The green revolution's Chandler sees a world still waiting to be fed
Raymond, Maine — THE clearing skies of the forecast are slow in coming, and a rain squall races across Raymond Pond to throw itself against the house in a brief, drumming downpour that accentuates the cheery, log-home comfort of the interior. Robert F. Chandler's response is to throw another log onto the fire with barely a break in his commentary. The subject: feeding the world in the decades ahead. Like the weather outside, the outlook is bleak, in Dr. Chandler's view, but the task is ``not beyond our reach.'' Enlightened politics - more than improved agriculture - is the key to a brighter future, he states with emphasis.
``All too frequently political leaders in the developing world put industry first and the farmer is neglected, when the reverse should be the situation,'' Chandler says. Roads are built to factories but few to the farm, which ``doesn't help a country feed itself.''
Chandler speaks with a conviction that comes from experience and a string of hard-won achievements. To many people, he is ``the man who saved tropical Asia,'' the other half (with Nobel laureate Norman Borlaug) of the partnership that sparked the green revolution. What Dr. Borlaug did with wheat, Chandler did with rice: He more than doubled the yield. These accomplishments set at naught the much-publicized forecast of famine in the developing world in the '70s.
Widespread recognition came to Borlaug when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970; Chandler's came with the World Food Prize, awarded recently at Washington's Smithsonian Institution.
To put Chandler's accomplishments in perspective, consider the situation in tropical Asia in the late '50s. Rice production had reached a plateau, but the population continued growing at a steady 2 percent a year, demanding 5 million more tons of rice from every harvest. Rice is a major component of the daily diet for one-third of the world's people.
``Some countries over there have 400-pounds-per-person-a-year rice intake,'' says Chandler. ``In the US it's something like 15 pounds a year.''
Because most land readily adaptable to rice growing was already under cultivation, increased production would have to come from improved yields. To compound the problem, Chandler had less time than conventional wisdom deemed necessary to effect the needed changes before food shortages and accompanying political consequences might begin to surface.
Such were the challenges when the Rockefeller Foundation asked Chandler, former dean of the University of New Hampshire's School of Agriculture, to set up the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines in 1959.
The Maine boy who grew up knowing rice only as the pudding his mother prepared recognized the pitfalls of the job as well as the ``exciting opportunity it presented to change the world.'' And change it he did.
By 1962 the institute had its first experimental rice paddies under cultivation. The IR8, first of a string of superior rice varieties, was released in 1965, well ahead of expectations. When Chandler moved on to found the Asian Vegetable Research and Development Center in Taiwan in 1972, per capita rice production was on the increase.
Chandler and his staff turned the tall-growing, heat-tolerant tropical rice plant into a short, multi-stemmed plant that matured early and responded to increased fertilizer. They bred out photo-period (day-length) sensitivity.
``Rice is normally a short-day plant, which means it is planted in spring, it grows in summer, and sets seed as the days shorten,'' Chandler explains. Whereas some of the traditional varieties had a growing season of more than 200 days, ``We now have varieties that mature in 105 days. That's a lot of difference.'' Where the new seed was sown, two harvests a year replaced the one-harvest seasons of the past.
Did Chandler expect to succeed? In a word, yes. ``I felt reasonably optimistic, but I didn't know we would be able to get something so different, so fast.'' The discovery in Taiwan of a short variety that could cross with the taller species without introducing a host of unwanted characteristics was the key to the speedy success.
``If we hadn't had that single recessive gene for shortness, we might have spent 10 years trying to develop a suitable short-rice species.'' In fact, the IR8, itself parent of about 60 other improved varieties, was developed in only three years, an amazingly short time for any plant-breeding program.
Improved rice was followed by adapting temperate-climate crops to the steamy tropics. Tomatoes, which normally won't set fruit if night temperatures stay above 72 degrees F., now do so; Chinese cabbage forms tight heads in the heat, no longer waiting for cooler fall weather.
Successes such as these, repeated at research stations around the world, give Chandler the confidence to say that agriculture can feed twice the current world population, if world leaders make food production and distribution a priority. The agriculturist will do his part, but will the politician? he wonders.
Many developing nations tend to keep the cities satisfied at the expense of the rural population, accepting short-term political advantages for possibly devastating long-term consequences. ``But what are the rulers to do?'' Chandler asks. ``If food prices are raised so that the farmer is encouraged to grow more, riots break out in the streets.''
In awarding Chandler the $200,000 World Food Prize, the General Foods Fund selection committee stated that the benefits of his work had ``spread to the far reaches of the globe.''
Chandler says it feels good to be appreciated but even better to know that the work has been effective on so wide a scale. He retired in 1975 but remains a sought-after speaker and consultant on world food topics. He is also an active member of the Near East Foundation, which now expends most of its resources on food-producing projects in Africa.
Chandler has no intention of quitting. There's a world out there that has to be fed, he says, ushering his visitor to the door and to skies outside that are finally clearing.