Transplanting young seedlings in a wide-spaced grid system, India. Image copyright SRI-Rice
17th January 2014
A simple agricultural technique could release farmers from the grip of agrochemical corporations. With no patents, no royalties and no licensing fees, this system just benefits the farmers.
This system increases yields by 20–100%, reduces seed needed by 90% and use 50% less water
There is an agricultural revolution taking place in the global South that is confounding scientists and frustrating the business plans of corporations like Monsanto and Bayer, because this emerging System of Rice Intensification (SRI) uses no chemicals, no pesticides, no GM seeds or specific hybrids and needs no extra financial input.
According to the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development, SRI has been shown to increase yields by 20–100%, reduce the amount of seed needed by 90%, and use up to 50% less water than current methods of cultivation. These miraculous results have been replicated time and again in India, Africa, China, Cambodia, Indonesia, Vietnam and Latin America, and not just with rice, but also with wheat, sugar cane, teff, yams, millet and many other crops.
Just another magic bullet innovation?
So is this just another magic bullet innovation with unforeseen consequences? No! It is all down to the adoption of a simple husbandry technique whereby individual rice seedlings (rather than bunches of seedlings) are transplanted much earlier than usual, into a drier soil than a traditional paddy, in a widely spaced grid system to give room for the crops to grow and the roots to breathe.
It requires no more than a healthy soil enriched with organic matter to start with, and a bit of weeding using a simple rotary hoe and aeration of the soil after planting has taken place.
The simplicity of this system is almost counter-intuitive: how can such basic methods possibly produce up to a 100% increase in yield? As E.F. Schumacher once said: “Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction,” and that certainly seems to be the case here.
Daring to eschew post-Green Revolution agricultural methods and return full circle to the wisdom of their ancestors, farmers in India have cultivated their crops using SRI methods and have reaped the benefits many-fold. Indeed, a young farmer from Nalanda in India’s poorest state of Bihar broke the world record for rice yield using SRI by growing an incredible 22.4 tonnes on one hectare of land.
21st Century Agriculture
SRI was first pioneered in the 1980s in Madagascar by a Jesuit priest and agronomist, Henri de Laulanié, who observed how villagers grew rice in the uplands. He developed the SRI model, which was then disseminated by Cornell professor Norman Uphoff, who said: “[SRI] is a set of ideas, the absolute opposite to the first green revolution [of the 1960s] which said that you had to change genes and soil nutrients to improve yields. That came at a tremendous ecological cost.
Agriculture in the 21st century must be practised differently. Land and water resources are becoming scarcer, of poorer quality, or less reliable. Climatic conditions are, in many places, more adverse. SRI offers millions of disadvantaged households far better opportunities. Nobody is benefiting from this except the farmers: there are no patents, royalties or licensing fees.” SRI isn’t about splicing genes: it’s about husbanding crops better.
Benefits to marginalised farmers
There has been criticism of SRI, saying that it is labour intensive and only suitable for small farms, as there is no machinery available that can plant single rice seedlings in the grid system used. But, as E.F. Schumacher would remind us, small is, and always has been, beautiful.
The wonder of this system is that it benefits small farmers who are marginalised in every other respect. It gives them yields that corporations can only dream of. Because they are farming to feed their families, and not to make vast profits, they can afford the labour to weed the fields – it is their life’s work, not a factor in the equation of profit and loss. Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel-winning economist, when visiting Nalanda, recognised the economies of scale in the SRI system, telling villagers that they were “better than scientists”, and that people from across the world could learn from and be inspired by their successes.
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