System of root (or rice) intensification: The tales of miracle harvests

mali_dryfield

Nalanda district, an agricultural village in Bihar, India’s poorest state, was until recent times a placid, quiet village with no electricity and a place where farmers still favor animal power for ploughing and their (animal) dung for cooking. Before now, it was probably only known to produce buyers, extension agents and development workers.

All that has changed now, and at the heart of this change is a string of “miracle harvests” that have broken world yield records, generated a lot of debate, and have brought many development groups, other farmers, politicians, scientists and researchers – including the Nobel prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz – to their doorstep not only to investigate and verify their claims but to learn from them.

Sumant Kumar – the lead record breaker – and his friends/co-farmers are rice farmers used to (and content with) a yield of 4-5 tonnes per hectare on their fields (paddies) until their recent harvest. With heavier stalks and bigger grains, Sumant’s paddy yielded not ten or 15 or even 20 but 22.4 tonnes on one hectare of land using only farmyard manure and no herbicide; a record yield that surpassed the 19.4 tonnes of the much-acclaimed “father of rice”, Chinese agricultural scientist Yuan Longpin, and better that of the International Rice Research Institute scientists and the big GM seed companies as reported by the Guardian UK.

And the pivot on which this success rests, is a somewhat controversial and widely debated system of farming called the System of Root (or Rice) Intensification (SRI). The SRI, a system pioneered by Henri de Laulanie, a French Jesuit father and agronomist, in Madagascar in the early 1980s and made popular by Prof Norman Uphoff of Cornell University in the 1990s is a production method centred on increasing the yield of irrigated rice production (now used for rain-fed too) without relying on purchased inputs or with minimum inputs.

It involves the individual (one per hill) transplanting of rice seedlings of 8-12 days old to the field in a grid pattern of 25cm×25cm to reduce competition and provide more room for root and tiller growth, and an application of a minimum quantity of water thereby leaving the field moist but well drained. Organic amendment e.g. compost or farmyard manure is used to augment the soil nutrient. This contrasts the traditional methods of transplanting 3-4 plants together and keeping the paddy continuously flooded. Although, this means that more energy is expended on weed control.

This is a method whose proponents believe “increases yield, saves water, reduces production costs and increases income”. Additional advantage is that of healthier soils. The arch-proponent, Prof Uphoff, in a paper states that SRI “can raise irrigated rice yields to about double the present world average without relying on external inputs, also offering environmental and equity benefits”. This is a message that has not only been well accepted by farmers (and extension workers especially in Bihar India) but has also resonated well with the advocates of sustainable intensification, agroecology, conservation agriculture and environmental groups concerned about the impact of agriculture and its inputs (mainly chemical) on the environment; and the spill-over effect has been observed in its (SRI) adoption for other crops like wheat, millet, sugarcane, even vegetables.

Rice, being a staple food that constitutes a major part of the diet of the people of many African countries, is widely grown in Africa. Still, except in some few African countries with self-sufficient production, demand generally outstrips supply, thus lots of tonnes are being imported yearly to fill the gap. Some of the reasons often cited by researchers for this are low yield compared to world average, rudimentary forms of production and high cost of inputs.

Compared to the world average of 4 tonnes per hectare, Africa has an average yield of a little over 2 tonnes per hectare. Also, many of the farmers follow the traditional management practices used the world over but often lack the necessary inputs and equipment to achieve the average world yield per hectare. For instance, according to the FAO 2011 production statistics, Nigeria produced an average of 4.5 million tonnes of rice having the third highest overall production in Africa behind only Egypt and Madagascar in that order; whereas in 2009 alone it consumed 4.8 million tonnes and the consumption is rising.

Thus, SRI, apart from its much touted ability to give significantly increased yield, is suitable for resource poor African farmers because of its reduced cost of production.  Its use of minimum water, non-use of other external inputs, especially fertilizer and other chemical inputs, and the improvement of soil health through the use of organic amendments make it economically rewarding, environmentally sound and sustainable. Already, SRI is being used by farmers in Mali, Madagascar, and to a lesser extent in Nigeria (trials) and other African countries. In one report, a Lagos farmer who adopted it saw his yield increase from an average of 0.8-1.0 tonne/ha to 3.8 tonne/ha, an increase of about 400 percent.

However, this method is not without its critics and not everyone agrees with the vaunted results and its processes. While some suggest that the success is unique to soil conditions, especially the Madagascan soil, others believe that the claims of higher yields are due to unscientific evaluations and the definition of the SRI itself is a really vague target, thus difficult to evaluate. Some believe it is a laborious method and the labour used in individual planting and weed control will limit its use to small scale farmers and make it unsuitable for big paddies. Still, others’ main grouse is that of the paucity of details on the methodology used in trials, and the dearth of peer-reviewed publications on its successes.

Though, it must be said in its defence that, there is an expanding collection of easily accessed scientific publications on SRI, with well over 250 articles available, and one quality that makes a new method easily adoptable – or adopted by farmers – is its flexibility, a strong point of the SRI which could be responsible for the “unscientific evaluations and vague definitions” criticisms. Also, as reported by the Guardian UK, farmers with up to 15 hectares of land in Bihar have used the method with success and claimed that the labour is only more intensive for first-timers. Lastly, the yields of those farmers in Bihar and elsewhere have shown that the successes of SRI are not localised and not so dependent on unique soil conditions but on the novel management practices it espouses.

Blogpost by Bunmi Ajilore, one of the AASW social reporters.
This post was originally published on his “EcoAgriculturist blog

3 thoughts on “System of root (or rice) intensification: The tales of miracle harvests

  1. Pingback: System of root (or rice) intensification: The tales of miracle harvests | Dr. B. A. Usman's Blog

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