A Revolution in Growing Rice

Surely you have heard of Norman Borlaug, “Father of the Green Revolution”. He won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for

the introduction of these high-yielding [wheat] varieties combined with modern agricultural production techniques to Mexico, Pakistan, and India. As a result, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat by 1963. Between 1965 and 1970, wheat yields nearly doubled in Pakistan and India.

He had a Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics. He learned how to develop better strains in graduate school. He worked as an agricultural researcher in Mexico.

You have probably not heard of Henri de Laulanié, a French Jesuit priest who worked in Madagascar starting in the 1960s. He tried to help local farmers grow more rice. He had only an undergraduate degree in agriculture. In contrast to Borlaug, he tested simple variations that any farmer could afford. He found that four changes in traditional practices had a big effect:

• Instead of planting seedlings 30-60 days old, tiny seedlings less than 15 days old were planted.
• Instead of planting 3-5 or more seedlings in clumps, single seedlings were planted.
• Instead of close, dense planting, with seed [densities] of 50-100 kg/ha, plants were set out carefully and gently in a square pattern, 25 x 25 cm or wider if the soil was very good; the seed [density] was reduced by 80-90% . . .
• Instead of keeping rice paddies continuously flooded, only a minimum of water was applied daily to keep the soil moist, not always saturated; fields were allowed to dry out several times to the cracking point during the growing period, with much less total use of water.

The effect of these changes was considerably more than Borlaug’s doubling of yield:

The farmers around Ranomafana who used [these methods] in 1994-95 averaged over 8 t/ha, more than four times their previous yield, and some farmers reached 12 t/ha and one even got 14 t/ha. The next year and the following year, the average remained over 8 t/ha, and a few farmers even reached
16 t/ha.

The possibility of such enormous improvements had been overlooked by both farmers and researchers. They were achieved without damaging the environment with heavy fertilizer use, unlike Borlaug’s methods.

Henri de Laulanié was not a personal scientist but he resembled one. Like a personal scientist, he cared about only one thing (improving yield). Professional scientists have many goals (publication, promotion, respect of colleagues, grants, prizes, and so on) in addition to making the world a better place. Like a personal scientist, de Laulanié did small cheap experiments. Professional scientists rarely do small cheap experiments. (Many of them worship at the altar of large randomized trials.) Like a personal scientist, de Laulanié tested treatments available to everyone (e.g., butter). Professional scientists rarely do this. Like a personal scientist, he tried to find the optimal environment. In the area of health, professional scientists almost never do this, unless they are in a nutrition department or school of public health. Almost all research funding goes to the study of other things, such as molecular mechanisms and drugs.

Personal science matters because personal scientists can do things professional scientists can’t or won’t do. de Laulanié’s work shows what a big difference this can make.

A recent newspaper article. The results are so good they have been questioned by mainstream researchers.

Thanks to Steve Hansen.

5 Replies to “A Revolution in Growing Rice”

  1. The SRI article is really quite interesting, and it prompts me to think of another difference between personal and professional science.

    That is, does the result lead to to something that is sellable/patentable?

    It is a common evaluation criteria for grant funding “will this lead to any patentable results?” So this automatically biases project creation and selection to things that create controllable intellectual property, rather than just things that create useful results.

    But Laulanié’s method could not be patented or controlled, or sold, in any way, so why would any professional scientist pursue it, or any government fund it, if it can’t be “sold” to the world?

    And, potentially, it goes against the interest of corporations that fund agricultural research. Who benefits, other than the farmers themselves, from a method change that increases yield with no new seed varieties and no use of fertilisers or pesticides?

    Personal science is pretty much about results above all else.
    Increasingly, professional science uses results as a pathway to “all else”.

    Seth: Very true. Professional scientists, however, are not particularly interested in selling things, although their funders may be. Leaving aside the influence of their funders, professional scientists have a big problem: they get most or all of their status from their job. And two things are true: useless is higher status than useful, making it hard for them to do useful research; and big (= expensive) is higher status than small (= cheap), making it hard for them to do small research. Laulanié wasn’t worried about status. Most people are.

  2. @derp

    Another magpie for intelligent articles is Barry Ritholtz at The Big Picture. He’s on the finance side, but benevolent scepticism works from every angle.

    BBC R4 had a good piece today on statins and “treating risk” in the medical industry:

    In the UK we regularly get newspaper headlines: Why O Why Won’t the Government Pay For Statins? The radio show makes the point that, to flog product, disease awareness campaigns in the UK are probably as effective as direct marketing of drugs in the US.

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