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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 27, 2006
SPEAKING FREELY
The father of 'miracle rice' turns 100
By Sarah Whalen

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

The old warrior turned 100 years old last week, and he sat, propped up in bed on a dais, to better see the more than 100 dedicated followers who celebrated his birthday and the revolution



he helped start in the Philippines in 1966 - a revolution that spread to India, Pakistan, Indonesia and across all of Asia.

But it's nothing US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who's entreated Indonesians and other Asian Muslims to "actively confront terrorists ... like Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiyah", should worry about. The secretary's last name says it all - Rice.

The warrior's weapon is known best by its code name, IR8. The revolution he helped start with it was the Green Revolution in rice, and the enemy at which he aimed IR8 was starvation. And unlike America's "war on terror" in Afghanistan and Iraq, warrior Henry "Hank" Monroe Beachell won his war.

A Nebraskan corn and wheat farm boy who graduated from college as an agronomist in 1930, Beachell "wanted to work with wheat", he once confessed, "but all the jobs were in rice". So Beachell joined the US Department of Agriculture in Texas.

Texas is mostly hot and dry, but rice grows to a luxuriant vermilion in irrigated fields throughout the steamy, coastal south near Beaumont where Beachell (then working for Texas A&M University) set up a rice research center.

Then as now, the mission of agronomists was to feed the world. And the world was growing. Climbing birthrates in developing countries were predicted to soon outstrip the world's food supply, and economists and demographers predicted global hunger and instability on a scale not seen since the Irish potato famine of 1845 when over a million men, women and children starved to death, and another malnourished million fled the country.

Asia faced serious famine after World War II, and only massive US grain imports prevented widespread starvation. American plant geneticists serving in General Douglas MacArthur's occupation army in Japan developed new rice varieties with higher yields, so that more people could be fed.

But higher yields mean a heavier plant as the rice ripens, and the traditional tropical rice varieties were tall with long, weak stems that fell over when fertilized. Such fallen plants then rotted in the water, or were eaten by rats. Agronomists started searching for smaller dwarf and semi-dwarf rice varieties that would not collapse in order to double the food supply.

The rice detectives built on similar research already done in dwarf sorghum and wheat, as well as some dwarf rice cultivation developed in China decades before Henry Kissinger and US president Richard Nixon ever came. By 1949, the United Nations' Food and Agricultural Organization experimented with crossing short rice varieties and planted them throughout India.

By 1960, Rockefeller Foundation scientists in India found a Taiwanese variety with a high yield, but also with a high susceptibility to pests. That same year, the Rockefeller and Ford foundations pooled resources and set up a new research center, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.

IRRI hired a Taiwanese plant geneticist, Te Tzu Chang, to study the variety's genes, and the American scientists made numerous crosses, creating a new generation of plants that eventually produced a dwarf variety.

Two years later, IRRI hired Beachell, who then selected plants resulting in a semi-dwarf rice, IR8 - a "super" rice that could be grown not only in many latitudes but at almost any time of the year.

IRRI sent IR8's seeds all across Asia. "IRRI's policy was free access to all of our genetic material," Beachell recalled. "It was made available to the world." Trials showed that while average Philippines rice yields were 1 ton per hectare, IR8 yielded an average of 9.4 tons.

"No kidding?" then-president Ferdinand Marcos reportedly exclaimed.

Sample yields in Pakistan were as high as 11 tons per hectare.

They called it "miracle rice". Then US president Lyndon B Johnson, a Texas native, visited IRRI in 1966 and passionately declared: "If we are to win our war against poverty, and against disease, and against ignorance, and against illiteracy, and against hungry stomachs, then we have got to succeed in projects like this, and you are pointing the way for all of Asia to follow."

Shortly thereafter, Beachell moved to IRRI's station in Indonesia, and increased rice yields there by 100%.

Beachell won the 1996 World Food Prize, which he shared with his Indian colleague Gurdev Khush. Beachell has received numerous other honors. But these pale against the real achievements of millions of lives saved, not lost, in freedom's name.

Sarah Whalen is a US-based writer and an expert in Islamic law.

(Copyright 2006 Sarah Whalen.)

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.


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