mm385: Scientific victories are often ephemeral

MUDGE’s Musings

Here in the replete West, such as at the home of yr (justifiably) humble svt, rice is an occasional side dish, a refreshing change from a potato, or pasta, usually accompanying a steaming chunk of animal protein.

In the hungry not-West, rice is entirely it.

Rice has been distressingly newsworthy lately, as prices have been climbing.

Even before this month’s very bad news (the story below, as well as the Burma cyclone of a couple of weeks ago that hit Southeast Asia’s rice bowl (Burma’s Irrawaddy delta) the hardest), there were shortages and unrest, sometimes violent, due to skyrocketing rice prices.

But the NYTimes makes clear, the latest threat to rice, and thus to the staple food of billions, is the lack of momentum in agricultural research.

Today’s villain is called the brown plant hopper. And it could have been stopped in its tracks, had the research establishment kept its eye on the ball.

nytimes

The Food Chain

World’s Poor Pay Price as Crop Research Is Cut

By KEITH BRADSHER and ANDREW MARTIN | Published: May 18, 2008

LOS BAÑOS, Philippines — The brown plant hopper, an insect no bigger than a gnat, is multiplying by the billions and chewing through rice paddies in East Asia, threatening the diets of many poor people.

Researchers at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, the world’s main repository of information about rice, are trying to deal with problems like the rice hopper, which destroys plants, by developing stronger varieties of rice.

The damage to rice crops, occurring at a time of scarcity and high prices, could have been prevented. Researchers at the International Rice Research Institute here say that they know how to create rice varieties resistant to the insects but that budget cuts have prevented them from doing so.

Science has achieved stunning breakthroughs over the years in agriculture: crop yields increased substantially, and disease and pest resistance were bred to create ever more hardy strains. The stunning result: By the 1970s, for much of the world, with some pesky exceptions in Africa, the food supply was no longer a daily crisis.

That was then.

Agricultural research was a victim of its own success.

The trouble is that nature doesn’t go down to defeat quietly, if ever. So while the scientific community rested on its laurels, or more likely, found sexier (i.e., more attractive to fund-granting organizations) programs to pursue, conditions continued to evolve.

Nothing, but nothing stands still. The globe keeps rotating, the human population continues to expand itself, as well as the once-arable land it confiscates for habitation, commerce and other purposes, until a crisis strikes.

Polio and tuberculosis were terrors for our great grandparents and grandparents. Then, due to scientific progress by the 1950s polio and TB were believed so much under control that two generations only knew them as childhood vaccinations. Complacency set in. Science went looking for new challenges; there were no lack of those: AIDS for example. Sadly, recently both dread diseases have been making a comeback.

So it is with the Green Revolution of the 1970s.

“Agriculture has been so productive and done so well, people have kind of lost sight of how fragile it really is,” said Jan E. Leach, a plant pathologist at Colorado State University who works with rice. “It’s as if we have lost track of the fact that food is linked to agriculture, which is linked to human survival.” …

Additional factors prompted wealthy countries to shift their donations away from agriculture. For instance, advocacy groups criticized some of the environmental problems arising from intensive farming, weakening support for the Green Revolution. And urgent new priorities like the AIDS crisis in Africa captured the world’s attention.

Advocates for agriculture fought a losing battle to stop the cutbacks — nowhere more than in the World Bank, the huge institution in Washington that makes low-interest loans to poor countries for development projects.

Adjusted for inflation, the World Bank cut its agricultural lending to $2 billion in 2004 from $7.7 billion in 1980.

Meanwhile, the brown plant hopper, dealt with successfully many years ago, didn’t disappear. It evolved.

But brown plant hoppers adapted swiftly, and the resistant strains started losing their effectiveness in the 1990s. An important insecticide lost its punch, too, as the hopper developed the ability to withstand up to 100 times the dose that used to kill it.

While the insect was adapting, the rice institute was being gutted.

Leading to the latest crisis.

[Please click the link below for the complete article — but then please come on back!]

World’s Poor Pay Price as Crop Research Is Cut – New York Times

And lest you think that the problem has been contained to the Philippines, source of today’s story, sorry, no. China is working to battle the pest.

But the true fix is genetic, and that takes investment money and time, both once available in abundance, like rice.

Now, due to apathy, entropy and more interesting research targets, money, time and rice are in increasingly short supply.

It’s it for now. Thanks,

–MUDGE

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One Response to mm385: Scientific victories are often ephemeral

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