The NYT reports:
LOS BAÑOS, Philippines — The brown plant hopper, an insect no bigger than a gnat, is multiplying by the billions and chewing through rice paddies in East Asia, threatening the diets of many poor people.
Luis Liwanag for The New York Times
Because subsidized rice is limited, people must take numbers when they line up to buy it in Los Baños in the Philippines.
The damage to rice crops, occurring at a time of scarcity and high prices, could have been prevented. Researchers at the International Rice Research Institute here say that they know how to create rice varieties resistant to the insects but that budget cuts have prevented them from doing so.
This is a stark example of the many problems that are coming to light in the world’s agricultural system. Experts say that during the food surpluses of recent decades, governments and development agencies lost focus on the importance of helping poor countries improve their agriculture.
The budgets of institutions that delivered the world from famine in the 1970s, including the rice institute, have stagnated or fallen, even as the problems they were trying to solve became harder.
“People felt that the world food crisis was solved, that food security was no longer an issue, and it really fell off the agenda,” said Robert S. Zeigler, the director general of the rice institute.
Vital research programs have been slashed. At the rice institute, scientists have identified 14 genetic traits that could help rice plants survive the plant hopper, which sucks the juices out of young plants while infecting them with viruses. But the scientists have had no money to breed these traits into the world’s most widely used rice varieties.
The institute is the world’s main repository of rice seeds as well as genetic and other information about rice, the crop that feeds nearly half the world’s people.
But nowadays at the International Rice Research Institute, greenhouses have peeling paint and holes in their screens and walls. Hallways are dotted with empty offices. In the 1980s, the institute employed five entomologists, or insect experts, overseeing a staff of 200. Now it has one entomologist with a staff of eight.
“We’ve had an exodus here,” said Yvette Naredo, an assistant geneticist.
Similar troubles plague other centers in Asia, Africa and Latin America that work on crop productivity in poor countries. Agricultural experts have complained about the flagging efforts for years and warned of the risks.
“Nobody was listening,” said Thomas Lumpkin, director general of the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico.
Now, a reckoning is at hand. Growth of the global food supply has slowed even as the population has continued to increase, and as economic growth is giving millions of poor people the money to buy more food.
One has to connect some other dots as well. For instance, genetically modified rice has been demonstrated to produce LESS rice per acreage than improved varieties made more traditionally. Monsanto has been so aggressive in its IP protection that even contamination of a neighboring farm with its product is grounds for lawsuits claiming damage for the company. This cannot be good for competition, and tends to increase the “drain” part of farming in that new seed must be purchased each year.
Global warming has produced hotter night time temperatures that also reduce production, and in the short run of decades might produce profound changes in rice production patterns away from the tropics.
Index and futures markets appear to be de-coupling actual supply and demand factors from market behavior we count on to price, so greater variability is headed our way than even scarcity might indicate.
This affects distribution dramatically.