Brain Grain

clip_image002MANILA: Rice is a grain not linked to the brain, but it should be, and I'm going to prove it now. The College of Agriculture of UP Los Baños didn't teach me that, but professors can always learn from their students. I shot the original of this photograph in Bangar, La Union 09 August 2013, but rice is a continuing story that needs to be on the head, so there!

On the 10th of May 2014, The Economist came out with 2 articles: "The new green revolution: A bigger rice bowl" and "How better rice could save lives: A second green revolution" – I'm always interested in grain revolutions, but this one I didn't know. What I didn't know didn't help me until someone emailed me the pdfs. Thank you, kind Sir!

There are 2 main assertions in the stories by ANS[1] of The Economist, and these are: (1) More funds for rice research will cost less per head and will return more for the money. Come on, people: Invest. (2) The world needs to breed faster better rice varieties to counter the twin effects of climate change, droughts and floods. Come on, people: Invest some more.

Those assertive calls for more investment are for more technologies on rice. Just in time. I'm immersed right now in the technologies of rice production. I have an ongoing engagement as one of the consultants recruited by UMIC International for the Agrarian Reform Community Connectivity and Economic Support Services, or ARCCESS Project of the Department of Agrarian Reform in the provinces of Pangasinan and La Union. Under ARCCESS, our TOR is titled "Market-Oriented Agri-Technology and Agri-Extension Services," so after I studied for my BS Agriculture major in Ag Education in the classroom, to learn to teach the technology of inorganic agriculture at the College of Agriculture of the University of the Philippines in the 1960s, some 40 years later I'm out there in the field teaching inorganic agriculture, but this time compared with the organic. Times change, if slowly.

Now, community connectivity and economic support, let's see about that.

But first, let us examine the New Green Revolution The Economist speaks of. To quote ANS:

The second revolution will be different. Farmers will not adopt a single miracle variety. Instead, researchers will tailor seeds for particular environments (dry, flooded, salty and so on). And they are also trying to boost the nutritional quality of rice, not just the number of calories. As a result, the second revolution will be felt most profoundly in the poorest areas and among the poorest farmers.

The new precision agriculture, I may say. It calls for computations to justify the call for more funds for technology research in rice:

The amounts needed are small. By one calculation, $3 billion of rice research spread over the next 25 years would pull 150 million people out of extreme poverty. That is $20 a person, a bargain compared with any other anti-poverty program. And it has worked before. The cumulative economic benefits from public research into rice are running at almost $20 billion a year, hundreds of times the cost of the investment.

I'm sufficiently amazed at those figures. In fact, I have no quarrel with the position of The Economist on the need for more rice research, and if I may add, I myself can see the need not only for wet weather-resistant rice but also for dry weather-resistant rice.

I'm also sufficiently amused that The Economist looks at the necessity of billions of dollars more for research on the technology of rice, while I a UP non-economist graduate from the world of rice technology look at the necessity of billions of dollars more for research on the economics of rice. it must be that when something is right under your nose, you can't see it.

Yes, I am calling for another and different rice revolution, the 1st Brain Grain Revolution. Our months-long of ARCCESS consultancy work with the agrarian reform farmers of Pangasinan and La Union so far has shown us definitely that farmers have to learn more than they know about managing their farming, not just repeating their farmer's practice, even good agricultural practices, year in and year out. I believe that it is time for funding institutions and individuals to generate millions of dollars more to support economists and non-economists to do more research on how not simply to fill up the poor farmers' pockets today with more money – more today, gone tomorrow – but how to fully and finally emancipate the poor rice farmers from poverty. It has to do with sustainability.

And, surprise, we can learn from the Africans, and from another grain crop, the pearl millet. Learning from other sources, the economic lessons towards emancipation from poverty are, as I see them:

1st, it's a financing scheme.
For the farmers to make more money.
2nd, it's a marketing scheme.
For the farmers to make even more money.
3rd, it's a partnership for a financing-marketing scheme.
For the farmers to make even more money – and continually.

Farmers are the same everywhere, whether in Naguilian or Nigeria: they sell right after harvest to pay off loans. And, more often than not, they sell to the moneylender, or input lender, with high interest rates, sometimes reaching 80% or even higher. The farmers don't remotely think like economists; I think they just think opportunity cost, even if they can't define that to save their lives.

In the late 1990s, FAO helped poor Nigerian farmers form groups so that they could bargain for better deals for inputs like seeds and fertilizers (ANS, 12 April 2010, fao.org/news). Economies of scale. The problem was that the farmers' economies were depleted: The farmers had no money to buy anything at all!

We learn that FAO had to think again. In 1999, FAO introduced a variation of warrantage, or inventory credit system, borrowing from the European farmers of the 19th century. Under warrantage, a farmer could use his harvest as collateral for credit from a bank. So, applying for credit, Nigerian farmer borrowers left their produce in a locked warehouse with keys held by both the bank and their group. The loans gave the poor farmers the power to buy their essential inputs for the next planting season as well as tide them over up to the lean months – gawat in Ilocano – when food stocks run low and food prices run high.

When the lean months came, the farmer borrowers pulled out their harvest from the warehouse, sold their produce, made good money, repaid their loans, and enjoyed what was left that was theirs. That makes me feel good. This one makes me feel better: ANS says, "Using part of the credit to finance other income-generating activities, many farmers managed to repay their loans even before selling their crop." If you help the farmers help themselves, they will not only survive – they will thrive.

The lesson there, as FAO's rural finance expert Ake Oloffsson sees it, is that there are 3 elements that need to be in place for warrantage to succeed: (a) a farmer's group working well, (b) a concerned local bank, and (c) a safe place to store the produce.

This is getting more interesting. We'll go back to Oloffsson a little later.

That takes care of the financing scheme, Lesson (1).

We go now to the marketing scheme, Lesson (2). And from yet another part of Africa with yet another grain.

In 2010, ICRISAT & Partners introduced a new strategy for village growth they referred to as inclusive market-oriented development, or IMOD. This strategy empowered farmers with "scientific innovations, supportive policies and strong partnerships" (2010, icrisat.org). On the 4th of February 2014, Director General William Dar of ICRISAT spoke at the GFIA 2014, saying (trust.org):

If we want to resolve the global food crisis and grow food more sustainably, we need to first find solutions for the millions of farming families surviving on less than one hectare in the southern hemisphere. They are the ones producing more than half the world’s food, while paradoxically make up most of the under-nourished.

In Tanzania, poor sorghum farmers organized a cooperative that benefitted them in the form of training in modern ways of growing sorghum, storage, managing inputs and marketing (iCRiSAT Watch, bogspot.com). They had a contract farming deal with the World Food Program under ICRISAT's Project HOPE funded by the Gates Foundation. William Dar also said, "NGOs also have a big role to play in connecting farming families to the market."

And now we come to the financing-marketing scheme, Lesson (3).

That is where our concept of the Super Coops come in. We are now going back to the ABC of Oloffsson: farmer's group, local bank, and storehouse. We call them Super Coops because they are not your usual coops; they are redesigned to pursue ICRISAT's strategy called IMOD. A Super Coop is composed of a board whose membership reflect a partnership of these sectors: public (government), private (business) philanthropic (do-gooders), patriotic (civil society), popular (NGOs and POs), pastoral (religious), and peasant (farmers). All working for one, one working for all.

Aside from that and more importantly, the Super Coop is the marketing arm of the members. This is what is missing in Oloffsson's ABC of the economic factors for success: the farmer's group doing the marketing himself. The Super Coop not only supplies the inputs to the farmers at affordable rates; it assumes the role of the trader himself; it deals with direct consumers, not with merchants or wholesale buyers. That way, the Super Coop gathers all the values along the production to marketing chain and, subsequently, distributes the same to the members. The outside merchants can always take care of themselves.

So I say we need ABCD to succeed. With the Super Coop (Oloffsson's A) providing credit in times of production and in times of stress (Oloffsson's B), providing the warehouse in times of need (Oloffsson's C), and with the Super Coop itself marketing the produce (Hilario's D), the coop will then be continually providing the proper added values to the farmers' labors – happily, the Super Coop will be able to emancipate the poor farmers from poverty.

If the Super Coop deals with rice, it is time to call this seed the Brain Grain. In another sense, Golden Rice by IRRI is a Brain Grain because it supplies vitamin A that is good for the eyes without which the brain is essentially dead, but I see that it's not enough if the family's financial future looks dim.

Now then, I'm dreaming of $1 billion as fund to support 169 pre-qualified model coops in 13 countries in the drylands of Africa and Asia to receive grants for research into Super Coops working with generous loans on the Brain Grain. Coops are how you connect with community for economic support this way and that, a give and take proposition. Our coops need advocates and access to credit from production to marketing as if the good life in the poor drylands depends on them, because it does.

And now, A Gospel of Abundance according to Frank H:

Brain Grain must not only generate a continuous supply of a substance that is good for the eyes but along with that generate a continuous & generous supply of a substance that is good for the pockets. More today, more tomorrow!

 



[1] Author Not Stated

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