Golden Rice, A Great Leap of Faith. 2035, A Great Leap Forward
As a result of my essay "Managing Rice Communications, IRRI catching fire" (05 December 2013, Frank A Hilario, blogspot.com), with some people from IRRI country that lies next to the campus of UP Los Baños, over dinner someplace else, I had a long conversation on the past, present and future of IRRI in the eyes and ears of the public, what I know of the public, especially in the Philippines, where IRRI is based, and especially of the activists, with whom there is no love lost.
I brought my first book and the latest (6th, 2013) published by ICRISAT in full color; I'm the happy prince with my happy essays on ICRISAT and other topics that somehow I relate to ICRISAT anyway. I'm all smiles with ICRISAT's strategy it calls Inclusive Market-Oriented Development, which guarantees that the poor rise from poverty; that's theory, and it has already been proven in practice in Africa and India. The not-so-secret secret lies not so much in the public-science-private partnerships but in the marketing that eliminates the middleman, where the values added somehow all go back to the farmer in that chain that starts with the seeds at the store and ends with the grains at the consumer's table wherever it is. My style, I said over dinner, is that of the National Geographic. Someone said, it was more like Rolling Stone, and I said, yes, a friend of mine said that too. Truth to tell, I had not been reading Rolling Stone, and now I should. In so many words, I asked why couldn't IRRI publish its own happy prince?
Going back, many, many years after Miracle Rice, IRRI jumped onto the bandwagon of bioengineering – leapfrogging plant breeding – to produce Golden Rice, which when grown produces Vitamin A. IRRI believed this was good for the millions of children and pregnant women with whom Vitamin A deficiency was a serious health problem (irri.org). Today, Golden Rice is a health problem – for IRRI.
In that meeting, nobody asked me in these words, but the question in the air to this minute is this: "Is IRRI losing the Battle of Communications in the matter of Golden Rice?" And my answer is, "Yes, because IRRI is fighting only the battle that comes to it." I said the problem as I saw it was that IRRI wasn't on the offensive, wasn't aware of what's happening, saw it only as an occasional battle or two, so it was not surprising that it was being ambushed on the wayside with anti-GMO activism. I said you are not taking the offensive, so you get ambushed. And then you fight fire with fire. I now say that's how you make your enemy a happy prince. You are fighting only the battle that comes to you. You don't believe that the best defense is offense.
I reminded them of the last sentence in that essay of mine, for IRRI to start looking inside itself. "For instance, what do you know about GMOs? (Pause.) Don't answer. What do you not know about GMOs? That's the more important question. You don't know." You have to study your material thoroughly. You can't communicate what you don't know.
Specifically, I said my advice came in 3 forms of Vitamin A, 3 healthy jabs to the JAW. They needed to study the Art of Jurisprudence, Art of Argumentation, and Art of War.
Jurisprudence, because I said there is that Philippine court ruling about Bt eggplant and, or course, that has bearing on Golden Rice and should not be ignored. The activists will not ignore that.
Argumentation, because I said I could see that the anti-GMOs were guilty of logical fallacies – and so were the pro-GMOs, including and most of all IRRI. Someone asked me, what logical fallacy? I said, I'm a teacher, and the best teacher does not simply tell; he will make you think. I also said I have written a book on logical fallacies along the lines of the plagiarism tag against Senator Tito Sotto in his fight against reproductive health as defined by the pro-RH Bill people, and I could give them a free e-copy if they wanted to. In any case, I did volunteer that there is logical fallacy in saying that Golden Rice is not safe. And logical fallacy in saying that Golden Rice is safe. You figure that out.
War, because I said they're not fighting simply a battle or two; they should know that they should be waging a war. I don't know much about it, but I said you should study Sun Tzu's The Art Of War.
Someone asked me how stood IRRI in terms of its publics, and I said IRRI is nobody now, hardly ever spoken of. The Filipinos used to speak of IRRI with high regards; today, IRRI's reputation is at best forgotten, at worst negative, because of Golden Rice.
I did not tell them exactly in these words, but the blame is heavy on the side of IRRI communications. You can't do something about what you can't tell.
Among other embarrassments, IRRI, as does my favorite ICRISAT, writes more in technical language than in popular, thus limiting its own readership. However, ICRISAT does IRRI one better because it has its regular and popular-language in-house ICRISAT Happenings newsletter that it distributes to outsiders anyway, and as far as I know ICRISAT actively encourages journalists to write as they would, not as if they were scientists talking to other scientists. To help your reader understand is the beginning of wisdom. If you don't speak their language, why do you expect people to respect you?
Here is pertinent technical writing in a magazine for non-technical people (Rice Today, October-December 2013, page 20):
By 2035, the world will require more than 100 million tons of additional rice when the population surpasses 8.5 billion. To meet this global demand, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) through the International C4 Rice Consortium, is developing C4 rice, a new kind of rice equipped with a more powerful "engine" for transforming carbon dioxide (CO2) and solar energy into food.
"By 2035, the world will require ..." – my God, that's 22 years from now! Too great a leap forward. IRRI is planning for 22 years from now. If this is how IRRI thinks, it's relating to the rice producer but not now, just because IRRI is afraid that there will be a population boom 693,792,000 seconds from today. As a farmer, why make me wait that long? (As for me, I will be 95 by that time!) I said "2035" doesn't sound as great as "2020" – truth to tell, "2020" sounds better and looks smart, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound in a way that even a 73-year-old can identify with, while "2035" looks like a fantasy film. "2035" is A Great Leap Forward that only IRRI can relate to.
IRRI ... is developing C4 rice, a new kind of rice equipped with a more powerful "engine" for transforming carbon dioxide (CO2) and solar energy into food.
In communications, that's an embarrassment for the lack of a metaphor that sounds as powerful and relatable to as the Parable of the Sower (Matthew 13, NRSV):
Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.
And I haven't discussed C4 at all, carbon dioxide, and photosynthesis. I don't have to now. I just want to say science must employ the arts not only for its own sake but more so for the sake of the people that science is supposed to serve. If the people can't understand you, why are you surprised that they are against you?
Someone mentioned extension and I said, don't call it that, that's ancient; rather, refer to it as in the language of social media, or call it technology diffusion. On my part, I said I just invented the concept of technology infusion¸ where you provide options for innovation, not tell farmers which to choose but how to choose.
I was also telling them about the science of the software as aid to communications. Software is designed to help workers of words and ideas and images, but you have to do your homework. I have done mine. Today I keep working the wonders of word processing that are gifts to creative writers. I said I could show you in a lecture demo some lessons in Creative Writing, for a cup of coffee, 3-in-1, make it Nescafé Brown & Creamy please, your place, not mine.
I said I just read a technical journal published in the Philippines where, on the inside back, I saw "Guidelines for Contributors" – and I saw a typo. Nobody's perfect, but if you issue instructions for authors on a single published page and you don't review your grammar or can't perfect even your spelling, that's unforgivable and unforgettable. IRRI publications are similarly unforgettable! Whatever happened to the Grammar & Spelling Checker of Microsoft Word? This is software great for writing and editing – and, I have found, even for desktop publishing. I'm using now Word 2013; you don't have to be that advanced, but if you want to master your communications, you have to master your software too, not only your subject matter, not only your writing, not only your editing. After which, I can smile with great satisfaction when you make your Great Leap of Faith in your Great Leap Forward.