The Golden Fund.

Let Science, the Rich & the Poor wizen up

See those hills of rice growing? Golden Rice is here – based in the Philippines, this year IRRI is field-testing in this country (Reuters Hong Kong), this genetically modified rice loaded with beta-carotene, the precursor of Vitamin A, which is good for the skin and the eyes, not to mention the immune system (Food Standards Agency, UK). Soon, there’s gold in dem dar hills! Brought to you by? Surprise: Microsoft.

Actually, IRRI Director General Robert Zeigler had announced early this year that Golden Rice will be made available to farmers in 2011 yet, along with the news that IRRI had received a grant of US$20 million from Bill Gates of Microsoft. Even considering the history of Microsoft and the company’s many promised releases of Windows sometimes delayed by years, nevertheless, I don’t think Golden Rice is vaporware.

Wikipedia has seen Golden Rice, and that’s good enough for me. In fact, this rice was first announced to the world in 2000 in Science. Version 1 had been created by Ingo Potrykus of the Institute of Plant Sciences at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, working with Peter Beyer of the University of Freiburg. Then in 2005, Golden Rice Version 2 was announced, this time by Syngenta, which produces up to 23 times more beta-carotene than the original version of Golden Rice. In the same year, Peter Beyer received funds from Bill Gates – through The Golden Fund, more known as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation – to further improve Version 1. So, Bill Gates is playing the Software Shuffle: Do different versions at the same time, and let’s see who gets the gold. But since neither rice is available yet to the public, I’ll call it Virtual Golden Rice for your consumption.

As of today, there is a Gold Rush for individuals and institutions competing to produce the best version of Golden Rice – and to tap The Golden Fund. That reminds me of the Software Wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s, the times when Corel’s WordPerfect and Microsoft’s Wordwere the main competitors for the best release in word processing. I was ambivalent – I was cheering for WordPerfect but I was sticking it up with Word all the time. WordPerfect was very beautiful and played hard-to-get; Word was ‘Nice and easy does it’ – I’m glad I chose her.

After 2011, I’m expecting a Gold Rush for everyone. Golden Rice grains are a rich yellow, that is, they are gold. So, actually I’m hoping Golden Rice becomes a signal for everyone now to join theGolden Revolution, as gold symbolizes wealth, prosperity, wisdom (Emily Gems). For the Golden Revolution, the rich can invest with more of their wealth and willingness; the poor can invest with more of their sweat and sincerity; the scientists can invest with more of their science and strategy.

But in fact, half of the world’s wealthy have withdrawn much of their investments in public science, with the US leading in cutting back support funds for global agricultural research (Science, April 18, 2008; see also my ‘Wars of the World’). ‘Part of the reason we’re having this deterioration of the global agricultural situation is that there has been a steady erosion of support for research,’ says Director General Robert Zeigler of the International Rice Research Institute based in Los Baños in the Philippines. If the US goes, can the rest be far behind?

But in fact, half of the world’s farmers are responsible for their being irresponsible in matters of agriculture, such as farmers exploiting farmers (historymatters.gmu.edu), poultry raisers injecting steroids into chicken wings to accelerate their growth (bbs.buysell.com.my), selling back to the owners the plots land reform gave to them (a little bird told me), spraying pesticides the day before harvest, over-fertilizing, over-irrigating (and denying other farmers their supply of public water), over-cultivating and therefore ‘allowing’ the rains to erode their soils, not paying their loans – I’m a farmer’s son, and I’ve seen half of these with my own eyes.

But in fact, half of the world’s scientists have not been listening to farmers but only to themselves. Some people know better. I know that from personal observations and chance encounters too.

Let today’s scientists speak for themselves; all my quotes below are from the New Agriculturist(2008, new-agri.co.uk). Thus, Simon Cook of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) in Colombia has this to say:

In the old days, researchers used to stay in their labs, write research papers and jiggle test-tubes about; these days you really have to work with farmers, and understand what they see. These days scientists are realizing that someone who manages the land, and actually spends every day of (his) life walking up and down the field, has something very useful to say about it. That is something that has changed quite recently in scientific communities, who are working very hard to try and use what farmers know, as well as what scientists know.

‘It’s only in the last 5 to 10 years that we have started to look really at the whole farm system,’ says Steve Twomlow of the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) in Zimbabwe, ‘at the livelihood and income-generating opportunities.’ I say, if you look at the whole farm system, you can’t miss the farmer and his family.

Have you considered the wisdom of the inarticulate? Says Abiye Astatke of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in Ethiopia:

When we talk about research, even during the planning stage and the implementation stage, farmers will have to be involved. As long as farmers think that it will be to their benefit, I am sure that they will be interested to involve themselves, taking more of their time and money as well. Because what they see now is just a very dim light; they see that their children are in a hopeless situation. But if they can see that there is a chance of changing the situation now, then that is an entry point into the farming community, I think.

Considering all that, like I said, what we need is a Golden Revolution. That calls for a paradigm shift. And the way I see it, it can be waged successfully if we look at it in terms of a virtual eternal triangle comprising 3 sectors: the Poor, the Rich, and Science (see image).

My diagram shows that which I call the Paradigm of Shared Soils as a concept in country development. I choose gold partly inspired by Golden Rice but primarily because the color symbolizes, as Emily Gems tells us, not only wealth but also prosperity and wisdom – wealth for those who labor with brain and brawn, prosperity for all, and wisdom to distinguish what every Rotarian wants to know: What is the truth, what is fair to all concerned, what will build goodwill and better friendships, what is beneficial to everyone. It’s time we were all Rotarians.

The implications of the Paradigm of Shared Soils are:

(1) There are 3 forces – and therefore common owners – of development: the Poor, the Rich, and Science. I prefer the term ‘common owners of development’ to ‘stakeholders’ that is more popular. ‘Stakeholders’ implies fences, vested interests.

(2) Neither the Poor nor the Rich nor Science has the right to dictate on the others – each has only a right as defined by the equivalent rights of the other two. ‘You have the right to swing your arm short of my nose’ – Ricardo Pascual, Dean of the College of Law of the University of the Philippines.

(3) The knowledge Science has must be considered with the knowledge of the Rich along with that of the Poor. No one has monopoly of the truth.

(4) Since development belongs to all, in a society of equals, none of the 3 forces can be more equal than the others.

(5) Any decision on any project must come from the 3 social owners of development. The power to decide is the sine qua non of empowerment.

(6) Town & country models must work for all 3 owners of development. Big is okay; small is beautiful.

(7) Shared Soils are the common grounds, each of which is to be cultivated. Among others, these are the Shared Soils of Development:

(a) Knowledge management – Since knowledge is not the monopoly of Science, knowledge management must be shared. Knowledge is also to be defined commonly.

(b) Self-reliance – To avoid mendicancy, this virtue must be cultivated. To ensure this, each project must be planned with project withdrawal designed in.

(c) Access – Ownership of resources is not a prerequisite for development; access is. Therefore, among other things, land tenure is not a sine qua non for social progress. Besides, it’s illogical – sooner and not later, you will run out of plots of ground to distribute. ‘I haven’t received my share.’ ‘What about my 12 children?’

So, between its virtuality today and the reality of Golden Rice tomorrow, we have much thought to cultivate. On my part, I shall continue to raise the cry for what I have called the Golden Revolution.

Not surprisingly, afraid of ghosts, afraid of virtual dangers that lurk, Greenpeace does oppose Golden Rice, as it does all genetically modified organisms. I don’t.

Having said that, I’m aware that Golden Rice has beta-carotene; I’m also thinking of the world’s poor rice farmers wanting to gain the wealth that they deserve – this will provide themwindows of opportunity. Even so, thinking of crash-prone Windows and Microsoft involved in its development for the last 3 years, whichever version Golden Rice is released first in beta, I hope it will not crash.

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