. These new technologies are supposed to produce rice with high yields and of acceptable cooking and eating properties while being resilient in the face of pest and diseases and despite the changes in environmental conditions. Plus, these rice varieties are supposed to be Earth-friendly too.

GRiSP-Asia has indeed found its place under the sun. It has proven its capacity to develop new or harness existing technologies to improve the rice plant and its ability to grow in increasingly challenging conditions. That's quite impressive too since it's been around for only two years. While the science is fascinating and the innovations address farmers' needs, I had this feeling that somehow, the research outputs (apart from the post-harvest innovations) are quite separate from farmers. Maybe it's because the presentations were technical (is this what they call 'upstream research'?) and probably because I have only been to a rice farmer's field once and really don't know what's really going on in rice farms. I was having trouble with the thought that if a subsistence farmer were listening to the presentations, he/she might not be able to appreciate what all these scientists are doing for them. As Phil Abrahams, at last year's GRiSP science forum, said: "Scientists are not necessarily good extension workers." 

Example:

Will farmers be able to afford the modern field equipment? Photos from the presentations suggest that a lot of farmers in different parts of Asia still perform very hard, back-breaking labor to till the small land they farm, particularly the subsistence farmers. Will the technologies presented in this year's talks address their needs?

Could farmers afford the smartphones and the data service (if required) to run the mobile phone applications? This question implies several assumptions, which I'd ask about: Do the target farmers have access to electricity and to mobile phone service in the first place? Do they have the time and the energy to learn how to use a smartphone when a number of them might not even be comfortable reading the manual? Do they prefer to talk to an automated multiple-choice-answering-system over the phone or to an actual extension worker right there on the field?

But still, my one visit to a farmer's field taught me not to bunch all farmers into one stereotype. So while I have assumed that the farmers IRRI is helping have small fields and may not have the resources or the conveniences needed to use the technologies developed for them, I may be wrong.