The Great Gene Robbery
By 1966, IRRI had come up with its first success. It is important to emphasise that whereas the CRRI had nine objectives governing its research, IRRI had only one. IR8 was a semi-dwarf rice variety, the result of a cross between an Indonesian tall rice plant and a Taiwanese dwarf variety. Distinctive of the plant was its ability to stand heavy fertilisation, and heavier yields, without lodging. (It also inaugurated a vast market for American fertilisers all over
The CRRI had, as mentioned earlier, been working with identical material and in fact had isolated dwarf varieties from Taiwan that were free from susceptibility to viral attacks. When the news arrived that the Indian government was planning, at the insistence of IRRI experts, to import the new IRRI seed in bulk into
The government seems to have found Dr Richharia’s advice contradictory: earlier, it had been informed by the CRRI that
It was also the tremendous leverage that the Americans maintained over the Indian science establishment that enabled IRRI to ride roughshod over the protests of Indian scientists. Though the country was allegedly nonaligned in politics, most of its policies in science and economics were largely under the control of Americans. Thus the community development programme originated with Albert Myers. Douglas Emswinger of the Ford Foundation once boasted that he had better access to Pandit Nehru than any of the latter’s cabinet colleagues. Dr Richharia first came to know of his appointment to the director’s post at the CRRI from an American, Prof Claim. Dr. Robert Chandler, director of IRRI, reported directly to Agriculture Minister, C. Subramanam.
Once IR8 and TN1 had become fairly established within India and all rice research oriented solely in the direction of semi-dwarfs using these parents, IRRI would naturally retain the lead, with large doses of political clout and advertising to make up for shortfalls in science. Rice scientists from
One additional significant factor that seems to have made an impact on the government at the time were the disastrous harvests of 1965 and 1966. What weighed with the Government of India (and also former President Marcos of the Phillipines) in choosing to uncritically deploy IRRI technology, was that the latter, for the first time, offered an almost automatic method of raising food that would place it within the control of the administration, taking it out of the hands of the peasants. If the government concentrated its resources in a few, well-endowed areas, using the HYV package, it could produce a sizeable output of food that would be independent of the whims of the monsoons. Again, the very method of agriculture, based on expensive inputs, required credit, and this assured the government that a good proportion of the grain thus produced would end up in the market, in the hands of government procurement agencies, and could then be used to keep prices stable in the cities.
Two major developments totally ruined the prospect of a promised land overflowing with rice and honey. The first was economic: the oil price hike of 1973 effectively limited a fertiliser-based agricultural strategy. It would make Green Revolution inputs so expensive that they would have to be subsidised by Governments, if farmers were not to give up using them forever. The second major problem, also irreversible, arrived in the form of disease and insects. The growing of varieties with a narrow genetic base (all with the same dwarfing gene, dee-gee-wo-gen), upset insect ecology and invented entire generations of pests. Dr Swaminathan has himself made quite a shameless summary of the fate of IRRI varieties, in a recent issue of Mazingira. He writes:
‘It is difficult to develop a variety that has a useful life of more than five to six years in tropical environments unless genes for horizontal (more stable) resistance are identified and incorporated. Year round rice cultivation causes disease and insect organisms to occur in overlapping generations and increases the chance of new races or biotypes developing; thus new pest problems continuously arise. Variety IR8, released in 1966, suffered from serious attacks of bacterial blight (BB) in 1968 and 1969. In 1970 and 1971, outbreaks of rice tungro virus (RTV) destroyed IR8 yields throughout the
The IRRI counter-strategy against the pests involved breeding of varieties, with genes for resistance to such pests, taken from wild relatives of the rice plant and its traditional cultivars. All of a sudden it seemed critical that massive efforts be made to make as complete a collection of the older varieties: many of the traditional Indicas were found to be important donors for resistance. Gene incorporation strategy, in other words, required vast germplasm resources, most of which were to be found in
After he had been retired from service at
In the meanwhile, the Madhya Pradesh government had appointed Dr Richharia as an agricultural advisor, and the rice man set about his disrupted rice work once again, with his usual zeal. Within the space of six years, he had built up the infrastructure of a new rice research institute at
An attack of leaf blight that devastated the corn crop of the
After the workshop, IRRI's covetous gaze fell on Richharia’s 19,000 varieties at the Madhya Pradesh Rice Research Institute (MPRRI). Not only had Richharia now uncovered a fascinating world of traditional rices, some of which produced between 8-9 tonnes per hectare – better than the IRRI varieties – he had also discovered dwarf plants without the susceptible dwarfing gene of the IRRI varieties. His extension work among the farmers would soon begin to pose a direct challenge to IRRI itself.
IRRI staff members journeyed to
So the IRRI did the next best thing: it got the MPRRI shut down!
The ICAR floated a scheme for agricultural development in Madhya Pradesh, particularly for rice. The World Bank contributed Rs.4 crores. The condition laid down was: close down the MPRRI, since it would lead to a ‘duplication of work.’ At a special meeting of the MPRRI Board, Madhya Pradesh's chief secretary who was not a trustee, was present. He had been earlier connected with the Ford Foundation. A resolution was passed closing down the Institute, and the rice germplasm passed over to the Jawaharlal Nehru Krishi Vishwa Vidyalaya (JNKVV), whose vice-chancellor, Sukhdev Singh, also joined the IRRI board of trustees. Scientists were sent to IRRI for training in germplasm transfer, and Richharia's team was disbanded.
This time too, they locked Dr. Richharia's rooms and took away all his research papers.
On June 4, 1982, Dr M N Shrivastava, rice breeder, JNKVV, wrote to P S Srinivasan, the IRRI liaison officer, addressed it care of Ford Foundation, New Delhi, enclosing two sets of material as requested by T. T. Chang of IRRI: ‘First set (264 accessions) is from our early duration collection and second set (170 samples) is part of those varieties which were identified to be popular with the farmers of Madhya Pradesh and Dr R H Richharia, former director of MPRRI, purified them and recommended replacing originals with these purified versions.’
But with Richharia out of the fray, nature herself now jumped into the ring. It responded with the necessary mutations, and began to lay low the new pest resistant varieties, rendering even the strategy of gene incorporation, of temporary utility. And then, in a fashion that only those with some respect for nature's awesome ways would understand, it delivered the coup de grace.
The distinctive success of the HYVs lay in their being short stemmed, able to stand heavy nitrogen applications without lodging, when compared with the older varieties. The incorporation of more and more genes from traditional cultivars not only passed on resistance characters, but also the tendency to lodge. Ergo, modern varieties began to lose their non-lodging character, the main advantage they had against the older cultivars. Research Highlights for 1983, an IRRI publication, observes:
‘Modern rices produce high grain yields with large amounts of applied nitrogen. However, heavy applications increase lodging, which reduces yields. Additionally, as higher levels of insect pest and disease resistance have been bred into modern semi-dwarf varieties, lodging resistance has tended to decline.’
The green revolution in rice had begun to involute.
What then have been the ‘achievements’ of such corrupt and politically naive science? (One set of all IRRI germplasm has been sent to
‘Starting from just five million hectares in 1970-71, over 18 million hectares or nearly half the area of (rice) has now been brought under the HYVs programme till 1982-83... Therefore, this crop must have received a substantial share of the benefit of the overall increase in irrigation and the increase in the overall consumption of NPK fertilisers. However, compared to the increase in the area under HYVs and the increase in fertilisers and irrigation, the production of rice has increased to a lesser extent. During the period mentioned above (1970-71 to 1982-83), the production of rice has gone up from 42.23 million tonnes to 46.48 million tonnes. Assuming the production of non-HYVs did not experience any increase at all and all the difference in rice production was on HYVs land, we get an increase in production of about 4 million tonnes as a result of extension of HYVs programme to nearly 13 million hectares of land. In other words, an increase of 0.31 tonnes was achieved with HYV per hectare. This is a relatively small accomplishment which could have been easily achieved even without the expensive HYV programme and its infrastructure by making better use of village-based resources.’
A 33-member official working group headed by K C S Acharya, additional secretary in the ministry of agriculture, has determined that the growth rate of rice production after the Green Revolution has been less when compared with the pre-Green Revolution period.
Millions of hectares of rice are now routinely devastated by BPH and other pests and no compensation is available to farmers who are induced to take to such ‘modernised’ agriculture. Such pest infestations have been introduced into the Indian environment. The IRRI officials knew what they were doing, and they did it for the cheap objective of wanting to assert IRRI primacy.
The unmonitored, hasty introduction of HYVs of seed has led to genetic erosion of tremendous proportions, as hundreds of priceless traditional varieties have been lost to mankind. It is only in the eighties that the IRRI has begun to acknowledge the true worth of the older varieties. What a curious circle of events!
The IRRI inaugurated the revolution in rice by holding in ridicule the basis of traditional agriculture – the traditional cultivar, itself the result of close trial and error experimentation by farmers over decades – and sought to displace it with its own product, the HYV. However, since the HYV was not closely adapted to any environment, it required extensive support, having attracted pest infestations on a mass scale. Protection could only come from the same traditional cultivars, which at the time of HYV propagation, had been loaded with abuse.
Is there a way out: how can such a state of science exist nearly 40 years after independence? Why does the director of the CRRI continue to remain as a trustee of the IRRI, which he has been since 1979? To continue and deepen the dependence? The IRRI has no future, politically, and also as far as research is concerned. Politically, its future was tied to former President Marcos, and Filipino farmers and scientists had already begun to demand its closure. As far as research is concerned, the IRRI has no new ideas, and is now eagerly visiting
The CRRI has ample talent to match Chinese science. It has still vital access to hundreds of indigenous cultivars (a recent count of rice collection centres indicated that there were about 44,000 varieties, whereas the IRRI has 70,000). What then should be done?
First, the CRRI should be upgraded to international standards, for that is the only sure guarantee of the funds it needs, and which it has been deprived of, ever since Indian politicians decided to back IRRI science. Today, the CRRI germplasm unit does not have even a jeep to operate its collection of rice cultivars.
Second, all further export of rice germplasm to IRRI should be banned, since germplasm is part of our national heritage, and its preservation is enjoined by the Constitution in the chapter on Fundamental Duties. Third, steps should be taken to gradually replace IRRI varieties, and all those having IRRI parents, with productive indigenous varieties in the fields. This is already happening in the
There seems to have been some awareness at the level of the government that the rice revolution had been grounded, due to environmental and economic factors. The late Prime Minister, Mrs Gandhi, had asked Dr Richharia for a rice production increase plan. After he submitted it, he heard no more about it. After an article by Dom Moraes on Richharia, the M. P. Government hastily set about attempting to find some funds to ask the latter to resume his work. Now that proposal has been scotched by the same forces that once got the MPRRI to close down.
More than 25 years have passed in this costly, wasteful, environmentally unsound, flirtation with the exogene. The sorry and sad record only serves to underline the principle – despite our continuing mesmerisation by western science – that for genuine development of any worthwhile kind, the indigene is still the best gene.