Roads and Rice: How Innovation and Infrastructure Can Feed the World
Wednesday, June 22, 2011
As a new diplomat in 1968, I was assigned not to the chandeliered ballrooms of Europe (as I had hoped) but to the Mekong Delta of Vietnam, as a rural development adviser. The green revolution was just beginning to spread around the world, and a new “miracle rice”, known as IR-8, developed at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, was entering South Vietnam.
American agricultural advisers were introducing this new rice to Vietnamese farmers in the eight villages that were my overall responsibility, hoping that demonstrating higher yields would prompt other farmers to give the new rice a try. Their new approach to agriculture had been adapted from Dr Norman Borlaug’s equally miraculous variety of semi-dwarf wheat, which he took to India and Pakistan just a few years earlier.
Quite by chance, a different part of the US agency for international development (USAid) was working at the same time to significantly upgrade the old French rural road that ran through all eight of my villages. By mid-1969, the road had been completed through four of the villages.
As I went from village to village, I observed a phenomenon that would be the lesson of a lifetime. Wherever the new road went, the new miracle rice was also being utilised, and in fact was spreading rather rapidly throughout the hamlets of each of those four villages. The transformation of farmers’ lives brought about by this new rice was truly dramatic. The IR-8 rice had a much shorter growing cycle. Two complete crops could now be produced each year, whereas the traditional rice it replaced would only produce one crop. And the yields were much greater. This also left time for enterprising farmers to grow a third crop, of melons or vegetables.
The new road also allowed trucks from the capital, Saigon, to come to the farm gate to pick up surplus rice or fruits and vegetables and take them back to large markets before they spoiled.
In every village along the new road, I saw life improve. Houses suddenly began to have metal roofs; more radios and even a few television antennas could be seen; children looked much better nourished and better clothed; young children, and especially young girls, stayed in school longer, since there was now a rudimentary inter-hamlet taxi service that could transport them to the next level of education in a nearby hamlet and child mortality began to decrease, as mothers could seek medical help for their sick children; and government representatives from the provincial capital found it easier to get to the villages to provide services and information.
Where the road improvements stopped, though, so did any increased agricultural productivity. While no sign or physical obstacle kept the new miracle rice from the villages without an improved road, for some reason that was the case. In the villages without the improved road, houses were still ramshackle; children were poorly clothed and looked less nourished; schools were poorly attended and child mortality remained high; essentially, life was unchanged from 50 years earlier.
The lesson I took from this was that dramatic change in the fortunes of smallholder farmers came from the combination of new agricultural technology and improved rural infrastructure.