Rice revolution's hero picks up new, and tougher, task

Some people just know how to make a difference in Asia -- Ghandi, Confucius, Genghis Khan, Mao, and Hank Beachell. Yes, Hank Beachell, a humble Texas farmer who used his agricultural genius to help double and triple rice crops in irrigated paddies.

He is credited for being the person responsible for developing the first strain of miracle rice, which touched off Asia's "green revolution" and kept its growing masses from starvation.

While Asia's population increases at about 2.5 percent a year, rice production today keeps pace at 2.7 percent growth.

New rice varieties also unleash new problems, such as how to increase imports of petroleum-based fertilizers and change peasant labor and land practices. And for two-thirds of Asia's rice farmers who lack irrigation and must plant at the mercy of rain or drought, much research still needs to be done.

In 1962, however, when Hank Beachell left his native Beaumont -- where he developed successful long-rice varieties for US growers -- he had no idea what laid ahead for him after accepting a job at the International Rice Research Institute outside Manila.

"I never expected to leave Texas," recalls the tall, light-haired American, whose experience covers a half century of rice breeding.

"We knew something had to be done. It stood to reason that rice yields could be increased.

"I was told what basic rice architecture was needed --sturdy stem, insect resistent, fast-growing, and so forth.

"So I found an Indonesian variety called Peta, which had erect leaves and stood up well, and combined that with a semi-dwarf and smooth-looking rice from Taiwan, called 'Dee go woo gen,'" remembers the quiet and unassuming Mr. Beachell.

After four years and seven unsuccessful genetic crossings at the research institute's large outdoor laboratory, he hybridized the now famous IR8.

The new seed proved to be just the first of many breeds from the research center, which was set up with grants from the Ford and Rockefeller foundations. Hank Beachell's colleagues say he never really received the acknowledgement that Norman E. Borlaug, a Nobel Prize recipient, got for developing new wheat strains.

"IR8 brought about more social change in Asia than all the social sciences combined," says Nyle C. Brady, director of the International rice Research Institute.

Hank Beachell's work today reflects the changed emphasis in IRRI toward developing local seed varieties. He's based now at an agricultural station outside Jakarta helping Indonesia breed new rice for nonirrigated areas.

After the first flush of success in the 1960s, researchers began to suspect they had just gone for the quick payoff in developing new seeds only for irrigated areas without taking a longer view. Of 338 million acres growing rice , only 136 million acres are irrigated, mainly in China, report IRRI officials.

"By the early 1970s we realized that the rain-fed areas were very diverse and farmers could not always use the seeds designed for irrigated farming," says Dr. Brady.

It would be a much more complex and difficult task, researchers knew, to come up with new seed designed for individual sites, which would help the nonirrigated farms where conditions of flood, drought, and insects can differ enormously.

IRRI's role has changed from developing almost-universal varieties to becoming a basic seed pipeline sending out "nursery books" and other support to local and national rice research labs.

Also, its scientists had to shift teir notions of promoting high-technology agriculture, where farmers would be called upon to use more and more fertilizer, pesticide, and complex irrigation.

"Most of what we have done has floated over the heads of most farmers," says Dr. Brady. The research institute now prefers to focus on natural resistance, natural fertilizers, and improved management to get higher yields.

Or, as Hank Beachell puts it, "We've got to develop varieties for the conditions that the farmer will be using, not what they have to use."

IRRI, for instance, has hired anthropoligist Grace Goodell to better understand farmers' social conditions and how to introduce the new technology from the bottom up.

Mr. Beachell, who helped start it all, now believes the new rice technology has to be introduced slowly: "The new species can upset the Asian social culture." And, he notes, with all the needed inputs to keep the "green revolution" going, "The little farmer who can't afford the new technology is no better off than before."

For Hank Beachell, however, the payoffs outweigh the drawbacks. "I'm never sorry I left Texas."

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