Innovation and rice production in the face of globalization

Once upon a time, millions of years ago, a group of organisms began to evolve and ruled the world. They lived simply and were able to derive their necessities from their environment. In each stage of their existence, they became more knowledgeable on how to survive the harsh conditions they were in. They started to build sophisticated tools that made their lives much easier. As their population grew, their demands included not only necessities but also luxuries. As a result, they plunged into chaos and began to be at war with each other. Peace got restored but it was temporary and artificial. Because of these actions, resources became more depleted than they were supposed to be as inequality became a gross reality for this group of organisms. The annals of human civilization are the sole witness of the successes and failures of this group we call people but as the old saying goes: hope springs eternal.

Fast forward to the present, the world has changed a lot and so have the people living in it. The world has gone through dramatic transformation over the past millennia and humans have already developed from being primitive to being the most intelligent living organisms on earth. Throughout history, food insecurity has been one of the most pressing problems that all countries face although in varying degrees. As it has always been the case, the solution to such a conundrum has been agricultural expansion mostly through the adoption of technology—from its simplest form to the most cutting-edge available. Within the academic and scientific circle, it’s already a known fact that innovations are one of the significant determinants in the advancement of societies. However, outside of this sphere, there remains a boundary that separates a scientist, an academician, or a researcher from the mundane reality of the rest. What seems to be problematic about this invisible divide?

The green revolution of the 1960s had been instrumental in the expansion of agricultural development, particularly in rice-producing countries in the world. Global output had increased and world food prices declined. Innovations in agricultural technology such as farm mechanization, the use of pesticides and fertilizers, and investments in irrigation systems were factors that resulted in the success of the green revolution. However, that agricultural achievement was not sustained in the succeeding years because of several reasons ranging from political complacency to the continued rise in human population. With the age-old problem of declining food supply hounding the world at this point in time, there have been a lot of calls for a second green revolution. Today, technology has advanced so much but alongside this development, concurring problems have also evolved. In the case of agricultural development, particularly in rice production, most problems have already been identified but remain persistent and unsolvable.

In order to make innovations in rice production more meaningful, they must be understood by rice farmers. Researchers, scientists, and academicians may actually be involved in the production of new techniques or technology in rice farming, but farmers are the very ones who can mostly make this new knowledge come into reality. One of the channels that is often used is the training and education of farmers. Education is one of the most powerful tools in emancipating the poor from ignorance. So how do we make sure that innovations in agriculture will be adopted and transformed into more outputs, sustainable environment, and an improved quality of life for farmers all over the world? First, the institutional environment must be designed in a fashion that rewards research and knowledge formation. According to Douglass C. North, a Nobel Prize Winner in Economics, institutional environment is understood as the interplay of the rules, organizations, and the players. Organizations make up the rules of the game while players are the ones that provide feedback to these rules based on the incentive structures that are produced as a result of the institutional environment.

Researchers, scientists, and academicians alike can be induced to devote their time and effort in the production of innovative ideas that can help in agricultural expansion as long as their marginal benefits are greater than their incremental costs. I believe that most governments in the world have already taken this initiative through collaborative actions in funding research organizations aiming at agriculture. However, the problem with this is that poverty-stricken economies in the world still lack access to technology. Hence, their potential to develop their agricultural sector is stymied. Aside from that, land tenure is also another source of major problem that inhibits this particular sector from expanding. If farmers are not secure with the lands that they are tilling, they have less incentive to become more efficient in their production.

There has been no global study yet that accounts for the reasons why technological advancement in agriculture has been applied so unevenly across all agricultural sectors in the world. As time goes by, more innovations in agriculture are being developed, but the big question is: are these going to benefit all farmers in the world? I think not, simply because not all economies have the same priorities. Some economies prefer to be more industrialized at the expense of their agricultural sector despite the fact that they are far better off developing their agricultural sector than pursuing industrialization. Some economies have also become so protective of their agricultural sector when, in fact, they have better opportunities in the non-agricultural sectors. In Asia and in other countries worldwide, rice remains to be an indispensable agricultural commodity and its production continues to be an important source of livelihood for a significant number of people. This is one of the salient reasons why, in most countries, rice concerns are considered to be highly political and, more often than not, the center of policy actions. Over the years, a number of developments have been achieved with regard to the production of rice, ranging from the enhancement of rice varieties that could withstand extreme and unfavorable weather conditions to the production of rice varieties that are able to address some specific health conditions. Where are we going at this point?

Answering the question on how to make innovations in the global rice sector change the world again is not as simple as saying that farmers should start adopting genetically enhanced rice to increase their outputs or to start applying more pesticides and fertilizers in farming. It’s more of answering the question of how should rice production be more profitable, especially that, in the globalization, there is already a high number of substitute opportunities to farming. Rice production should continue to become financially profitable so that farmers will have incentives to continue planting this commodity. Rice farmers must be able to see beyond the subsistence purpose of rice production and begin to see the potential profit that they could derive from its production. The problem with government subsidies on rice is that large-holding farmers are mostly the ones who stand to gain from this support while driving the small-holding farmers out of the picture. Globalization has inadvertently allowed market forces to be defined by those who are politically and economically powerful. In the end, what matters most is that rice will remain an important staple food and its expansion in terms of production is much needed amidst the steadily growing world population.

Note: The views and opinions on this essay are those of the author's and do not reflect those of the institute and its partners.

Jan Lorenzo AlegadoJan Lorenzo Alegado