The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) was established in 1960 by the Ford and Rockefeller foundations in cooperation with the government of the Philippines. Its research activities began in 1962 and in the mid-1960s the IRRI's launch of a high-yielding dwarf rice variety (IR8) was a significant contribution to the Green Revolution in Asia, where nearly 91 per cent of world's rice is produced and where it is the principal food of three of the world's four most populous nations: China, India and Indonesia.
IRRI is the world's leading international rice research and training centre. It describes itself as an 'autonomous, nonprofit institution' that is 'focused on improving the well-being of present and future generations of rice farmers and consumers, particularly those with low incomes'. The Institutes research headquarters are part of the main campus of the University of the Philippines Los Baños, about 60 kilometers south of the Philippine capital, Manila. IRRI also has offices in 11 other countries.
IRRI is also part of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), an association of public and private donor agencies that funds 16 international research centers, which was created 11 years after the IRRI to help promote and protect such agricultural research centres.
However, both IRRI and CGIAR have come under criticism for supporting a corporate agenda. IRRI under CGIAR is supposed to contribute to sustainable improvements in the productivity of agriculture and in particular, as we have noted, to help low income people. But IRRI programmes have been judged by many to be both environmentally and socially destructive.
This is because IRRI programmes have increased productivity though breeding seeds that rely on the heavy use of chemical inputs. For these inputs to be taken up by the plant requires conditions of heavy and frequent water use via irrigation.
There is also the issue of monocultures. As biotechnology analyst, Dr Richard Hindmarsh of the University of Queensland notes, to date, IRRI has produced more than 300 High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) of rice, but prior to the diffusion of these varieties over 100,000 different rice varieties thrived in farmers' fields.
The IRRI's rice variety IR8 launched the Green Revolution but it was variety IR36 - released in 1976 - which became the world's most widely planted variety of rice with 11 million hectares planted in Asia during the 1980s. The trend of displacement has continued. By the mid-1980s, just two HYVs occupied 98 per cent of the entire rice growing area of the Philippines.
Dr Hindmarsh points out that such widescale adoption of monocultures has had severe effects on crop genetic diversity with many local cultivars and landraces becoming extinct - some without any seed collection or documentation. Genetic uniformity also increases the vulnerability of monoculture crops to disease, pest invasions, and biological stress. Such crops are also vulnerable to weed proliferation due to intensive fertiliser use.
In other words, adoption of IRRI's HYVs has created excellent opportunities for costly intensive agriculture inputs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, IRRIs annual reports from 1963-1982 show grants from a whole array of US and European chemical corporations including Monsanto, Shell Chemical, Union Carbide Asia, Bayer Philippines, Eli Lily, OccidentalChemical, Ciba Geigy (later part of Novartis Seeds which is now part of Syngenta), Chevron Chemical, Upjohn, Hoechst, and Cyanamid Far East. (Laying the Molecular Foundations of GM Rice Across Asia )
But while the IRRI's impact on Asian agriculture has proved lucrative for the agrochemical industry, dependency on expensive intensive inputs has meant increasing numbers of small farmers going into debt and leaving the land. Unemployment, hunger, and malnutrition can be the consequence, quite apart from pesticide poisonings and other health hazards arising from the chemicals farmers and landless labourers have been made dependent on. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that some 25 million workers suffer from pesticide poisoning annually.
The ultimate irony is that, while farmer dependency on expensive external inputs has increased hugely, yields from Green Revolution cultivation are in wide decline or are stagnating. And even when looked at from a national economic level, it is not clear that the price has been worth paying. In the Philippines, for instance, despite years of assiduously following IRRI programmes, the country has been importing increasing amounts of rice every year. (Dismantle CGIAR/IRRI )
Interestingly, in the rush to introduce the crop varieties of the Green Revolution, indigenous varieties which were capable of giving a higher yield were deliberately excluded. In 1983 the most eminent Indian rice scientist, Dr R.H. Richaria, prepared an action plan to increase rice production in India at the request of the Prime Minister's Office but it was never acted upon. The indigenous high-yielding varieties were closely related to varieties farmers were already familiar with and about which they possessed knowledge of 'their environmental and nutritional requirements, their properties and peculiarities... they know them more accurately then we do'. (Neglect of indigenous rice varieties )
At the time that Richaria's plan was first commissioned and then negl