Miracle rice: Its second coming

“Change is coming!”

This was the mantra of many during this year’s Philippine election season. While it is too early to say that change has indeed come following the recently concluded elections, it cannot be denied that the Filipino people are indeed hungry for it. Is it safe to say, then, that the status quo has become so stagnant that the electorate has opted to catapult a leader who is known to be a political iconoclast?

The same vein of questioning can be applied to the local agricultural sector. In the wake of the introduction of the IR8 rice variety fifty years ago, many were expecting for the Philippines to be self-sufficient in rice production for a long time, if not for good. Why not? After all, IR8 was a breakthrough in food production as it produced substantially higher yields than traditional cultivated rice, hence its famous nickname “miracle rice”. But less than half a century later, the Philippines has become one of the world’s largest rice importers—quite ironic for a country where such breakthrough in rice production was first introduced.

Has the Philippine agricultural sector, therefore, become too complacent with change that Filipinos have now become seemingly willing to give in to the vagaries of agronomics?

Several factors can be pointed out detailing the unwanted shift in the country’s rice production: erratic typhoons and increasing famine allegedly caused by global warming, high cost of rice production, dwindling farmlands due to their conversion to housing communities and industrial centers, and even government corruption, just to name a few. With all these problems continuously hounding the local agricultural sector, sad to say, the miracle that has changed the world half a century ago may just have been relegated to a mere myth (at least, perhaps, in the Philippines).

But let us not single out the Pearl of the Orient Seas nor undervalue IR8’s significance today. With a fast-rising global population and the threat of global warming, what is happening in the Philippines could possibly happen in other rice-producing countries. We do not wish to be harbingers of ruination, but we always have to be pragmatic in the light of recent developments in rice production so as to keep ourselves on our toes at all times. A global pandemic is not far off when rice-producing countries are unable to keep up with the tough times. The economies of industrial nations, too, are in peril, especially since markets of almost all countries of the world are now tied up together—despite its communist tag, China has, in recent years, become one of the world’s strongest market economies, and then there’s the reopening of Iran to world trade. Even Cuba’s planned economy is starting to loosen up to the world market. As can now be gleaned, a sudden shift in a particular economic sector anywhere in the world, whether it be good or bad, can cause a domino effect throughout the globe. This is all the more reason why the global rice industry needs to innovate itself so as to keep up with societal changes that have been affecting various economic systems.

And this is where food engineering comes in. IR8 and the economic circumstances behind its conception can be used as a template vis-à-vis the current factors affecting global rice production. It should be noted that such factors were almost non-existent during IR8’s inception, thus the challenge is far greater than before. The uniqueness of IR8 lies in the fact that it is able to produce higher yields than normal rice. This time around, food engineers may also want to look into the quality of soil, for example, as it has been at the mercy of climate change and other environmental pollutants for quite some time already. And how will this new miracle rice withstand frequent typhoons? How would it be able to yield more than it has been yielding before to accommodate a rapidly growing population living in places where rice fields are fast disappearing?

In the face of all these problems, the far-reaching results of this new miracle rice will be quite staggering as such.

“The times they are a-changin’,” sang Bob Dylan. This classic song by this year’s Nobel laureate in literature still rings true today as the time it was released—almost at the same time as the introduction of the miracle rice. And it doesn’t take rocket science to know that new challenges come with changing times. As the old cliché goes, the only thing that’s permanent is change. So this is the perfect time to rev up a second wind: to face new challenges brought about by constant change.

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.

Jose Mario AlasJosé Mario Alas

José Mario Alas, popularly known as Pepe in social media circles, works at night as a technical support representative for the world's largest container shipping company and as a citizen historian by day. His Spanish-language blog, Alas Filipinas, was once cited by a leading Spanish national daily newspaper. He is married with five children.