Shattering Seeds: Temporalities of Miracle Rice
In the 1970s, farmers in Southeast Asia began planting "miracle rice" developed by agronomists at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI, Los Baños, Philippines). Within a decade, miracle rice varieties came to dominate almost 90% of rice fields, fueling a Green Revolution in agriculture. Looking like ordinary seeds, they gave higher yields within shorter growth periods. But they depended heavily on fertilizers and pesticides, and thus may be considered as technoscientific organisms engineered for the forward-marching time of modernity. They enacted unprecedented collisions between life, markets, and progress.
This paper focuses on IR36, the most widely planted of the miracle rice varieties, in order to attend to the specificities of these collisions. Specifically, I look at temporalities of more-than-human agroecological practices that have been domesticated into food supplies or genetic resources for human use. Crossbred from 13 varieties in 1976, IR36 produced yields six times higher than a reported average of one ton per hectare. It could also be harvested in 107 days, two months earlier than the reported average. Its reliance on nitrogen fertilizers had unintended consequences. Accelerated and planned growth, chemical saturation, and biodiversity loss triggered the spread of insects and viruses that deformed grains and fields, particularly in the Philippines. IR36 was pulled from distribution in less than a decade, but the market logics that conditioned the temporality of miracle rice continue to structure agriculture today.
We can no longer consider rice as plant or commodity, a unit of ecological or economic relations. Rather, it is a coordinating device, a time machine that is constituted by, as well as constitutive of, a/synchronicities that materialize into worlds. It is not a mixing of nature and culture, but a technology that enacts the conditions of possibility through which both nature and culture become distinguishable, as if they inhabit different worlds. In this paper, I draw on Deleuze's figurations of time—difference and repetition—to unfold the temporalities of miracle rice. Understanding the domestication of particular bodies as disruptions of life cycles and species synchronies that remake vast landscapes suggests an analytical tool for studying environmental and economic crises as breakdowns in coordination. Articulating IR36 as an assemblage of rice, insects, viruses, nitrogen, and humans begins to move away from unilinear clock time calculated solely by humans to temporal coordinations across incommensurable difference.
Elaine Gan is an artist who plays at the intersections of digital media, environmental anthropology, and feminist science & technology studies. She is the art director of Aarhus University Research on the Anthropocene (AURA) and a fellow in Architecture & Environmental Structures of the New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA). Through writing, web-based projects, and art installations, she makes diagrams and clocks that enact temporalities of multispecies coordinations. Her doctoral research at University of California, Santa Cruz attempts to map the timing of organisms, landscapes, and machines. It is a search for speculative and hybrid methods for mapping worlds otherwise.