The Bali Rice Crisis: Taking the Culture Out of Agriculture

The island of Bali in Indonesia boasts enticing tropical beaches, volcanic mountains, and beautiful terraced rice fields. These terraces provided enough rice for the island for thousands of years, thanks to an invisible system of subaks, which are a sort of farmer's co-op melded with the worship of the water goddess Dewi Danu. It was an ingenius system that few outside of the farmers themselves knew about. But in the 1970s, the rest of the world discovered Bali, and both the population and the tourism industry exploded.

To boost rice production, the government instituted a program called Bimbingan Massal, or “Massive Guidance,” funded by the Asian Development Bank. Rice farmers were provided with the latest agricultural technology: irrigation aids, high-yield varieties of rice seed, and plenty of fertilizers and pesticides. They were encouraged to produce three crops of rice per year instead of the traditional two. You can probably guess what happened. Production rose by a very small percentage, but farmers confronted problems they never had before: plagues of insects, poor yields, and a lack of adequate water. Meanwhile, Bali's beaches suffered from fertilizer runoff.

Strangely, the situation was unmasked and alleviated by another bit of modern technology in the form of computer modeling. Read the story of how Bali's ancient and modern rice production systems worked against each other and why at Damn Interesting.  You can also listen to the story as a podcast.

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