Role of international crop research centers in development
Now I would like to write about the international crop research centers and their role in the green revolution around the world. It all started with the establishment of the International Rice Research Institute or in short IRRI in the 60s at Los Banos, Philippines because some donors at that time felt the need for such an institution to help solve the problem of low productivity of rice farms around the world. So the IRRI was set up and some scientists were hired to look into the possibility of the development of a new type of rice plant that would be short but erect preventing lodging and would have a better architecture to absorb the sunlight . Thus the IR -8 was developed as the High Yielding Variety (HYV) that helped bring about the so called green revolution in Asia and elsewhere.
The IR-8 was a breakthrough but it was soon found that it was susceptible to rust, brown hoppers and a variety of other problems in spite of it’s high yielding potential. However, the breakthrough in the development of this type of plant was hailed as the solution to low yields and it’s cultivation spread to many countries in Asia including Vietnam where I was working at that time. But in 1968,
IRRI was still unsure of IR-8 because of its problems mentioned earlier and did not like to give me some seeds so I took some anyway on the sly and brought it to my farmers in Vietnam’.
We the agronomists do not have the time or luxury of waiting for the breeders to make up their mind about the variety they develop because we have to work with what we have got even if the variety is not perfect. Agronomists believe that improvements will come and better varieties will be released later on. This was true in the case of IRRI varieties and better varieties did come along later replacing the IR-8 and others.
Since then many such international crop research stations have been set up around the world that work in tandem with the local research institutions that are poorly funded by their governments but together they advance the agenda of promoting better crop varieties suited to local conditions.
There is no doubt that IRRI and other such research institutes played a very significant role in the spread of green revolution in the cultivation of rice, wheat, sorghum ,pearl millet , tuber crops and such around the world. The grain production increased significantly with new varieties, multiple cropping techniques,better pest management, water management and a variety of other techniques in weed management that we the agronomists then took to the farmers because we were the link between the research and extension.
The International Rice Agro Economic Network (IRAEN) was set up at IRRI in 1975 to determine the cause of the yield gap between the research station and the farmer’s field which I as a researcher at that time was involved in as a project leader in the Camarines Sur province in the Philippines. What I found by doing field experiments with farmers as my partner in Bicol region was that there indeed was a gap caused by many constraints at the farm level .I tried to quantify the impact of inputs that would explain the gap and wrote my dissertation on it.
But as I look back , I sort of miss those days and exciting research that I was doing.My farmers also shared that excitement and improved their crop yields significantly. Now the times have changed.
Many funding sources that made the research of IRAEN and others possible have dried up or have been reduced making new inroads difficult. The quality of research has diminished primarily due to retirement or transfer of pioneer staff and their visionary leadership. This is happening all over the world in all the stations.Some like ICARDA in Aleppo , Syria have been shut down due to war but others face perennial funding problems due to donor fatigue.
The national research institutes in these countries do not have the resources to take over IRRI or ICRISAT because it costs a lot of money to run such institutes. But primarily it is the quality of staff and their research that was the mainstay of such international centers that attracted funding. Now I see massive physical development in terms of new buildings and labs at IRRI but they have cut back on training like the Rice Production and Training program and annual rice research conference when world scientists used to gather and exchange ideas. There are very few post doctoral fellows now . It is not the building or the labs that make the reputation of an institution but rather the scientists and the researchers under them.
I will not go into the wider issues of corruption that prevail in all such institutes that discourage donors because these are endemic issues that have not found any solution and probably never will.
What I would like to see is more direct link between the scientists and the researchers as well as the visitors like the way it used to be before barriers came up and institutionalised . Now no one can visit IRRI or any scientist before the security checks, making appointments and a plethora of other formalities so it discourages a simple farmer or even a visiting scientist to have a free discourse on the problems of rice cultivation. The guards even ask why a visitor is going to the book store for example.
The role of international research institutes like IRRI have been diminishing for years and eventually may cease to be relevant so what is the alternative? Can the national research institutes carry on this sort of work without donors and with very limited means? Can they step into the shoes of IRRI at some stage and develop the international linkages the way these international center do ?
Can they help agronomists like me working in poor countries like Haiti or Mali with seeds,blueprints of a new grain blower or thresher like only IRRI can? I doubt it very much because the national institutes are only national in their mandate that does not extend beyond its borders while the international centers can and do build international linkages through alumni and their counterparts.