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May 23, 2008 / calebdresser

Reflections in muddy water

It would seem I have survived a week in Asia, but it is already clear that things are changing. The clarity and confidence I had in my understanding of many issues is being, very appropriately, shaken. I laugh, eat, work, and relax with a group of people whose diversity runs far beyond the color of their skin. My classmates and friends are from Bangladesh and Korea, America and Indonesia, the U.K. and Mozabique. Some are experienced plant breeders and geneticists, some are extension workers, some are in business. There are Mormons, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Protestants, and atheists. We span a range from purely theoretical to applied; our ages are from 21 to over forty. Some of the women cover their hair – others wear t-shirts. By day, we learn about complex issues from experts; by night and in our free time, we learn from each other and from this place. It is reshaping my outlook.

Rice paddy at IRRI

The simple relationships and theoretical solutions presented in my classes at Cornell are totally inadequate here. I am beginning to understand the true importance of detail and situation – yet the big picture remains crucial. I am newly learning what a real challenge it can be to accomplish anything, and how much needs to be done. More than anything else, I am realizing that the socio-political and cultural side of things can have a huge impact – and that even so, the science is essential.

Take the food situation here in the Philippines. Recent weeks have seen soaring prices, social unrest, military units deployed against rice hoarders, and enormous international deals to acquire more rice. This nation is the largest importer in the world – and yet it would be self-sufficient in food if people were to make one simple change: eat brown rice. The impact of price increases on politics, the economy, and the poor would be greatly reduced. However, there is virtually no chance that the shift from white to brown rice will occur, and there is very limited interest here in working toward that goal. The reason for this is equally simple: people here don’t like brown rice. It seems that food security – or more likely, in the best case, reduced dependence – will come from improved crop varieties, more efficient management, and increases in production area. Farmers will continue to spend time and money removing the nutritious outer layer of the rice grains, turning brown rice into white rice. Although initially shocked – I eat brown rice at home – I am coming to terms with the fact that this is how things are, and that my expectations and initial understanding of a situation are the product of my culture and education. While valuable and very effective for some things, they are simply one way of percieving the world. I am trying to break through and see clearly what is.

Suffice to say that I feel my eyes are being opened, and the light is so bright it hurts.

old-man-tractor

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3 Comments

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  1. Becky / May 27 2008 3:37 am

    “The simple relationships and theoretical solutions presented in my classes at Cornell are totally inadequate here.”

    This makes me feel so much better about the various C grades I’ve gotten at school. C is for Cornell and so is C minus, but who cares when the information being taught is inadequate?

  2. Caitlin / Jun 6 2008 5:20 am

    I have heard that what we eat at home called “brown rice” is different then the brown rice you a refering to, which is a white rice variety with the rice germ left on. Is that right? I thought that the brown rice I eat is actually a different type of rice alltogether, but now i’m confused. I’ll have to look it up and get back.
    I was amazed though at how much time goes into polishing rice in asia. And the amount of protein that is stripped from the rice and not used. I think some might be used to feed animals, but much just ends up as waste. There are a lot of interesting questions to ask here… (wish i was with you!)

  3. Caitlin / Jun 6 2008 5:27 am

    my comment is completely wrong (the “bran” not germ does not have protein, but other vitamins, and it does seem to be the difference between brown and white rice. i suppose then that you could have a variety of types of brown rice, which i have never seen marketed over here). interesting how i got that idea about brown rice in my head!

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