Roads and rice: How innovation and infrastructure can feed the world
Amb. Kenneth M. Quinn,
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.
Perhaps most dramatic was that the combination of new roads and new rice also significantly lessened the level of warfare (this was during the Vietnam war) that had so affected the district where I worked. As lives improved rapidly in the four villages along the road, it became much safer to travel there and the number of military incidents decreased.
I was so fascinated by the powerful transformation I had witnessed that I wrote to the state department to ask them to cancel my assignment to Europe. I stayed in Vietnam for six years.
I took that lesson with me throughout the rest of my diplomatic career, and used the formula of new roads and new rice in the Philippines, as well as in post-Khmer Rouge Cambodia, to uplift smallholders in the villages in those countries. It was this focus on rural development that brought me home to Iowa after my time as ambassador in Cambodia.
I recall my first meeting with Borlaug in 1999, when he and John Ruan III hired me to lead the World Food Prize. When Borlaug asked me about my background and experiences, I described for him my time in the Mekong delta in the 1960s and my observation about roads and rice. When I said "roads," he interrupted me and, slamming his fist on the table, said in a very loud voice, "Roads!". I was startled, and thought I had said the wrong thing. He then added: "Roads are essential to any type of agricultural development." Even though our backgrounds were very different, Borlaug and I were kindred spirits from that moment on.
When he died in 2009, Borlaug's reported last words, "take it to the farmer", perfectly summed up his life and legacy, and made me think about my own experiences. As a young man, I saw the dramatic, positive influence of agricultural development on smallholders. Villages remained intact, incomes increased, young children gained exceptional opportunities, and benefits spread throughout rural society. Increased yields were key to lifting people out of poverty and eliminating hunger – all from the new rice and the new roads. It's a lesson that is still appropriate and resonant today.
• Kenneth M Quinn is president of the World Food Prize.
• The winners of the 2011 prize are: John Agyekum Kufuor, former president of Ghana, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, former president of Brazil, for 'creating and implementing government policies that alleviated hunger and poverty in their countries'.
--Published in June 2011 in The Guardian's Poverty Matters Blog